Thursday, May 15, 2003


On our way to the beiju, the railway wended through the narrow Kiso River valley and we had time so we got off and visited Narai-juku, one of the great old post towns along the Nakasendo (inland counterpart to the Tokkaido made famous by Hiroshige), the old inland road from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). Hemmed in by the steep peaks that delimit the Kiso valley, the Kiso stretch of the old road is perhaps the best-preserved portion.

The Tokkaido long ago succumbed to coastal urban and transport development; little of it remains. Here, though, relative inland isolation plus a growing awareness of the historic importance of this area and its surviving artifacts has encouraged preservation of what remains, to the extent that walking the narrow road through Narai-juku is like walking through a museum where the townsfolk still really reside.

Thus the old lacquerware shops still sell the subtly beautiful old-style bento boxes, the old cosmetic store still sells the old sexy wooden hairpins and combs, other shops sell painted clay talismans, bells and masks, or traditional fast foods and bottled drinks cooled in wooden troughs, the shops and restaurants interspersed with ryokan and various entertainments for the weary traveler of yesterday in desperate need of a rest break before tackling tomorrow's mountain-walking stretch on the long journey. These architecturally preserved shops/houses were built to serve a slower time, and it is good to revisit that time and spend some modern time there for comparison, the better to see and appreciate what we have lost, and what we have gained.

No longer does a river of foot and horse travelers pass along the small town's narrow streets on their government missions, pilgrimages etc. as they did during the Edo centuries. Now it is a slower and differently discerning river of well-dressed folk from the cities, come to see the past of their own country, point and talk and enjoy the amazement, the ancestral nostalgia. To make the past less virtual, all the electric and telephone wires are buried; watering places at judicious intervals along the street still gurgle invitingly, ready to serve people and their horses, as though that weren't yet history; and the local folks still speak the dialect of old. It is quiet, it is nostalgic, it is special. It makes time all one, as all the best things do.

No comments: