Stroll along the same old streets that the samurais and feudal lords once did. Tucked between Japan’s beautiful hills and nature, these historic towns of The Land of The Rising sun stand strong as they had in the 1600s with the same medieval buildings and architecture still inviting travelers today.
These old towns in Japan can be found in various prefectures and districts with the most popular ones being the post-towns or more commonly known as Edo towns because they were built during the Edo Period (1603-1867). “Edo” was the former name of “Tokyo” in the time of samurais and shoguns. These post-towns were packed with inns, various shops, restaurants and lodgings for merchants, traders and travelers (be it a commoner or a lord) making their way down to Tokyo and Kyoto along the Nakasendo trail (one of the five main routes of the Edo period that connected ancient Tokyo to Kyoto).
They were bustling with business and their past prosperity along with structures that have been standing for centuries makes these post-towns a treasure for history buffs, architecture lovers and fans of anime.
While these post towns are the most popular reminiscent of the Edo era there are lesser-known samurai districts and castle towns that preserve the beauty of traditional houses, medieval workshops and more. Some of which are still in use for their long-performing trade and lodgings. If you wish to visit more than one town on this list, you can utilize the incredible JR Pass to get from one prefecture to another in unlimited train rides for the period of your stay.
So check out the must visit places in Japan and experience the streets and towns that has been bustling and hustling since the 1600s.
Tsumago – a town for the feudal lords
The first ever post town that made an effort to preserve its Edo-period architecture and atmosphere was Tsumago which was built during the 1800s and was designated by the government as a historical preservation district in 1976. With a backdrop of Japan’s beautiful nature and hills, Tsumago appears in various images on the internet as one of the most popular and iconic places in Japan.
This Edo town is located on the Kisoji which is one part of the Nakasendo (one of the five routes of the Edo period, and one of the two that connected Edo to Kyoto in Japan) that runs deep into the mountains, providing a gorgeous backdrop for the old town. Many shops and houses built during the 1800s still stand today with their dark brown colors and traditional interior and exteriors.
One of the most popular building in Tsumago is the Waki-honjin Okuya, an inn during the Edo period that served traveling feudal lords of that time. Today, the Waki Honjin stands as a museum with all the interior and materials of that time still intact.
Another main reason for travelers visiting Tsumago is the 10km hike from Tsumago to Magome, which is another post town that was built during the Edo period.
Magome – involves a hiking trail
An important stop-over point that once served as a post-town for travelers during the Edo Period, Magome-juku is one of the old towns situated in Kiso Valley. It’s position between Tokyo and Kyoto made it a known and long journey along the Nakasendo trail to Tokyo and today, one of the main reasons for visiting Magome is to hike the Magome Tsumago Trail.
This 1800s trail passes through green forests, beautiful farmland and gorgeous waterfalls before stopping at Tsumago. Foreign travelers can hike this trail with the help of a guide. There are also various transports between the villagers for those who want to come back to the starting point without walking back.
Magome is also famous for being the birth place of Toson Shimazaki, a famous writer born during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). Some of his written scrolls are displayed in the town’s museum.
Ouchi-juku: for The Last Samurai fans
Looking like the village straight out of Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai”, Ouchi-juku was a well-known town on the Shimotsuke Kaido which is a road linking a castle town in present-day Aizu-Wakamatsu with Nikko. Simply put, it’s located in the Aizu West Road in the Fukushima prefecture.
The town is situated in a valley surrounded by its neighboring tall mountains and makes for some scenic views in all seasons. Like the others, Ouchi-juku used to be a post-town during the Edo period connecting Fukushima to Niigata, serving as a stop-over for worn out travelers walking by foot and looking for a stay with a hot meal.
The village-town, with its 47 thatched-roof houses are still lived in by the region’s folks and carry on with their business of attending to the travelers just like in the old days. Today, tourists can visit Ouchi-juku with the same inns and houses that once served the travelers during the Edo time. You can experience the same accommodation with all the old settings and interior and traditional food served to their inn-stayers. Ouchi-juku is famous with tourists and is said to attract around 800,000 visitors annually.
Narai – a Thousand Inns
If you’ve seen images of old-style Japanese buildings lined in a curving street and wondered where it was, it belongs to the streets of Narai.
Narai-juku was once considered to be the wealthiest post towns during the Edo period. It’s location which is smack-dab in the middle of the Nakasendo trail could have contributed to that wealth with various travelers, merchants, traders and feudal lords making a stop at this town before continuing on their journey.
Thanks to their numerous visitors, Narai is known as “Narai of a Thousand Houses” or “Narai Senken” which means “Thousand Inns of Narai”. Even today, these inns are still in use for modern travelers and their Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) is one of the main attraction of this historical post-towns.
Narai is also known for having the longest wooden bridge in all of Japan. It’s scenic position with the gorgeous valley backdrop and the bridge being 33-meters in length makes it an Instagram spot for many travelers. The bridge is made of cypress trees and from early April to late November, it is lit during the night making it seem like a scene straight out of a fairy-tale or anime.
Kaunodate – a real samurai district
If you want to see real samurai houses in Japan, then go nowhere else and head straight to the Kakunodate Samurai District in Akita – the district where samurais once lived as it’s name heavily suggests.
The streets of Kakunodate is filled with the same samurai houses that was built during the 1600s and their living quarters still retains as it once was to this day. You can stroll around the same path the samurais had while they carried their katanas and enter the same abodes they lived in. Around 80 samurai families are said to have made Kakunodate their home and their houses are still well preserved for visiting.
While this district is known for it’s swords and samurais, the place also attracts visitors for its unyielding beauty during the spring season. The Kakunodate cherry blossoms are famous for the view with the pink sakura trees lining the street one after the other. It’s a breath taking sight where the dark colored houses sits in stark contrast amidst the flurry of pink petals. It’s almost like a scene out of a manga and quite a picturesque spot for those who love taking snaps.
Take a local guide so you don’t miss out on any of the must-visit sites of Kakunodate with stories behind every spot.
Sawara – the iconic waterways
A thriving historical district that’s connected by multiple waterways, Sawara is the iconic Japanese town with a canal that runs through the place while several Edo-style buildings and structures occupy both sides of the rivers and canals.
Sawara is exactly the location one would think of when imagining samurais or folks in traditional dresses crossing a wooden bridge arched over a canal while cherry blossoms bloomed beside them.
Sawara, located in Chiba prefecture, was formerly known to be “Superior Edo” because of their prosperity. They flourished as an important transportation point between the main rivers Tone and Ono crossing in the Edo era. Today, these canals that once transported merchants, traders and travelers now transport tourists who would love to get the views of the traditional houses, stores and warehouses of Sawara from the water side.
Sawara is also located close to Tokyo and only takes 30 minutes with a JP Pass which makes this historical town of Chiba, one of the go-to spots for travelers pressed for time. You can see Sawara from it’s water canals and visit the most notable shops of the town with this tour guide.
Kawagoe – a Gintama-like street
Anime lovers and fans of Gintama will love Kawagoe as it very much resembles the hustling and bustling town of Edo where Gintoki and his Yoruzuya stayed.
Another historical town close to Tokyo, Kawagoe is known as “Little Edo” and is located in the Saitama prefecture just 30-45 minutes away from the country’s capital.
One of the main attractions of Kawagoe is the Toki no Kane bell which was built in the 1600s by the then fuedal lord, Tadakatsu Sakai. The bell was later burned down during a fire that erupted in the area in 1893 and was reconstructed the following year. The bell you see today is the reconstructed one of the 1800s. The Toki no Kane bell rings four times a day during 6am, 12pm, 3pm and 6pm and it makes you feel like you are walking the street during the 1600s.
Kawagoe is also known for its Kashiya Yokocho, a lane lined with sweet shops and cafes. Fans of Gintama who love the sweet-eating protag and have a sweet-tooth of their own will find this hustling and bustling town with all its sugar shops a fun one. You can get rid of the hassle of getting there with multiple buses and trains by taking this guided tour.
Gujo Hachiman – a castle town
A quaint castle town built on the riverside, Gujo Hachiman in Gifu has two beautifully well-preserved Edo-time areas known as the “Kajiya machi” and “Shoukunin.” With the place being a castle town, one of the prominent structures you’ll find here is the Hachiman castle built by the town’s feudal lord during the 1500s.
The structures and buildings here were once occupied by blacksmiths, craftsmen and carpenters well-known for their trade. Thanks to the towns artistic background, even today a few artisans can still be found carrying on the tricks of their trade from their families for generations.
The water channels along the streets are also used till date by the residents to prevent fire and for daily household chores like cooking and laundry, almost like how the people lived during the olden days. Visitors can get beautiful views of Gifu with its flowing rivers by going into any cafes or shops that overlooks the waterways.
Hide-Takayama – a merchant town with sake breweries
A merchant town that seems like it is still living in the Edo Period, Hide-Takayama is lined with traditional wooden houses and shops that sells everything from local crafts to traditional delicacies.
Nestled in Takayama City in Gifu, Sanmachi Suji is known not just for it’s old Edo atmosphere and architecture but also for it’s sake breweries and shops. This once-bustling merchant town is surrounded by the Hida mountains and is the heart of Takayama. The shops and inns still retain their centuries old look and traditions, even retaining the blue roren (traditional fabric curtains instead of doors).
Sanmachi Suji is the place for those who want to try Japan’s traditional rice wine while surrounded by the historic atmosphere of Edo. Visit Gujo Hachiman’s iconic places of poets, sake breweries and don’t miss out on it’s must-visit sites with this guided tour.