“Hakone Sekisho, known for its strictness, was primarily responsible for keeping women from escaping from Edo.”
This phrase appears in the brochure you are given when buying a ticket for Hakone Sekisho, a restored checkpoint of the old Edo highway, which ran between Tokyo and Kyoto. The checkpoint was built on a narrow piece of land between Lake Ashinoko and the surrounding mountains, as here travellers could be carefully monitored. It appeared from the brochure that women were the most carefully scrutinized. Nowadays the rebuilt Hakone Sekisho is a short walk from Hakone-machi boat pier and bus stop and is an interesting attraction in this part of Hakone.
The checkpoint was excavated between 1999 and 2001. Using evidence found from the dig and a detailed report on the Hakone Sekisho found in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1983, it has been carefully rebuilt using similar materials and techniques as in the original.
Chances are you will enter from the Kyoto side, along a small street lined with cafes and gift shops. After buying a ticket you are directed through the large wooden gate and into the compound. A guardhouse stands to the left and a row of stables. Behind that are offices where officials worked, inspecting the travellers who were using the road. The office area includes a dining room, bathroom and kitchen. There is also a room filled with spears and bows, which were meant intimidate illegal travellers. On the other side of the compound is a building used as a jail, office and sleeping quarters.
Other points of interest are a look out post, built on the hill behind the compound, and some formidable looking arresting implements.
The offices are furnished and have mannequins in position to give the impression of being in operation. There is information in both Japanese and English about the different areas of the checkpoint, but it was not explained why the Hakone Sekisho was “keeping women from escaping Edo.”
Official at work
In order to find out why this was you have to visit the Hakone Sekisho Exhibition Hall, which is signposted and few hundred metres along the Lakeside path. Entry to this exhibition is included in the price of the checkpoint ticket and well worth a visit as it throws a little clarity on the full role of the sekisho.
Its most important function was the investigation of women who were heading west, away from Edo. This was because the shogunate had forced feudal lords into making their wives reside in the city, as a hostage for their lordships good behaviour. To prevent wives escaping, all female travellers were strictly checked.
The exhibition also explained that some 20-24 officials worked in the sekisho, usually on monthly shifts, returning to Odawara when they were not on duty.
But besides the officials, prisoners and travellers, the sekisho had another more unusual visitor. In 1729 an elephant was gifted to the 8th shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune by a Chinese merchant. The poor elephant was made to walk from Nagasaki to Edo and by the time it arrived in Hakone it was sick. According to the information in the exhibition the elephant remained for several days in Hakone and was nursed back to health on a diet that included mandarin oranges.
The Exhibition Hall also has examples of clothing worn during the era of the sekisho, artefacts found during its reconstruction, a video of the rebuilding work, examples of weapons used to protect the sekisho and many photographs of the area and the work done there.
Whilst visiting the Hakone Sekisho it is worth also finding the route of the old Tokaido road, a few hundred metres away in Moto-Hakone (the position is shown on the sekisho map). Some of the original paving remains and you can imagine the poor elephant setting out reluctantly on the brutal stone road to Edo.
Tokaido old road
Tel: 0460 (83) 6635
Open: 7 days a week, all year 9am-5pm (Winter until 4.30pm)
Admission: adults 500 yen, children 250 yen