Situated in the center of the Kiso Valley, the city of Kiso-Fukushima is still the main town of Kiso. In the Muromachi era (1378 – 1573), Kiso-Fukushima was the castle town of the Kiso family, but this status was lost after the battle of Sekigahara when the whole valley was brought into the Owari domain, governed from Nagoya. Nevertheless, Kiso-Fukushima remained the headquarters of the special administrator (“daikan”) appointed by the Tokugawa shogunate to look after the affairs of the valley and its valuable timber resources. This appointment became the hereditary position of the Yamamura family, a name still recalled in the area today. The town was also the site of one of the two main barrier stations along the Nakasendo, set up to scrutinize all traffic along the highway and to prevent the illegal movement of people.
Amongst those permitted freedom of travel were people who declared they were making a pilgrimage to a religious site. Located at the foot of Mount Ontake, considered one of the holiest mountains in Japan, the town inevitably attracted many pilgrims. Kiso-Fukushima flourished as a post-town. It is probably also true to say that, with so many people of authority here, many travelers might not have wished to spend the night in the town if they could get through the barrier before it closed at six o’clock.
In the 1840s Kiso-Fukushima had a population of just under one thousand, and the town boasted 14 inns for ordinary travelers. Today, unusually, the number of inns has actually increased due to the large numbers of tourists who come here each year. These still include modern day pilgrims on their way to Mount Ontake, as well as others who come to look at the old post-town and the recently reconstructed barrier station>. The greatest attraction, however, is the Kiso Valley itself and the mountains on either side of it. In the summer months come many hikers and anglers while in winter the snow attracts thousands of skiers. Travel is facilitated by the fact that Kiso-Fukushima is the only regular express train stop between Nakatsugawa and Matsumoto.
Leaving the post-town through the barrier station (now a museum), the old Nakasendo follows the modern highway for a while, passing under a huge arch which symbolizes the barrier gateway shown in Hiroshige’s print of Kiso-Fukushima. Passing the site of an ichirizuka (mile post), the old road then branches away from the busy Route 17 to follow a more peaceful route through farmland. On the way to the next post-town of Mienokoshi, some two and a half miles from Kiso-Fukushima, the traveler passes another post informing that the half-way point on the Nakasendo between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) has been reached.