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Go Back in Time to Japan’s Edo Period at the Hakone Sekisho (Hakone Checkpoint)

Sei
Updated Sep 23, 2015

Hakone is a popular tourist destination these days. However, long before we were even born, the Hakone Checkpoint was famous as a place travelers wished to avoid rather than visit. The checkpoint has a long history, said to have been in use since the Taika Reformation in 646AD, but most people only know its history dating back to the Edo Period (1603 - 1868). It was erected to prevent the Edo Shogunate from the troublemaking Toyotomi clan.

Allow me to be your guide to the Hakone Checkpoint.

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Pass Through the Gate and Travel Back in Time

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The Hakone Checkpoint was closed in the 2nd year of the Meiji Period, which came about from the Meiji Restoration after the collapse of the Edo Shogunate. It was fully restored and repurposed as a tourist location, which is why it still exists today. In 1983, a report found in Shizuoka Prefecture detailed the closing and dismantling of the site. This finding led to interest in the excavation and eventual restoration of the site, which took place starting in 1999.

Arriving at the site and passing through the Edo side gate, a beautiful Edo period scene spreads out before your very eyes. Thinking back to the travelers who nervously prepared their clothes to look nice before they entered might make you a bit nervous as well. Head on through the gate to see more.

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Open Your Heart and Reflect on Your Sins in the Prison

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Entering the gate and following the path, you’ll arrive at a somewhat dreadful place – the prison. This is a checkpoint after all, and people who broke the rules or tried to break through the gate were likely placed into this prison.

A sign inside says to put your heart at ease, take off your shoes, and mind your manners when inside the prison. Of course, in Edo times there were no modern shoes, so this sign was obviously created just for the present-day attraction. Prisons are places of torture, which makes them a bit scary for most of us, but maybe they did give prisoners a chance to reflect upon their crimes.

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Realistically Recreated Tools

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As you enjoy the Hakone Checkpoint itself, you’ll notice that the Edo era lifestyle has also been recreated, and many era appropriate tools are on display. Of course, it’s obvious that they haven’t been used recently, as they’re new and clean, but it’s easy to imagine that similar tools would have actually been used. They resemble props that might appear on a TV show or in a play with a historical setting. These items often appear on these types of shows on Japanese TV, but seeing them in real life is refreshing, and it’s interesting to imagine people using them in daily life.

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Glimpse Mt. Fuji from the Guard House on a Clear Day

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The guard house was used to observe a large area of land. To reach it, you’ve got to climb a very steep staircase. Since it’s outdoors, the footing can be a bit uncertain, so be careful going up. However, the Ashinoko lake and various mountains that can be seen from the top are stunning, and if you get lucky with good weather you can even see Mt. Fuji. Trying to do surveillance from here would be difficult – it would be easy to miss something while looking at the beautiful scenery. The view from the top is definitely worth the long climb up the stairs.

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Not to be Taken Lightly: Feel the Fear Inspired by the Hitomi-onna Checkpoint Workers

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Statues of Edo era checkpoint workers are set up around the Hakone Checkpoint grounds. The statues look very real and help give the feeling that you’ve time slipped right into Edo. Many of the statues are of low level workers who don’t seem so tough. However, this IS a checkpoint, so there were probably some strict people working there too, right?

If you want to understand why people were afraid of this place, visit the hitomi-onna statue. The role of the hitomi-onna was to examine female travelers traveling to and from Edo. Female travelers would carry descriptions of their physical appearance, and it was the role of the hitomi-onna to undo their hair, give them a good look, and see if they checked out or not. The hitomi-onna were generally old women, since the work could not be performed by males. They developed a tough reputation and were feared by the female travelers passing through the gate. You can feel the rigidness of the checkpoint at this statue.

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A Fun Tourist Destination with a Sad History

Now that the Hakone Checkpoint is a popular tourist location, guests can enjoy the tour and even a short skit performed by an actor in Edo era clothing. However, in reality the checkpoint was a place where guards were catching people who were trying to escape from or enter into Edo illegally. It may be a fun place to visit today, but for the people of the Edo period, it was anything but.

Its history includes some sad stories, a glimpse of which can be had at the nearby museum. As you spend time at the Hakone Checkpoint, enjoy the tourist site as it is today while remembering its darker history.

This article was originally published on Sep 23, 2015

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