Back in the Edo Period (1603-1868), the city of Edo (now called Tokyo) became the de facto capital of Japan. While Kyoto remained the cultural capital, the administration of the Tokugawa Shiogun operated out of Edo. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun, had already unified much of Japan; his descendants strengthened the ties between the various provinces and created a system of routes that joined the far-flung areas of the fledgling nation with the shogun’s city.
One of those routes (the Aizu-Nishi-Kaido) ran through the provinces north of Edo -it connected the Nikko region to present-day Fukushima and Niigata . Daimyo (feudal lords) who were required to come spend time in Edo traveled this route, as did merchants bringing rice and other products from fertile Niigata to the big city. To accommodate these travelers, post towns were set up at set intervals, which provided food and lodging along the way.
Not many post towns in Japan remain – at least not in an appealing state – but Ouchijuku is an exception. Much like the towns of Tsumago and Magome on the Nakasendo post road, Ouchijuku has been beautifully preserved. No cars are allowed in the village (there’s a parking lot just outside) and the power lines have been buried underground.
The entire village is about half a kilometer long, so it won’t take terribly long to explore. But it’s packed with thatched houses, many of which play host to gift shops and eateries. You’ll find grilled rice dumplings slathered in miso, grilled fish on a stick, and sit-down restaurants serving local soba noodles. I bought some local miso as a souvenir and we munched our way down the street.
The town also restored the Honjin, the former accommodation for government officials or samurai. Not much of the display is in English but it’s fun to poke around the structure (there is a small admission fee) and there’s a great view of the thatched roofs from the second floor window.
An even better – and free – view is available from the far end of town. Hike up the two dozen or so stairs to the viewpoint that overlooks the village. During our visit, we could see the town’s carp streamers – hung for Children’s Day on May 5th – fluttering in the breeze. If you come in winter, you’ll be treated to a snowy panorama.
Ouchijuku is most easily reached by car and there is a high parking lot just outside the village. Otherwise, take a bus or a taxi from nearby Yunokami Onsen station. The station building there is allegedly the only one in Japan with a thatched roof (though I swear I’ve seen another …) and in cherry blossom season, the blossoms cover the tracks here, making for a “Stop the car! I need a picture!!” type of scene. (My poor long-suffering husband/chauffeur.)