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Albumen print by Kimbei Kusakabe of the Nakasendo Highway, 1880s

Nagano 1880s
Nakasendō Highway

Artist Kimbei Kusakabe
Publisher Kimbei Kusakabe
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Nagano
Image No. 160903-0019
Purchase Digital FilePrint

A traveller observes the Kisogawa River (木曽川) near Agematsu Juku (上松宿), the thirty-eighth of the sixty-nine stations of the Nakasendō, now located in Kiso (木曽), Nagano Prefecture.

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The past few weeks I have covered how travelers in old Japan crossed its many and often furious rivers: by ferry, piggybacking, or using countless bridges.

Today I would like to share a beautiful account about traveling through Japan’s mountains by the Englishman Arthur H. Crow. In 1881 (Meiji 14), accompanied by his friend Ernest and the Japanese rickshaw puller Yoshi, he walked the celebrated Nakasendō Highway which connected Kyoto with Tokyo.

At challenging stretches they hired additional people to assist them with pulling and pushing the rickshaw that carried their luggage.

The three selected a terrible time to walk the Nakasendō—June, when the downpours of the rainy season can drench one within seconds.

Crow’s account is wonderfully descriptive, so I will share a few sections without further comment.

The route that Crow and his companions took is still a joy to travel today—many old buildings and sections of the original route survive. For this reason I have added two links to Google Maps for the locations mentioned in the datelines, Okute and Magome. I highly recommend that you play with Google Street View for each location and surroundings.

To help you navigate the story, the following map from 1903 (Meiji 36) shows some of the locations mentioned in the text and shown in the photographs.

Map of Japan in Provinces from Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Japan, 1903
1903 map of central Japan: 1. Kyoto; 2. Ōi; 3. Magome; 4. Fukushima; 5. Shimonosuwa; 6. Tokyo. Map of "Japan in Provinces" from Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Japan by Basil Hall Chamberlain and W. B. Mason. Red lines show railways; dashed ones are under construction.

Friday, June 17th, Okute.

The elements seem to be conspiring against us white mortals, for it has again poured all day. Awoke this morning as usual at five o’clock only to hear Ernest sleepily growl, “I say, Arthur, it’s sluicing again like anything.” So we mutually expressed our feelings about the clerk of the weather, turned over and went to sleep again until eight o’clock.

Spent all morning indoors in the hope of a cessation in the storm, but at last made a start for Oi at two p.m. The path led up and down a series of hills, known as the Biwa toge, whence we should have obtained some fine views in clear weather, but to-day everything was hidden in a watery shroud. Now and then we would get a peep through a break in the mist, upon high rugged peaks in the distance. The rain came down in torrents, turning the paths into mountain streams, and drenching us through and through.

We had only engaged our extra coolie to go as far as Okute, and as he would not go an inch further, we attempted to procure another, but could not persuade one for love or money to go on to Oi on account of the rain and bad roads. Were therefore reluctantly compelled to put up at a small hostelry in this dirty little village, and to employ the evening in fruitless efforts to dry our clothes.

see current map

Hand colored albumen print by Kimbei Kusakabe of  the Kisogawa River on the Nakasendō, 1880s
Fukushima Juku (福島宿) and the Kisogawa River (木曽川) on the Nakasendō, 1880s. Fukushima was the thirty-seventh of the sixty-nine stations of the Nakasendō. Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print.

Saturday, June 18th, Magome.

This morning broke watery again, but by the time we left Okute at seven o’clock the rain had ceased, the clouds gradually rolled away, and at eight clock it was a bright sunny day. The road to Oi (eight miles) led over a continuous succession of hills known as the Jiu-san toge or thirteen passes, taking a very erratic course, rounding curves, crossing streams and rarely conducting itself in a straightforward manner. Though fatiguing, it was nevertheless a most enjoyable tramp in the cool morning air.

The mists gradually melted away from the mountains and rolled up the valleys, revealing ever-changing vistas, as we rounded each spur of the hills. The valleys below were marked off by the rice-fields like a chess-board into square patches, the mountains beyond high, bold, and rocky, while the hills and glens crossed by the path were all thickly wooded with spruce and fir saplings.

For some distance we walked along an avenue of old pines, merging occasionally into a grove of cryptomeria enclosing some small shrine.

Anon [presently] from the depths of a pine came forth the earsplitting whirrings and gurlings of the cicada or “scissor-grinder,” an insect somewhat like a large cockchafer, and deriving the name from its horrible song. They may sometimes be heard in a wood a quarter of a mile distant, which will give some idea of the nuisance they are when right over one’s head.

It is impossible to find and exterminate them. They lie flat up against the bark, and you might stare at one for ten minutes without distinguishing it. They abound in all the tropical forests of the East, but I had vainly hoped to have heard the last of them in Singapore, where their hum is so incessant that old residents do not even hear them.

see current map

Hand colored albumen print by Adolfo Farsari of Magome Juku on the Nakasendō, 1880s
Farms near Magome Juku on the Nakasendō, 1880s. Adolfo Farsari, hand colored albumen print. Pump Park Collection.

Oi, a large village away down in the valley we reached at 9.30, after a quick walk of two and a half hours from Okute. Rested at an inn for a few minutes to refresh ourselves with hot saké, sending Yoshi in the meantime to hunt up another coolie. The coolie agency could not provide one, the men all being engaged on contract with the farmers to transplant the young rice shoots, but luckily we picked one up at a small cottage on the outskirts of the village.

It was fortunate we procured him, the roads being swampy and very steep for the next two miles. Occasionally obtained views of the lofty snow-capped peaks of On-take (10,000 feet) and Komaga-take, which we are approaching.

Halted for midday rest at Nakatsugawa, after a morning’s walk of fifteen miles, and have not only found a comfortable inn, but also a bottle of Bass, or rather the [Japanese] counterfeit for it.

Started again at four o’clock, giving Yoshi instructions to follow later on with the jinricksha. We were unable to engage a fresh coolie for the high Magome pass; but a handsome, supple young fellow, who had just arrived with his jinricksha, agreed to do the work after half an hour’s rest.

First climbed a hill and then descended at a steep gradient to the village of Ochiai (two miles), where the road crossed a rapid stream issuing from a dark, thickly-wooded gorge. Thence began the long fatiguing ascent of three miles up the Jikoku-toge (or pass of the ten turnings) to Magome.

This village is perched almost on top of the pass, the whole face of the hill below being cut into terraces of rice-fields, which are irrigated by two or three brooks running from some springs above the village. A rice-field must, of course, be perfectly level to contain a uniform depth of water, out of which the young shoots grow. The labour of terracing and ditching this hill down to the valley, 1000 ft. below, must have been enormous, and in few other countries could it ever be repaid.

Hand colored albumen print by Kimbei Kusakabe of  the Kisogawa River on the Nakasendō, 1880s
Urashima Rapids in the Kisogawa River on the Nakasendō, 1880s. Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print. Pump Park Collection.

Deep down in the valley the rapid Kisogawa pursues its sinuous course amid a forest of maples and oaks. Range upon range of bold, lofty mountains fill up the background of a landscape worthy the brush of Turner.

Yoshi and the coolie had terrible work hauling the heavily-freighted jinricksha up the steep pass, both arriving pale and utterly exhausted. The young coolie was the handsomest Japanese I ever saw; his features more regular than even the average European’s, in fact almost classical, and a figure lithe and beautifully modelled.

He had a haughty demeanour and proud bearing—two remarkable traits for a Japanese coolie, who is usually servile in the extreme. I felt an intense sympathy for the young fellow, who had apparently only recently entered upon the ceaseless, killing toil of a jinricksha coolie, and whose associates would be in vice and crime the very scum of the land.

I would have given a great deal to have learnt his history, but had to be content with an evening spent in mentally weaving out the fabric of a romance in which he was the son of a reduced daimio [feudal lord], driven, as many in reality have been, to the last resource of jinricksha pulling.

But my position, lying flat on the mats writing up this journal is getting too uncomfortable for idle romancing, so I will lay myself down beside our little garden, ruminate, smoke, and listen to the music of the big water-wheel in the quiet twilight.

130601-0007 - Nakasendo Post Town Inns and Fire Bell
A fire bell attached to a ladder in between Nakasendō post town inns at Shimonosuwa Juku (下諏訪) in Nagano Prefecture, ca. 1880 (Meiji 13). Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print.

Art Prints

Add a historical touch to your interior and purchase a museum grade art print of the Nakasendō image shown at the top of this page.

Did you know that you can actually order art prints of most of the many thousands of images of old Japan in my private collection? Just contact me to tell me which images you would like to purchase, and in what size.

Each order is giclée printed on certified museum quality Hahnemühle Fine Art archival paper for the highest age resistance. A matte premium inkjet coating produces unequalled reproduction of colors, detail, and pictorial depth. Your art print is of the highest quality with a white margin for easy framing.


Crow, Arthur H. (1883). Highways and Byeways in Japan: The Experiences of Two Pedestrian Tourists. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 99–105.


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Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage and to bring the experiences of everyday life in old Japan to you.

To enhance our understanding of Japanese culture and society I track down, acquire, archive, and research images of everyday life, and give them context.

I share what I have found for free on this site, without ads or selling your data.

Your support helps me to continue doing so, and ensures that this exceptional visual heritage will not be lost and forgotten.

Thank you,
Kjeld Duits


Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Nagano 1880s: Nakasendō Highway, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on April 12, 2024 (GMT) from

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