Japan’s First Toll Road & The Fossils on the Far Side of the Pass

History / Nature / Culture / Sightseeing / Outdoor Activities
Wed, Jun 23, 2021
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A New Road in Town

The road snaking up into the hills behind Matsumoto’s Okada-Ibuka neighborhood only looks useful if you’re looking for a place to illegally dump your old washing machine. But as with so many places around town, there’s an interesting bit of history here, hiding in plain sight.

During the Edo Era Japan saw the development of a vast network of trade and travel routes. Along with the five major roads stretching west and north from Nihonbashi in Edo (Tokyo) there were numerous secondary routes. One of them was the two-part Zenkoji Kaido, with the western leg running up from the Shiojiri area, passing through Matsumoto and passing over Kariyahara Pass to the north. This is the direction we are heading today, but with a surprise turn at a fork in the woods.

The Man in Charge of the Traffic

In 1605 a man by the name of Tokoro was appointed by the local authorities to act as the area “Tonya”, a sort of transportation czar for the commerce (and other restricted items, like weapons and women) moving along this newly-opened Zenkoji Road. In 1656 nearby Okada-machi was turned into a post town, and Tokoro-san (or maybe his son) moved their operation downhill. The non-descript field where Tokoro-san originally worked is still known as Tonya-hara, and marks the beginning of our trip for the day.

 

The First Road Was Free

The Zenkoji Kaido leading up over Kariyahara Pass was, in two words, poorly planned. Perhaps the head land surveyor was out with a cold when they drew up this particular part of the route, but the stretch going up and over the pass proved too steep for horse-drawn wagons to safely traverse, or traverse at all.

 

It took over two hundred and fifty years and a group of perky volunteers, but in 1881 a new road was opened. Called the Umakai Pass Road, it allowed all those horses that had been waiting around for two and a half centuries to finally get up over these hills.

 

The people who built this new horse-friendly trail may have volunteered their time, but someone decided to make money off their efforts and quickly turned the Umakai Pass route into Japan’s very first toll road.

The cash flow, however, only lasted for so long. Two years after this route opened to hooves and wagon wheels a new road hit the planning table. Another seven years and the new route was opened, turning Japan’s first toll road into Japan’s first former toll road.

What You’ll Find There Today

The initial stretch of road consists of concrete that looks like it was dropped out of a waffle iron. This soon gives way to a cracking ribbon of blacktop, which leads past a few gardens and fields and, sometimes, bent-over people working in them. Beyond all this is a gate in a fence meant to keep the area’s wildlife out – and the people in. A sign on the gate warns of animal traps beyond the fence – implying that the people around here aren’t keeping their half of the bargain.

 

Beyond the gate the blacktop ends, leaving you with two rocky muddy ruts in the earth. (They look a lot like tire tracks; more evidence that the locals aren’t much for obeying their own fences.) The path winds for a while, through woods that, aside from these ugly ruts, appear as though they haven’t seen a human pass through since the road fell into general disuse a hundred years ago.

This is fine with me, I’d rather see deer anyway – which I have, both times I’ve ridden here.

NOTE: Cycling up this trail is no easy feat, but the downhill is lots of fun. Walking may be the easier and safer option, but it’s a fairly long hike that leads away from town to a place where you won’t find much in the way of public transportation. Consider yourself warned!

 

Near the top the dirt disappears under the increasingly lush grass. Apparently the people coming up this road to dump their appliances never get this far. Over the pass the path widens and remains deliciously grassy for several long stretches. Large ferns encroach on the trail, sometimes hiding the rocks that may or may not be lying in ambush, ready to bite your front tire or break your big toe.

Forget the animals, the rocks are the dangerous ones around here.

In a couple of places the trail narrows to the width of your shoe. One can only assume this path was once wide enough for the horses and wagons this road was originally built to accommodate.

Just in case, they probably collected their toll money beforehand.

 

Eventually the fun ends as the grass turns to rocky dirt and then to cement. After a series of switchbacks the trail runs smack into a paved one-and-a-half lane road. To the left is a long arcing loop of dirt and rocks leads around a solar panel farm backed by a view of the distant Northern Alps. Below this is Route 143, offering a great downhill ride on a bike or a long long long walk back to Matsumoto. If you’ve come this far I’d recommend heading right, passing through another gate and walking downhill through another small hillside village with more gardens with more people bent over them.

A mile or so beyond you’ll find a bit of added vindication for your efforts: the Shiga Fossil Museum, housing the largest complete fossilized sperm whale skeleton ever found anywhere in the Pacific Ocean region. And yes, this place, 600 meters above sea level, used to be at the bottom of the ocean!

 

The fossil was found in 1986 by an area fifth grader, in the bed of the nearby Hofukuji Temple River. If you haven’t walked or ridden enough yet go check it out.

You can jump on a bus back to Matsumoto right in front of the museum. They don’t run often, so check the timetable as you head for the museum entrance. If you need assistance, ask the good folks inside.

By the way, you can’t bring your bike onto the bus.

Note that the museum is closed on Mondays. From December through February they are only open on weekends and holidays. Admission is a paltry 310 yen.

Here’s where you’ll find the field known as Tonya-hara:

Follow the road up past that rectangular pond. When you hit a fork with a bunch of signs bear left. You are heading for 馬飼峠. (The road to the right is the original, too-steep route over Kariyahara Pass, otherwise known as 刈谷原峠.)

 

The Shiga Fossil Museum, should you choose to go, is here:

Good luck and happy exploring!

Oh yeah, and wear good shoes and bring water.