The modern city of Gifu, capital of Gifu prefecture, is dominated by the castle which sits atop Inaba Hill, flanking the north-eastern sector of the city. Built originally in 1203 the castle was one of critical importance during the period of unification in the years leading up to the climactic Battle of Sekigahara . Control of the castle was vital in order to secure access to the rich farmlands of the Mino plain, and also to guard the road to Kyoto from the east. It was besieged a number of times in the latter quarter of the 16th century, therefore, and its ownership frequently changed hands. Most famous of the daimyo who resided here was Oda Nobunaga who used Gifu as his base at the time he succeeded in overthrowing the Ashikaga shoguns.
After the Battle of Sekigahara the castle had been reduced to semi-ruinous state. Rather than attempt to reoccupy it, Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to move the castle town to a site less than a mile away along the valley floor called Kano. It was Kano therefore which became the local center of activity in the Edo period, with a population in 1670 of more than 3,100. Like Zeze (or Otsu) and Takasaki, also on the Nakasendo, it was one of the few places which combined castle town and post-town functions. Typically, the route through Kano incorporated numerous sharp turns (masugata), so that the plan of the Nakasendo here resembles the shape of a capital letter ‘M’. This old part of town is well preserved today, even though all trace of the castle has now disappeared. One reason for this is that with the building of the railway station at Gifu in the Meiji period the focus of activity, and local government, switched back to the site underneath old Gifu castle.
Leaving Kano, quiet suburban roads follow the route of the old Nakasendo for a while before it joins the modern national highway. The thunderous noise of heavy traffic here is matched by the scream of fighter jets taking off from the nearby airbase of the JapaneseSelf Defense Force. With little shelter for the walker, this seven and a half mile section to the next post-town of Unuma is one of the least pleasant along the whole journey.
Unuma lies just off the modern highway and so maintains a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. It is one of the oldest post-towns on the Nakasendo, having formerly been a stage-post on the original Tosando highway. Despite this it remained a relatively small place in the Edo period, with just eight inns. Perhaps this was due to the close proximity of picturesque Inuyama castle town, on the opposite bank of the Kiso river. This town is still popular today for its traditional cormorant fishing, and the river bank is thick with traditional inns and restaurants from which the fishing can be viewed. Inuyama castle sits perched above the river, and is one of only twelve castles in Japan today with the original keep (built in 1599) still intact. Although not actually on the Nakasendo, the town is well worth a visit by crossing the bridge shared by cars, trains, and pedestrians alike.
Although the road has run parallel to the Kiso river since Kano, it is only in the section from Unuma that this famous river is first seen. (It is this river which gives the Nakasendo its alternative name – ‘Kiso-kaido’ or ‘The Kiso Road’.) After a short detour away from the river to avoid a steep, rocky outcrop on the river bank (formerly impassable but now tunneled through by the modern road), the Nakasendo follows the river bank for most of the five mile stretch to the next post-town of Ota. Despite the fact that the modern highway overlays the old route along this section, the views over the river are often spectacular and make the walk worthwhile.
With an important rail junction today, Ota remains a thriving town. In the Edo period it was also important as the crossing place of the Kiso river. This was accomplished by ferry, but today a bridge takes modern traffic over the site of the old ferry piers. Little remains otherwise of the old post-town, except the former waki-honjin which is now open as a museum.
Leaving Ota the journey continues along modern highway, although traffic along this section is somewhat quieter than along the road between Kano and Ota. It is just under four miles to the next post-town of Fushimi, the only thing of note in this small market center being the fact that it was the last post-town to be established on the Nakasendo, in 1694. Four miles further along this road is the next post-town of Mitake.