After watching grandmothers and businessmen with briefcases running across broad Tokyo boulevards, and staring at the masses of uniformed schoolchildren still journeying home long after dark, the visitor to Japan may believe this country never stops to catch its breath.
At play, the Japanese are hard to slow down. Even in sightseeing groups, young and old stand still only long enough to snap pictures and then hurtle on to the next stop.
And if speed seems to be a national virtue, modernization and Westernization must be another. Many new houses would look right at home in a California subdivision. New roads and new concrete watercourses are being built in the smallest cities. New elevated train tracks are being assembled in larger cities.
There are places, though, where the pace of life is slower, where historic Japan has been preserved. One such place is the town of Tsumago, about 120 miles due west of Tokyo -- a town so rare that the national government declared it a "Protected Area for the Preservation of Traditional Buildings."
Tsumago combines historic architectural beauty with an unspoiled natural setting. The little town lies in the heart of the Kiso River Valley surrounded by forested mountains. Long cool paths wind through the trees and at night frogs chirp and hiccup in the ubiquitous rice paddies.
The secluded village was the most serene place I visited in a recent tour of the Japanese island of Honshu. It is a lovely although remote rustic resort halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. Until the recent past, however, the village was not the quiet, isolated town it is today, but an important way station along the royal post road or Nakasendo connecting the two capital cities.
For more than 350 years, the townspeople of Tsumago fed and sheltered both the common travelers and the nobility. It was not until the completion of the Chuo railroad line in 1911 that the road and the town lost their valued status.
But Tsumago's loss was history's gain, for the town is like the princess who fell asleep and woke up 100 years later. While much of the rest of Japan has lost its traditional villages made up of wooden buildings stacked one against another along a single narrow avenue, Tsumago proudly exhibits its past. Today you can visit many of the buildings preserved as museums and souvenir shops and stay in one of the more than 53 small ryokan inns and bed-and-breakfast-style minshuku lodgings in the area.
I stayed at the Ogame-Ishi minshuku, run by Tomio and Yoshie Sakamoto, and had a great time. Although some minshuku ask guests to make their own beds and fold them up, Yoshie laid out the thick futon and down comforter each night and prepared the bath. Her meals were a treat -- a wide selection of cooked fish and vegetables, with the obligatory rice and miso soup -- which I could never have asked for by name, served at a long and friendly communal table.
After dinner it was a pleasure to walk along the Nakasendo imagining its history and then wander along a forest path above the village and overlook the valley.
To see the former splendor of Tsumago, visit the Okuya, the showplace of town. The Okuya was a Waki-honjin or inn for high government officials and a center for local commerce. The all-wood structure, rebuilt in 1877, has been preserved in all its beauty. The craftsmanship is meticulous and, as in the Japanese style, there is almost no furniture or other adornment to distract the eye from the architecture. The grounds feature several small gardens so that each room has a view. In former times there was no such thing as room choice, so social ranking was the basis for assigning accommodations.
In the back corner of the property there is a two-story storeroom with an interesting assortment of tools, clothes, toys and other period items. Tours are included in the 200-yen price, but they are in Japanese.
To see how poorer travelers fared, walk down the street to the Shimo-Sagaya. Unlike the spacious and airy Okuya, this small building is cramped and dark. Between the raised eating and sleeping area is a narrow dirt walkway to the back of the building instead of soft tatami mats. The ceiling is covered with bamboo instead of rich wood, and there is no garden. The saturating smell of hot oil and fish from the restaurant next door adds to the sense of the place.
If the weather is good and you feel like a walk, follow the Nakasendo south to Magome, another of the 11 post towns in the Kiso district. The walk through the woods takes about two hours and is popular with the Japanese. Magome seems more commercial than Tsumago, but it too is a traditional village along a single avenue. It is famous as the birthplace of Toson Shimazaki, one of the country's revered authors of the early 20th century.
Walking north along Tsumago's main street will bring you to a more modern but still interesting establishment. In late May and early June, members of a small cooperative operate a green tea factory (circa 1945), which during the short season cleans, dries and pulverizes leaves used to brew the national drink. The machines are powered by a single overhead pulley system. Visitors are welcome.
Not far past the tea factory, time suddenly speeds up and one can begin to see the hand of modern Japan. The last half-mile of the avenue connecting the town to the main road has been torn up, and crews are laying new paving and piecing together a new concrete watercourse.