The Hakone area is known for hot springs, art museums, mountains and (sometimes) a view of Mount Fuji. But at the southern end of Lake Ashi is another attraction, an important part of the history and development of Japan, that is well worth a visit.
The Old Tokaido Road was a highway used in the Edo period that connected Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto, some 500 kilometres away. For the most part it followed the line of the coast, hence its name, ‘road east of the sea’. Mainly foot travellers used the route since heavy goods were sent by ship. A series of checkpoints were built along the road to monitor those who were using it.
The checkpoint or sekisho that was at Hakone has been reconstructed using the details found in a document of 1865 about its repair. The materials and techniques have been kept as original as possible so visitors can see what it was like.
The sekisho has a large and impressive gateway on either side and between is a compound. Inside are offices where the officials inspected the travellers using the road. There is also a dining room, kitchen, bathroom, stables, a jail and a room filled with spears and bows to deter illegal travellers. The buildings have been furnished and mannequins represent the officials at work and rest. One of the main roles of the sekisho was to control guns coming into Edo and women leaving.
After visiting the checkpoint follow the signs to the Hakone Sekisho Exhibition Hall, which is a few hundred metres further along the lakeside. The exhibition has information about the operation of the sekisho and it explains why women who were heading west, away from Edo came under special scrutiny — they expected to reside in city as a hostage for their husband’s good behaviour, so were not allowed to leave.
The Exhibition Hall also has a display of clothing worn during the era, some artefacts found during reconstruction of the checkpoint, a video of the rebuilding and some examples of weapons that would have been used to the protect it in case of attack.
According to the exhibition, in 1729 the sekisho had an unusual visitor. A Chinese merchant had given a gift of an elephant to the 8th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune and the unlucky animal had to be walked from Nagasaki to Edo. By the time it reached Hakone it was sick and had to spend some time being cared for with a special diet that included mandarin oranges.
To experience the road the poor elephant travelled, walk a few hundred metres into Moto-Hakone (see the map on the Hakone Sekisho brochure) and look for the brown sign giving directions to ‘Stone Paved Road of Hakone Old Highway’. The small lane leads up to the cedar avenue, a beautiful pathway dappled by the foliage of tall trees, which were planted in 1618 to give protection to travellers on the road.
This stretch of the Old Tokaido road from Moto Hakone is around eleven kilometres to Hakone-Yumoto from where trains return to Gora, Odawara or Tokyo. Walking from Moto Hakone there is a short climb and then the rest of the route is downhill. The paved part of the trail is through forest and small bamboo groves. An explanation board along the route tells how the
road was originally not paved but would be surfaced annually with bamboo. Stones were put down so as to cut the costs and labour required each year.
Some two kilometres along the route is the Amazake Chaya, a teahouse and rest house similar to the ones that would have served travellers in Edo times. The thatched building is dark and smoky inside with a fireplace sunken into the floor and exposed blackened beams in the roof. Hot drinks, small eats and a few souvenirs can be bought here, including the house special — amazake, a hot, sweet thick rice wine.
The building next to the teahouse is a small museum about the Tokaido Road. There are some artefacts on display including a cart and a kago, a basket chair for woman, slung from a pole and carried by two men. Most of the information in the museum is in Japanese but there are pictures and life sized scenes to view.
The route along the old road continues from the museum for several kilometres through the forest until it comes into Hatajuku and takes the road through the village. There are shops here selling the mosaic woodwork that Hakone is known for. From Hatajuku a red pillar indicates the direction of the route, but beyond here the walk is not so pleasant and the final stretch is along a road into Hakone Yumoto where there are cafes and souvenir shops, and the station.
Hakone Checkpoint: http://www.hakonesekisyo.jp/english/main/main.html
Address: Hakone Sekisho, 1 Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa
Tel: 0460 (83) 6635
Open: 7 days a week, all year 9am-5pm (Winter until 4.30pm)
Admission: adults 500 yen, children 250 yen (Sekisho and Exhibition Hall)
Amazake Chaya: http://www.amasake-chaya.jp
Open: 7 days a week, 7.00-17.30
Tokaido Museum: 9.00 – 17.00 (winter 16.30)