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Historical fiction Japan Travel

In the Shōgun’s footsteps

James Clavell’s novel Shōgun came out when I was in high school. In 1980, the made-for-TV mini-series version aired in the US. It starred Richard Chamberlain as the English pilot John Blackthorne and Yoko Shimada as his Japanese intepreter Mariko. It’s embarrassing to admit but I think Shōgun sparked my lifelong fascination with Japan.

That fascination was strong enough to devote 6 weeks of our 7 month round-the-world adventure to Japan. This would be my fourth visit and my husband’s second. Time to explore the Japanese countryside, its arts and crafts and, yes, re-enact a pivotal section of Shōgun. You know the one, where Blackthorne and Mariko wander from inn to inn and fall in love.

Shogun by James Clavell
Shogun by James Clavell

It’s astonishingly easy to organize. Myriad travel agencies offer an all-in version that can include transportation, guides, food and lodging. I chose a 5 day “self-guided” walk along the Nakasendō. Armed with maps, a day pack and inn reservations, we hiked the central mountain route in the direction of Kyoto.

That was the autumn of 2019. Now that I’m home, indulging in a little armchair travel, I’ve picked up my old battered copy of Shōgun. It seems I got the salient details wrong. Where did I goof up?

The wrong Shōgun

A shōgun is a hereditary military dictator, technically subordinate to the emperor but de facto the sole power behind the throne. There were three shōgunates from 1192 to 1897. Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the third shōgunate in 1600. He is the model for Clavell’s Shōgun.

When Blackthorne and Mariko start their walk, I assumed they were complying with the shōgun’s law: sankin kōtai. For a few months each year, every daimyo resided in the shōgun’s stronghold in Edo (now Tokyo). Once the daimyo fulfilled this obligation, he was free to leave but his family was not. Wives and children stayed behind as guarantee for his return.

The cost of this system of “alternate residence” was ruinous. Daimyos had to maintain two primary residences, entertain lavishly when in Edo, as well as pay for building the roads they had to travel. It was an ingenious way for the shōgun to exert control over potentially rebellious lords while, at the same time, driving them into debt.

The sankin kōtai came into effect in 1635, 20 years after Ieyasu’s death in 1615. Blackthorne and Mariko cannot be walking because of that law. In fact, Clavell’s fictional shōgun hasn’t even become shōgun yet. I picked the wrong guy to follow.

The wrong road

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

I also managed to choose the wrong road. In Shōgun, Blackthorne and Mariko walk to Osaka Castle, stronghold of the bad guys. They take the eastern sea route known as the Tōkaidō. Of the five central roads connecting imperial Kyoto to Edo, the Tōkaidō was the most vulnerable to flooding. Blackthorne and Mariko walk because there’s no other way.

Oh, carriage⏤that’s something with wheels, neh? They’re of no use in Japan, Anjin-san. Our roads are too steep and always crisscrossed with rivers and streams. Wheels would also ruin the surface of the roads, so they are forbidden to everyone except the Emperor, and he travels only a few ceremonial ri in Kyoto on a special road.

James Clavell, Shōgun (Dell 1975)

We, on the other hand, were walking the Nakasendō headed for Kyoto. This is the road for namby-pambies and princesses promised in marriage to a shōgun. There are no rivers to ford on the Nakasendō though you do need to cross the Kiso Mountains. A princess would have ridden in a palanquin and let the bearers do all the heavy lifting.

It’s not hard at all to imagine the long line of bearers, horsemen and sedan chairs winding their way up and down the mountain. How wearying it must have been, even if you’re sitting in one of those chairs. Cold, damp, possibly scary because of fears of bandits or maybe the fate that awaits you in Edo. It’s not as if these girls knew what to expect from marriage to a shogun, let alone life in a palace filled with other wives and concubines all intriguing against each other.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 19 Nov 2019
Jimba-Kaisho, where travelers could obtain fresh horses and bearers, in Tsumago. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The inn at the end of the road

Bandits once terrorized the mountains of Japan. They lay in wait for fat priests, Buddhist nuns, wealthy couples from the capital, anyone with permission from the shōgun to travel. Not all travelers made it home.

Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning, as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedars, when I found the body in a grove in a hollow in the mountains. The exact location? About 150 meters off the Yamashina stage road.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “In a Grove” in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, ed. Theodore W. Goossen (Oxford University Press 1997)

We met no bandits on the Nakasendō. We met hardly anyone at all. Some days we walked through mist-covered valleys where rime still lay on the grass. We passed milestones that marked our progress and mossy stone gods who blessed our journey.

At the end of each day on the Nakasendō, an inn awaited us. It might be a small 8 tatami mat room just large enough to fit our futon. Dinners were locally sourced and delicately arranged. There was always an onsen.

Traveling monk
Traveling monk in Takayama. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Takayama was our last stop on the Nakasendō. There we found the Hida Takayama Jinja, the sole surviving example of a bakufu government complex. From 1692-1868, high and mid-level officials entered through a grand gate. Low-level officials used a side gate. Heavily-guarded warehouses held the precious tax revenues, 60 kilo bags stuffed with rice. It would be the last time we followed in the footsteps of the shōgun.

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