Walking the Old Tokaido Road
The Old Tokaido Road is one of the most famous and well used trails in Japanese history. With the rise of the Tokugawa clan to power in the late 1500’s a new government capital was established in Edo, modern-day Tokyo. The imperial and cultural heart of Japan remained in Kyoto, but it was the new capital that would become the seat of economic and political power. The Tokaido Road (which means East Sea Road) connected the two cities and became the main route for travelers, couriers, and regional lords traveling to the capital. Modernization has replaced most of the Tokaido Road with pavement, buildings, and development. However, Hakone has one of the best-preserved sections of the road with many historical and cultural sites along the way that date back centuries. An exploration of any part of the Old Tokaido Road gives you the opportunity to see and feel parts of Japanese history, culture, and nature.
The Old Tokaido Road can also be enjoyed in sections as there are public transportation options at many different points along the route.
One way 17km, approx. 4 hours
Japan’s main road from the Edo Period (1603-1869)
This is an introduction to a part of the famous Old Tokaido Road route that runs through Hakone. This part of the Old Tokaido Road runs from Yumoto Station, the gateway to Hakone, to Hakone-juku on the shores of Lake Ashi. This was one of the busiest and most famous roads in Japan because it connected Kyoto and Tokyo. The famous poem “Hakone-hachi-ri” (ri were units of measurement during the Edo period 1ri = 3.93km) means the eight ri from Odawara to Mishima. Of these, about four ri (15.6 km) of steep slopes from Yumoto to the Hakone Pass go through the national park. Here are some highlights of this historical walk starting from Yumoto at the base of the Hakone mountains.
Cross the Hydrangea Bridge over the Hayakawa River, pass by Soun Park, and enter the old highway. If you have time, you may want to stop by the local museum adjacent to the Hakone Town Hall to learn about the history of Hakone before walking. As you enter the old road, you climb a steep slope looking up at the forest of Hakusan Shrine on the left.
Climb up the steep slope. On your right, you will see Sounji Temple with the tombs of the five generations of the Hojo clan. The Hojo were one of the most powerful clans of the Sengoku Jindai, the warring states period in Japanese history. Sounji was built by Hojo Ujitsuna in 1521 as a family temple for his father Soun. The temple was burned down in the siege of Odawara Castle in 1591. The temple is also home to a dense forest of Japanese cypress trees inhabited by the rare white-throated cicada, known as the Himeharu cicada.
It has been designated as a natural treasure of the town.
Shoganji Temple and the Soga brothers
After passing Sounji Temple, there is Shoganji Temple on the left, which has a hall dedicated to the Soga brothers. Shoganji Temple, where the Soga brothers are enshrined, is located on the left. The story of the Soga brothers is one of Japan’s most famous tales of revenge. It tells of two brothers who avenged the murder of their father when they were children. The story takes place in the 12th century and has been retold in many bunraku, noh, and kabuki plays.
The Jizo Hall and the Shoganji Temple, which stood side by side, were destroyed by fire during the Boshin War in 1886. The Boshin War was a civil war between the supporters of samurai rule and the modern imperial system. The standing statue of Jizo is said to be made in the likeness of the Soga brothers. It is enshrined in the Soga Hall, which was rebuilt in 1914 in the Shoganji temple.
The main hall and storehouse of Shoganji Temple were rebuilt between the Taisho (1912-1926) and early Showa (1926-1989) eras. A wooden buddhist image is enshrined as the main image along with the statues of monks.
This area used to be lined with pine trees instead of cedar trees, but in 1904 the rickshaw route was started between Miyanoshita and Ashinoko and the trees were sold off as part of the construction cost. At that time, local funds were also used to repair the road which shows the hard work of our predecessors. After this point, the road becomes narrower, so be careful of cars.
Passing the Yumoto Tea House Milestone
There is a monument near the entrance of the inn on the right side of the narrow, steep road. If you go up a little beyond the monument, there is a path to the Shiragin Forest Road on the left, but the old highway goes straight ahead. In front of the entrance of a private house near this path, there is a tree that was buried by the pyroclastic flow of Mt. Oyama which is preserved and displayed in its original state. The challenging part of the Old Tokaido Road will start here as we climb the volcanic slope of Mt. Futagoyama.
Walking on the Stone Path
A little further on the old highway and the prefectural road for cars separate. The Old Tokaido Road goes down to the right toward the valley. Soon you will be on the first stone-paved path of this course. From here the total length of the original stone route is about 7km. After a short descent you cross the bridge over the Sarusawa River and ascend along Yumoto-taki-dori to join the prefectural road. The prefectural road crosses a number of small rivers and streams then joins the Yumoto Taki Dori road.
Kuzuhara Slope to the Sukumo River
If we continue on the prefectural road we will come to Kuzuhara slope. As the name of the area suggests, kuzu, one of the Seven Herbs of Autumn, thrives here and in early autumn and you can enjoy its reddish-purple flowers and sweet grape juice like scent.
After crossing the small Horiki Bridge, you will be in the old Sukumogawa area. Passing the traffic lights at the entrance to the Sukumogawa Interchange of the Hakone Express Road
you will reach the residential area of Sukumogawa. On the outskirts of this village there is the Komagata Gongen which enshrines the guardian spirit of Sukumogawa.
You can also stop by Saunji Temple, which houses the graves of Katsugoro and Hatsuhana. The story of Hatsuhana is famous and has been made into noh and kabuki dramas. The story is of Hatsuhana who devotedly supported her disabled husband as he tried to avenge a death in his family. During his travels he became unable to walk and Hatsuhana pulled him on a cart as he searched for the man. She ultimately enacted revenge for her ill husband and then passed away. According to legend she was seen bathing at the waterfall on the opposite side of the mountain after her death. The name of the waterfall was changed to Hatsuhana Falls.
Steep slope for women
The path turns to the Old Tokaido Road crosses the Sukumogawa Bridge as you begin your steep ascent of the Hakone mountains on the “Women’s Rolling Slope”. According to the old books the name of this slope comes from a woman who fell from her horse on this slope. This steep slope veers to the right of the prefectural road and starts to become a gentle slope.
The Sukumo River Nature Trail
The entire Old Tokaido Road has not been preserved so you will need to join the Sukumo River Nature Trail at the foot of the Sukumogawa Bridge near the small power station. At this point you cross the prefectural road and walk up the hill where you will find the stone pavement of the old road still remaining. This slope is called “Wari-ishi-zaka.” It is said that when Goro, one of the Soga brothers, went to the foot of Fuji to take revenge for his father’s death he slashed at a rock to test his sword and half of it fell into the valley. After passing the split stone slope, the road merges with the prefectural road again.
Hatajuku Village, the center of Yosegi Woodcraft
Continuing on the prefectural road you will cross a bridge and climb up Osawa slope, where the stone pavement still remains to reach Hatajuku Village. Hatajuku is famous as the home of Yosegi-zaiku, and even today there are stores where traditional craftsmen demonstrate their craft. Yosegi Zaiku is specialized woodcraft that used the natural colors of wood cut into intricate shapes to make elaborate and beautiful patterns. This craft is recognized by the Japanese government and a skill of special cultural and historical importance. The word “Shuku” (宿) is usually used in Japanese to denote a place of inns, but here it was used to describe the area as a place of rest for horses and travelers at teahouses.
Ascending the Mountain and the 7 Turns
On the outskirts of Hatajuku there is a pair of restored mounds marking 23 ri from Edo (90km). From here it is a steep uphill walk on cobblestones again. This area is a difficult place called “Nanamagari,” where the Hakone Express Road, the prefectural road, and the old highway intersect and ascend.
In order to preserve the stone path, the road intersects with the Hakone-Shindou and takes you on a path above the original route. At the end of the road is the steepest slope of the Hakone Pass. Because of the steepness of the slope, this part of the path collapsed in an earthquake, and no cobblestones remain. There is a poem in that says, “If you cross the slope of an oak tree, it will be so painful that you will cry tears the size of acorns.”
A 400-year-old teahouse
After completing the steep climb the trail will even out and you will see the Old Tokaido Road Museum and the Amazake Teahouse. The Amazake Teahouse has been here for hundreds of years, run by the same family, and serving the same menu. The building has architectural details and an atmosphere that takes you back in Japanese history. The teahouse specializes in amazake. Amazake is a sweet rice based drink that is served warm. This teahouse was a welcome break to travelers at the time serving rice cakes and amazake to rejuvenate weary legs. There were once several teahouses here, but this is the last one that remains. The trail continues up the mountain from behind the teahouse.
Going down toward Lake Ashinoko
The stone-paved path continues down toward Lake Ashi. You will cross an overpass at Hachomachi-zaka and walk through the towering cedar trees to the first torii gate of Hakone Shrine. The cedar trees were planted under orders by the Tokugawa Shogunate to provide travelers with protection from the rain, sun, and wind. Near the overpass and the first torii shrine gate there are two stone monuments: one is dedicated to Englebert Kempel, a German doctor whose book introduced Japan to Europe, and the other was built in 1923 to Cyril Montague Barney, a British trader. These two men spent time in Hakone studying nature and sharing the beauty of Hakone with the world. The monuments are in honor of the two men’s achievements and appreciation of the people of Hakone. A quote on the monument reads
“To someone who will stand on this spot, where old and new roads meet,
Pray, ask your descendants:
To make this land of yours;
Even more beautiful and admirable.”
Avenue of Cedar Trees and Onshi Park, an Imperial Summer Retreat
The cedar trees continue parallel to the national highway, but there is no stone road remaining here. These trees tower overhead and are one of the most interesting parts of walking the Old Tokaido Road. The cedar trees along the cedar line are about 370 years old, which means they were planted about 50 years later than the pine trees along the Tokaido. Pine trees were first planted, but they failed to grow, so cedar trees were probably planted for travelers under order of the Tokugawa shogunate. After leaving the cedar avenue, you will cross the road and arrive at Onshi Park.
Onshi Park was once the summer retreat for the imperial family, but was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Entrance to the park is free and it is known for views of Mt. Fuji over Lake Ashi and the well maintained Japanese gardens. The park also has an introduction to the history of the park in a building recreated in the original style of the western designed portion of the imperial retreat.
From Hakone Sekisho to Hakone-juku
After passing the park, we headed for Hakone Sekisho Checkpoint. There were various checkpoints established throughout Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate to regulate the travel of people and flow of goods. The checkpoints were especially concerned with the transport of weapons and the movement of women. You will enter through the Edo-guchi Gate, which was reconstructed over nine years from 1998. After passing through the O-bansho (guardhouse) you will exit through the Kyoguchi Gate and arrive at Hakone-juku. Hakone-juku was established in 1618 by 50 families from Odawara and Mishima. After leaving the Sekisho Checkpoint, you will be on Route 1 again, turn right and follow it for a while until you reach the Hakone Ekiden Museum, the last stop on the route.
The Hakone Ekiden Collegiate Relay Race is one of Japan’s most popular sporting events. It is held in early January and is a relay marathon competition that runs from Tokyo to Hakone on the first day and then back on the second. This museum is at the goal line and commemorates the history of the famed race.
There is a bus stop and a sightseeing boat stop nearby, so you can use them on your way back.