Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Japan I Want To See: Nakasendo Post Towns and Haikyo

There’s nothing like standing inside a hollowed out stone structure, looking up into the exposed sky, to give one a sense of passed time. I live in rural Tennessee, and there is a small town about 10 miles away that has several buildings that are nothing more than ruins. A larger town about 20 miles away shows its age with a fading block-sized Coca-Cola logo on its brick façade. I find myself dreaming of finding places like this if I am ever blessed with the opportunity to visit Japan.

Having a penchant for late Tokugawa era history, I have an itch to walk the Nakasendo, the old post road that snaked through central Honshu. About halfway between Edo (yeah, sometimes I still call it “Edo”) and Kyoto is a preserved historical post town: Tsumago. After World War II, this post town was designated a historical preservation site, and care was taken to keep it looking much like it did in the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is partof the Japan I’d like to visit.  And I’d like to visit it before my knees prohibit my walking the old paths of the Nakasendo, in waraji (straw sandals), just like they did in the old days! Yes, I own a pair of waraji, and they are quite comfortable when worn with tabi. But they’re not very durable. I fancy sometimes as I walk down my barely paved rural road here in Tennessee that I am a traveler in the great Kiso forest, a rural commoner who perhaps has never seen Kyoto but would really like to go someday. If I can just make it up the Magome pass…

Out here in the sticks of Tennessee, the only hints of culture are the houses, and there are often long stretches of forest and field, with cows, goats and waving cropland. It is not too difficult to apply one’s imagination to bring this scene to Japan, especially after reading the detailed descriptions in Shimazaki Toson’s “Before the Dawn.”

Old Tsumago in the modern day: photo credit User: Bakkai, site

But the carefully maintained Tsumago post town is but a beautiful illusion created by careful craftsmanship. I also have a fondness for history in its ruined state. The most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in Alabama and Tennessee are often incomplete, open structures, many overgrown with vines of kudzu or wisteria. On my own land here in Southern Middle Tennessee are remains of ruined house foundations, only a small hint: 10-12 well-placed stones, with a collapsed barn a short ways away, broken jugs that speak to moonshine nights in the nameless and unrecorded past.

The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, photo credit Rie Shoji,

I imagine seeing analogous sights in the hidden places of Japan. I would love to take the “haikyo tour” and view the fallen houses, hidden shrines, the forgotten remembrances of emperors of antiquity whose memories almost disappeared before the Meiji Restoration. There is something evocative in ruins. See this wonderful site that contains many excellent photos of abandoned structures all across Japan. When one looks at ruins, ghosts arise, and they speak of the history that was not recorded in writing. Even the modern haikyo like abandoned amusement parks, such as the one represented in Miyazaki Hayao’s “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”). I am sure this ghostly presence is an aspect of wabi-sabi that I can never truly define. Instead, I dream of these images. I hope to visit Japan and see them firsthand someday. And I plan to have a good supply of waraji when I do!

Japan Blog Matsuri: "Reasons to Visit Japan" (let me count the reasons...oh wait, there are too many!)
A beautiful website that takes you down the Nakasendo Way!
Thanks to the Japan Blog Matsuri folks for giving me the wonderful idea for this post, and I only hope I'm not the late visitor to the party!

1 comment:

  1. The results of the September Japan Blog Matsuri are now up! Check out your post and others at:

    If you'd like to share this link on your blog, Twitter, etc., I'm sure all of your fellow contributors would appreciate it. Thanks for participating!