Since the ancient Jomon period, people have lived in the Karuizawa plateau area over a wide area, and it seems that settlements were formed here and there.
Despite the high and cold climate, the area is rich in birds and animals, fruits and bulbs, and has been a suitable place for people to live since ancient times.
The area was probably a place where people lived in the early Jomon period (6-7,000 years ago). As evidence of this, a visit to ancient ruins reveals that earthenware believed to be from the early Jomon period, 6-7,000 years ago, was found near Oshojyazawa, upstream from the Shigawa River. The remains of a dwelling in Shigesawa Minamishikido, which is thought to date back to the middle or late Jomon period, have also been found. The site has attracted wide attention from various quarters, including academic societies, not only for the remains of the dwelling, but also for the magnificent masonry cemetery that forms a ring around the site. The artifacts excavated during this period cover a wide area, including Shigesawa, Sugiuri, Hatsuji, Chigataki, Old Karuizawa, and the Yagasaki River water source area.
In addition, artifacts from the Yayoi period have been found in Yugawa, Sugiuri, Mosawa, and other areas, suggesting that people lived there during the transitional period from hunting to farming and stockbreeding. One of the 16 pastures in Shinano is the Nagakura pasture, which was blessed with a cool climate and abundant grassland, indicating that it was very suitable as a hunting ground and pasture. The bank that appears to be the bank extends from present-day Kyu-Karuizawa to the foot of Rishan, Minamigaoka, Furujuku, and as far as Oiwake.
Ancient Karuizawa and the East Mountain Road
Karuizawa, located at the southern foot of Mt. Asama, was an important transportation hub connecting the Kanto region and Shinano. As a result, major roads and railroads passed through Karuizawa from ancient times to the present.
Karuizawa has also had an important history as a transportation hub.
It is said that by the Heian period (794-1185), the Higashiyama Pass (a pass located on the border between Narisawa, Karuizawa Town and Iriyama, Annaka City, Gunma Prefecture) may have been used as a route through the interior of Honshu to the north.
This is because many imitation stone ritual vessels were discovered at Iriyama Pass in 1955. These artifacts are said to have been carried in nusa-bukuro (offering bags) by people of relatively high status up to the Heian period (794-1185) when they traveled, and dedicated to the gods on the mountain peaks to pray for the safety of their travelers and the safety of their families and followers. It is thought that this Iriyama Pass may have been the Higashiyama Pass, which was one of the main roads in ancient times.
- ~[Column]The Way of the East Mountain Road
- The Engishiki, compiled around the 10th century during the Heian period (794-1185), describes the stations (umaya) and ekima (ekima) of the Higashiyama Road that passed through the Saku region. The Higashiyama Road entered the Saku region from Matsumoto, where the national capital was located, through Kogata.
The following are written on the map: “Urano (10 horses), Watari (10 horses), Shimizu (10 horses), Nagakura (15 horses), Sakamoto (15 horses)” (each of which represents the name of a station and the number of horses), which indicates that the route passed through the foot of Mount Asama. The location of Shimizu’s station is assumed to be in Moro (present-day Komoro City), but the most likely location for Nagakura Station is near Nagakura Shrine in Nakakaruizawa. No clear documentation has been found.
As to where in the eastern mountains of Karuizawa the Higashiyama Road crossed, Iriyama Pass is considered the most likely location, but the “Gunma Prefecture History” describes both Iriyama Pass and in front of Kumano Shrine in a two-sided manner.
- ~[Column] Nagakura’s pasture (photo: earthen embankment at the piece stopper)
- Nagakura-no-maki was one of the kanboku (government pastures) established in the Heian period (794-1185), which are what we now call pastureland for grazing horses presented to the Imperial Court.
It is believed to have been a vast government pasture that occupied the entire Karuizawa Plateau. Horses were delivered to the Imperial Court from here, and the area played a major role in the transportation industry, including stagecoaches.
There were 16 official pastures in Shinano Province, and in Saku County, Nagakura, Shiono, Hishino, and Mochizuki pastures were created. (From Azuma Kagami)
Nagakura-maki was at the southern foot of Mt. Asama, where horses were kept, from the “Komadome no Tsuchi Tsutsumi” found in Nakakaruizawa to Chigataki Prince Street, and from the names of places such as “Umakoshi” and “Umatori” in Minamikaruizawa.
In the Saku region, the name “Mimaki” and the legend of “Mochizuki no Koma” remain, and as many as 30 pairs of horses were sent from Mochizuki no Maki every year.
“The shadow of the Mochizuki no Koma (Kikanuki) can be seen in the shizumi of the Afsaka-no-Seki, and it will be drawn out now.
The waka poems are also known as “waka” in Japanese, and many other waka poems have been left behind.
Although there are few historical records about Nagakura’s pasturage, many horses were kept there during the Nara and Heian periods.
- ~[Column]Bronze Bell of Kumano Shrine
- Kumano Shrine has in its collection a bronze bell approximately 1 meter high and 60 cm in diameter. This bell has an inscription engraved on it as shown in the photo below. The inscription states that the bell was dedicated to Kumano Shrine on the Usui Pass by 12 people from Matsuida on the 8th day of the 5th month of May in the 5th year of Sho’o (1292). This is probably because there was a road to carry the heavy bell, which was thought to be impossible to carry on horseback, up from Matsuida at the foot of the mountain to Kumano Shrine (or Jinguji?). It is thought that the heavy bell was placed on a sturdy stand, and a horse and man rolled it on a round bar called a goro to pull it up.
Karuizawa and Nakayama Road in the Middle Ages
In 1602, after the Battle of Sekigahara, the Edo shogunate began to improve the Nakasendo, which later became one of the five highways along with the Tokaido, Nikko, Oshu, and Koshu roads.
The Nakasendo is a highway that runs from Edo to Sakamoto-juku in Jyoshu, climbs a steep hill on Mt. Haneishi, passes through Haneishi Tateba and Yamanaka Tateba, and reaches its summit (1188m) in front of Kumano Shrine.
From Kumano Shrine, the road went west down Kamon Hill, and Karuizawa-juku was built at the foot of the hill. From Karuizawa-juku, the Nakayama Road headed southwest, then west from Rishiyama-shita, crossed the Yukawa Bridge, and entered Kutsugake-juku. From Kutsugake-juku, the road crossed the east side of Mt. The Nakayama Expressway continued west from Kutsugake, passing through Furujuku and Kariyado to enter Oiwakejuku, with Mount Asama to the north. From Oiwajuku, the Nakayama Road heads southwest toward Kyoto, while the Hokkoku Road (Zenkoji Road) heads west down Oiwajara. This junction is called “Wakasare,” where the Zenkoji temple’s everlasting lamps and stone Buddha are erected.
The inns were built in a straight line, with the main lodge in the center to accommodate feudal lords and court nobles, and wholesale dealers to take over their cargo. The number of inns with innkeepers, teahouses, and other facilities increased, and people visiting temples and shrines used them for business and for visiting temples and shrines.
In “Kisoji-ki” written by Kaibara Iken in 1707, he wrote
The three inns of Karuizawa, Kutsugake, and Oiwake are located on the waist of Mount Asama, and the terrain is very high. And there are no fruit trees. There are no trees in the houses either. This is a description of the state of Karuizawa at that time.
- ~[Column]Karuizawa Lodging
- Karuizawa-juku was the eighteenth of the sixty-nine stops on the Nakasendo route counting from Edo (Tokyo), and prospered as an inn town with many inns and teahouses as well as horse stations, which were the means of transportation in those days. It is located on the north side of present-day Karuizawa Station.
Located down the Usui Pass to the west, it was a strategic location for both transportation and military purposes. However, the area was covered with volcanic ash and pumice stone, and few people lived there due to its high elevation. Therefore, people from Iriyama village on the east side of the pass (Kamiju) were relocated to the area to form an inn.
- ~[Column] Kutsumigakejuku
- Kutsukakejuku (utsugakejuku) is another inn that corresponds to today’s Nakakaruizawa.
In “Kisoji Meisho Zue” (Illustrations of Famous Places along the Kiso Road), it is written, “The streets are located on both sides of the road. There are many farmhouses scattered about. There is a road to Asamadake at the entrance of the inn.” It seems that the inn was smaller than Karuizawa and Oiwake inns.
Compared to the Karuizawa Inn, there were more farmers.
From Kutsugake-juku, the Oosasa-kaido Kusatsu-michi led north to Oosasa in Jyoshu and Nire in Shinshu, and the Iriyama-michi led south to Iriyama in Jyoshu. The Oosasa-Nire Kaido was a road for transporting goods from the northern Shinano area, and “tsukemadori,” or “passing through” the road without passing through a Nakasendo post, was used for quick transportation of goods (in Saku, it was called “nouma-ninga-ninga”).
- Oiwakejuku is located at the southern foot of Mt. Asama at an elevation of approximately 1,000 meters, the highest of all the Nakasendo inns, and is located in present-day Oiwake, Karuizawa Town.
Oiwakejuku was the busiest of the three Asama inns, with innkeepers accounting for 30% of the total number of inns. The reason why there were more women than men in Oiwajuku is due to the large number of women who cooked meals for the innkeepers. （The names of the area, “Utai-zaka” (singing hill), “Uwai-zaka” (crying hill), and “Uwai-zaka” (laughing hill), may have been derived from this fact.
A “baggage check station” was set up in Oiwakejuku. The kanme aratajyo was established by a magistrate in Tenpo 9 to check the weight of luggage passing through Oiwajuku by assigning a deputy to the wholesale store.
Oiwake-juku was the busiest of the three Asama inns, as goods and people gathered from the Nakasendo and Hokkoku-kaido routes.
Karuizawa in the Edo Period
As mentioned earlier, in the Edo period, Karuizawa was opened as an inn along the Nakasendo Highway.
The Karuizawa Plateau, with its Usui Pass, which is said to be the most difficult pass in Japan along with Hakone on the Tokaido Highway, and a branch of the Hokkoku Highway, is home to the three Asama Nekoshi Inns (Karuizawa, Kutsugake, and Oiwake), which are located on the roadside and are known as the “Asama Nekoshi Inns”.
The prosperity of the area has been passed down to the present day.
However, the farming areas surrounding the inn town were cold villages where the main products were millet, Japanese millet, and a few other cereals due to the high temperatures.
In addition, the people engaged in agriculture suffered from the usual cold weather and disasters caused by the eruption of Asama, an active volcano, and were forced to work at inns. In other words, Karuizawa’s major source of income during this period was the roadside silver lost by travelers. As the 300-year history of the Edo shogunate came to an end and the new Meiji era began, the number of travelers coming and going along the highways decreased year by year, the once prosperous inns became desolate, and the residents dispersed.
Furthermore, with the opening of the Usui New Road (presently National Highway Route 18) in 1884, the old inn towns along the Nakasendo Road suffered a decisive blow, and the long history of the three Asama inns here came to a complete end.
However, Karuizawa’s history does not end here.
In the Meiji era (1868-1912), missionaries visited the area and recognized it as a summer resort, and Karuizawa would eventually be transformed into a quiet and beautiful town where rich highland vegetables would grow.