Seki-Juku: An Ancient Outpost in Modern Japan
If I say the word “Tokkaido” to you, what images does it bring to your mind?
If you’ve travelled around Japan before for any length of time, chances are you have probably made use of the Tokkaido Shinkansen Line. This, the most popular and highly utilized section of Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train network runs from Tokyo to Osaka, via Nagoya and Kyoto.
Or if you are one of those better qualified than me, i.e. you are licensed to drive in Japan, then perhaps you will have made use of the Tokkaido Expressway, which runs along similar lines to its Shinkansen expressway.
However, today I refer not to the Tokkaido Shinkansen, or to the Tokkaido Expressway. Instead, today I wish to discuss with you the original, ancient interpretation of Tokkaido.
Along this route, there were a total of 53 stations, or post towns. Seki-Juku, located in modern day Mie Prefecture was the 47th of these 53 outposts. However, the area around Seki-Juku has always been something of a trading and transport hub. Back in Japan’s Feudal days, The Tokkaido was actually a trading route, again running from Tokyo, or Edo as it was known at that time, in the north, to Osaka in the south.
It makes logical sense. If you look at a map of Japan and its 47 Prefectures, Mie is pretty much as close as you can get to smack, bang right in the middle!
Seki-Juku was also something of an interchange. In the days before cars, satellite navigation and the like, Seki-Juku served as the junction between the Tokkaido and the Yamato-Kaido. The Yamato-Kaido ran to the southwest from modern day Mie Prefecture and ended in what used to be known as Yamato Province but is now know as Nara Prefecture.
Even before the likes of the Tokkaido and the Yamato-Kaido became prominent routes for trade and commerce, Seki-Juku and its nearby city of Kameyama, which the town’s administrative government was formally merged with in 2005, have long been regarded as important centres for travel and trade.
Again, this is down to its position almost exactly in the geographic centre of Japan’s main island, Honshu, and there is historical evidence of trade in the town going as far back as the Joumon Period, which predates the Christian calendar in the west.
Old buildings of Sekijuku. Photo by ignis on Wikimedia Commons
Today, many of the old buildings from the town’s golden era as an Edo Period trading hub, around 200 years ago, are perfectly preserved for tourists to see.
In recent times many fundraisers have trekked the 53 stages of the old Tokkaido road as a means of raising money for charity. Of those 53 outposts Seki-Juku stands as not only one of the best preserved but also one of the most beautiful and interesting examples of an Edo Period commercial centre.
One of the earliest mentions of Seki-Juku as a place of significance in Japan dates from the Jinshin War. The Jinshin War broke out in the year 672, according to the western calendar. This was definitely one of ancient Japan’s most unsettled periods and the events leading up to this particular war read something like an episode of “Game of Thrones.”
To give the short version, the Emperor at the time, Tenji, was ill and knew for quite some time that he was dying. In desperation, he sought an heir to carry on his rule as he had intended. However his Empress, Yamato-Hime was unable to bear any children. So, he had to select from the numerous children he had fathered from his other, non-Imperial, wives. In the end he selected Prince Otomo as his heir.
However, Tenji’s brother, Otomo’s uncle, Prince Oama, had ambitions to be the Emperor. Luckily for him, he was smart enough to tell his brother, while he was on his death-bed, that he had no intentions of being an Emperor and instead wished to retire to Yamato (Nara Prefecture) to become a monk. Of course, he reneged on this as soon as his brother passed away and so began the Jinshin War. In the end, after several bloody battles, Oama got his way, burning the then capital of Otsu in Shiga Prefecture to the ground. He returned to Nara in triumph to assume his position as Emperor whilst the beaten and broken former Emperor Otomo retreated to the mountains before ending his own life. Along the way to his eventual conquest, one of the most crucial battles of the war saw Oama’s forces gain control of the “3 Ancient Seki” These 3 towns, of which Seki-Juku was the most prominent, served as a barrier between the at times restive regions of the south east and the supposedly more civilized areas of the north and west. When the three ancient Seki fell to Oama, Otomo must have known the game was up.
Things to Do
So, what is there to see and do in Seki-Juku today?
This is a bank? Still open for business. 松岡明芳 on Wikimedia Commons
From the height of the town’s popularity in the Edo Period, there are still around 200 houses preserved in their original, unspoiled state.
An undoubted highlight of the area is the Seki-Juku Hatago Tamaya Museum.
Inside the Hatago Tamaya Museum. Photo by Haruhiko Okumura on Flickr
The building that houses the museum today used to be a “Tamaya” or guesthouse of sorts, for traders and other travellers passing through the town. Today it serves as a small gaze into life in the town’s heyday. For those who wish to go a little more in-depth in their explorations of the area, the museum also offers guided tours of the old town, but you’ll need to make a reservation at least one week in advance. Please also note that the museum is closed on Mondays.
If you actually want to stay in Seki-Juku for a day or two then you have the chance to really experience historic hospitality as only the Japanese can provide. For the nominal fee of ¥3,500 per night (2,500 if you bring your own sleeping bag), you can enjoy the shared environment of staying in an authentic guest house which has stood for more than 120 years. Whilst the interior does boast modern amenities, the building itself retains its original timber frame and external aesthetic.
Overall, Seki-Juku provides a powerful glimpse into Japan’s bygone days. Make sure you stop by this particular outpost next time you are trekking across Japan!