The (not so) rough guide to traditional Japan

Where to seek out the classic and quintessential heart of Japan

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 8 Mar 2015, 10:00 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:37 BST

When many of us think of classical Japan, we're actually picturing the country's Edo Period (1603-1867) — an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity, in which Japan's warring dynasties were brought to heel by the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Shogun required Japan's feudal lords to travel to Edo (modern day Tokyo) every other year — creating a near endless procession of lords and their Samurai across the country.

These travellers were catered for by post stations along key intercity routes. Several remain today, giving tourists a sense of what a Samurai town would have felt like 300 years ago. The best are Tsumago and Magome (Nagano Prefecture) — the 42nd and 43rd stations on the Nakasendo route that connected Edo to Kyoto. The towns, linked by a scenic mountain pathway, have been restored, their main streets flanked by handsome wooden inns, stores and dwellings, all in line with the period.

Alternatively, the Nagamachi district of the city of Kanazawa, in the Ishikawa Prefecture, contains a great selection of old Samurai houses protected by ochre walls topped with straw mats or earthenware tiles — all hidden among a warren of narrow alleyways and twisting cobbled streets. Highlights include Nomura-ke, the restored residence of a high-ranked Samurai family, and Shinise Kinenkan, a pharmacy in the Edo Period that now hosts a museum dedicated to Kanazawa crafts.

Learn more about the Edo Period

This key period of Japanese history (1603-1867) was one of isolationism, when foreigners were banned from entering and the Japanese prohibited from leaving the country. However, it was also an era of unprecedented peace, which enabled many key elements of Japanese culture — such as Japanese theatre, music, sumo wrestling, poetry, painting and Geishas — to flourish.

Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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