Some days your luck is in. Like the time, one May spring day in Japan, when I ran headlong into a procession of Feudal Lords, a Princess or two, their families, guards and servants walking along the shores of Lake Ashi in the Hakone region.
No, I hadn’t been transported back to the 1600’s in the Tardis Time Machine.
I didn’t know it when I first saw them, but it turned out they were part of a parade celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Hakone military checkpoint (Hakone Sekisho) in the nearby town of Hakone on the shores of Lake Ashi.. The checkpoint – similar to a wooden fort – was used to control traffic along the ancient Tōkaidō highway between Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo Period from the 1600’s through to the mid 1800’s.
Samurai, shogun processions, dignitaries and travellers passed its gates for more than two centuries to be checked by the military.
Its main aim was to to control ‘ingoing guns and outgoing women’! It was meant to detect any guns being smuggled into Edo (Tokyo) and the wives and children of Feudal (Daimyo) Lords who were fleeing Edo. Back then Feudal Lords were required to travel to Edo every second year and maintain a residence there. The Daimyo’s wife and heir were required to remain in Edo, virtually as hostages.
The Shogun of the day saw it as a way to control financial power and keep a lid on rebellion. According to today’s Hakone Checkpoint Website, there was a lot of inspecting of women and not so much of weapons!
There were 53 checkpoints on major roads in Japan as part of Edo’s defence strategy. You had to have a pass to move freely around the country. The Hakone checkpoint was one of the largest and most important, and it’s been restored faithfully to how it looked in its heyday.
So back to my little encounter – I was quietly enjoying a walk between the towns of Hakone Machi and Moto-Hakone when suddenly I saw police and news media heading towards me.
My immediate thought was “DONALD, that infamous tweeter, is about to drive past me in his limo. Quick! Camera up and ready!” I’m a retired Journalist, but that Scoop blood can start pumping at any time!
To be fair, President Trump was visiting Japan at the time, and it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that he’d been brought to the Hakone region to play golf. Why golf? I cannot explain the thoughts that sometimes pop into my head. I just couldn’t see Donald hiking the Tōkaidō trail.
Then the procession, scores of people in ancient Japanese dress, rounded the corner, heading my way.
At this point, I still had no idea what the parade was all about. There were posters about and some people very excitedly handed me pamphlets. But they didn’t speak English and the pamphlets were in Japanese. I couldn’t find anyone to explain what was going on.
So I snapped away with my camera, and attracted a lot of friendly smiles and cheerful waves from the procession as it wound its way past me and out of town.
One man in the parade puzzled me. He seemed to be playing the role of an important Lord, but he didn’t look very Japanese. A mystery I didn’t solve. Perhaps if I’d shouted out “Gidday, who are you?” in my best Aussie accent, he might have responded! He was doing a good job of being very regal!
I was surprised to see these women in the procession armed with swords. However, turns out women could be members of the Samurai class in feudal Japan, trained in weapon use to protect their household, family and honour in times of war.
After enjoying lunch and doing a little sightseeing in Moto-Hakone I returned by bus to Hakone Machi, finding myself arriving just ahead of the parade!
They must have walked the whole distance between the two towns, which admittedly is not that far. But their footwear was not the best, and some teams of men were even carrying litters used to transport the rich and powerful.
The whole affair ended in a wonderful festival of dance, music and Japanese drumming in the town and over at the nearby Checkpoint, giving me an insight into the fact that Japanese history isn’t just about samurai, geisha and kimonos.
Of course, eventually I had to resort to my usual trick to discover what the whole affair was about, calling out very loudly ‘does anyone speak English?’
I was quickly surrounded by helpful locals pushing a young man forward who spoke very good english indeed and was able to explain the significance of the occasion.
He told me it was a very important festival, and I was most fortunate to see the parade as it’s usually held in November, not May, and in another Hakone town – Yumoto – quite a distance from Lake Ashi. On this particular occasion, the parade had moved to Hakone Machi and Moto-Hakone especially to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the Military Checkpoint.
So a nice memory for me, but why should I tell you all this when the parade has passed on by?
Well, firstly the Hakone Checkpoint provides a very interesting peak back into Japan’s Edo past and I highly recommend including it on your itinerary if you visit Japan. The Checkpoint has been meticulously restored to its true original form, complete with the type of furnishings and arms they would have had. Old carpenter tools and the techniques of Edo period artisans were used in the reconstruction.
Mannequins are used today to give visitors an idea of what life was like at the Hakone Sekisho.
There’s also an excellent exhibition museum hall tucked away near the main fort. I nearly missed it, so ensure you follow the Checkpoint map and locate it. It has some very good displays, original materials and dioramas.
The Checkpoint is situated by the shores of Lake Ashi, with the summit of Mount Fuji in the distance. A fabulous location.
The Military Checkpoint is open to visitors all year round, seven days a week (Covid permitting). There’s a small admission price – about $A6. Definitely worth it. If you are over 65, you might get a discount – but I’m not sure if that applies to overseas visitors. I have been given discounts showing my Aussie Seniors card in Japan, though I didn’t need it in Hakone. There was a special entry for the 400th Anniversary when I was there – FREE ADMISSION! I told you it was my lucky day.
You can access an English website for the Hakone checkpoint at
And as for the parade: You can see that too – even bigger and better than what I saw. It’s called the Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu and it is a spectacular autumn festival usually held every year on November 3 – a national holiday. The parade starts from Sounji Temple near Hakone-Yumoto railway Station and finishes at the Yumoto Fujiya Hotel.