The Nakasendō or Central Mountain Road was one of five major routes of the Edo period. With the coastal Tōkaidō, it linked Edo, today’s Tokyo, with Kyoto. With a length of 534 km, the path passed through today’s Tokyo, Saitama, Gunma, Nagano, Gifu, Shiga, and Kyoto prefectures. There were sixty-nine post towns or juku along the route.
In the Edo period, Shiga was known as Ōmi province. The Nakasendō entered Ōmi from Sekigahara and the first post town was Kashiwabara-juku in today’s Maibara. In Ōmi there were nine post towns in all as far as Kusatsu-juku, where the Nakasendō intersects with the Tōkaidō route. In Hikone, there are two post towns, Toriimoto-juku and Takamiya-juku.
Toriimoto-juku was the 63rd post town. It was 468 km from Edo and 70 km from Kyoto. Most of the Nakasendō is mountain paths. After Kashiwabara-juku you came to Samegai-juku at the foot of Mt. Ibuki, before arriving at Banba-juku. Then, when you climbed up the mountain slope to Banba-juku and reached the Surihari Pass at the top, you suddenly got a 180-degree view, with the Kotō Plain to the west and the grand vista of Lake Biwa beyond. Next to the pass was a teahouse called “Lake View” where travellers of old would rest gazing down on Lake Biwa.
The pass takes its name from an incident in the life of the celebrated priest Kūkai who lived some 1,200 years ago. When Kūkai was pursuing his ascetic training, he approached the pass when he met an old woman grinding an axe with a stone. When he asked her what she was doing, she replied that her precious needle had broken, so she was grinding the axe down into a needle. Then Kūkai was suddenly struck with shame at his lack of zeal for his practice and he resolved to make more effort. When Kūkai next visited the pass, he offered chestnut mochi cakes to the gods, planted a cedar tree, and made the poem, “The path is as difficult to master as grinding an axe into a needle”. After this, the pass became known as the Surihari Pass, whose name means “grinding a needle”.
The view of Lake Biwa from the Lake View teahouse down one side of the pass was said to be the most dramatic of the whole Nakasendō in old times. The speciality of the teahouse was the chestnut mochi introduced by Kūkai, which were very popular with travellers.
As soon as you descend from the Surihari Pass, you enter the street of Toriimoto, lined with old houses redolent of the atmosphere of the old days of foot travel. A statue of travellers in olden times was recently erected at the north entrance of the street. There was a torii gate for Taga Shrine here, which was how the place got its name.
At the first corner of the post town is the magnificent house of the Arikawa family, who have manufactured and sold stomach pills since the Edo period. These red pills are a Japanese and Chinese remedy containing nine ingredients which are effective for numerous complaints, including hangovers.
As you go further towards the centre of the town, you’ll see old signs advertising raincoats hanging from the eaves of several buildings. Raincoats were its specialty product and there were once eighteen shops selling them. Toriimoto coats were made of washi paper impregnated with persimmon juice and iron oxide for waterproofness and heat retention. They were very popular with travelers on the road.
Toriimoto-juku is a post town that had one Honjin daimyō lodging, two Waki-Honjin attendant lodgings, and thirty-five Hatago inns. When a daimyō’s procession of 200 to 300 people arrived, not all of them could be accommodated in the daimyō lodgings and in many cases 156 lodgings were needed. These lodgings no longer remain, although their locations are marked with signs. Toriimoto-juku was used by many of the domains of western Japan.
The town prospered as a major point of transportation where the Hikone Road forked off from the Hokkoku Kaidō. The Hikone Road was also called the Chōsenjin Kaidō, Korean’s Road since it was used some eleven times over two centuries by representatives of the Joseon Dynasty in today’s Korea during the Joseon missions to Japan. It was also called the Kyō Road, and the Hachiman Road. The Korean delegations had lunch at Ōmihachiman and stayed at Hikone. They left handwritten documents and portraits at temples in Ōmihachiman and Hikone. There’s still a stone marker indicating the fork.
The Korean’s Road was originally built by Oda Nobunaga to link Azuchi Castle to Kyōto. After the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu used it for going to Kyōto. It was a sub-route of the Nakasendō, linking Toriimoto-juku with Yasu village, skipping over three other post stations. Staying closer to Lake Biwa, the route went through today’s Hikone, Azuchi, Ōmihachiman and Yasu.
If you go through the alley to the left of the Arikawa medicine shop and cross the main road you come to Jōbon-ji Temple. The story of its bell is satirised in a well-known Kabuki play. The priest of the temple, Hōkaibō, went begging all over Edo for donations to erect a bell at his temple. His preaching found particular favour with the prostitutes of the Yoshiwara licensed quarter, and when he had the funds to make his bell, their names were recorded on it among the other donors. He dragged the bell all the way from Edo to Toriimoto on a little cart. The wicked Kabuki paints Hōkaibō as a fraudster who sold a non-existent bell, but the bell actually exists today, and legend has it that his preaching led at least one harlot to enlightenment.
The Toriimoto Station on the Ōmi Tetsudō beside National Route 8 was originally built in 1931. The current is an accurate replica and a fine example of early Showa period architecture.
At Dodomomo Soba in the middle of Toriimoto, you can enjoy Shinshu-style soba noodles in a traditional old building, much as earlier travellers would have eaten.