Author and Journalist

Two lovingly preserved Japanese villages

Friday, September 3, 2010· Last Updated on: Monday, April 11, 2016

in Journalism

We step off the bus at Magome and look in disbelief at the steep cobbled slope winding up the hill in front of us. In the past there would have been scrawny porters elbowing each other out of the way, vying to cart our bags. Had we been great lords we would have been carried up by palanquin, with thousands of retainers and guards barking at the peasants to get down on their knees. But in 21st-century Japan there’s nothing for it but to walk.

We sigh, pick up our bags and set off up the hill. Behind us Mount Ena rises spectacularly. A huge waterwheel slowly turns, creaking and splashing, and a narrow stream trickles noisily alongside the road. There are no electric wires overhead and no cars and every now and then we catch a whiff of wood smoke.

I’m here to immerse myself in 19th-century Japan. The novel I’m working on begins here on the Inner Mountain Road, where it cuts through the forests and villages of the Kiso Valley, in the Nagano prefecture. The rule of the shoguns ended only 140 years ago, but in most of Japan the flavour of that era is utterly lost. But here in Magome and its neighbouring post town, Tsumago, it has been lovingly preserved, along with the five-miles of cobbled pathway between the two.

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Originally published in The Financial Times in August 2010

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All photographs © Lesley Downer

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