More than a 100 years ago, Ouchijuku would have been a bustling place, being a post-town catering to travelers on the busy trade route between Aizu and Nikko. Today, Ouchijuku still bustles, not with weary travelers who break the journey between the two major towns, but with tourists who come by the busloads curious for a feel of life in an old post-town in the Edo period.
To keep the authenticity of the place, effort was made to bury all electric and communication cables. There are no poles of street lamps either. Cars are also not allowed to be driven in but have to be parked in a lot away from the town.
But more than a facade for tourism, Ouchijuku is still a living breathing town. People still live and work here but these days, the main business is… tourism. I spent a nice afternoon wandering around, well actually, skipping from building to building to escape the summer heat.
Despite drawing about one million visitors a year, Ouchijuku feels less famous than its counterparts in the Kiso valley – Tsumago and Magome – which straddle the old Nakasendo highway. For one thing, Tsumago and Magome had a more prosperous feel to them. With their attractive dark wood lattices and windows, standing two stories tall, those towns had a romantic charm. Ouchijuku on the other hand, was poorer than those two poster girls of the old Nakasendo. With thatch-roofed houses and buildings set further apart from each other, it had less of a town polish and more of a frontier settlement kind of feel.
At the mouth of the village sits an attractive bakery with the most mouthwatering smells coming out of it, a restaurant famed for negisoba – which we would have for lunch, and a sake brewery which sold a sweet, heady yuzu liqueur I regret not buying more of!
This is negi soba. No chopsticks, you eat or attempt to eat by coiling the soba around the leek and deftly slurping it in. The bonito shavings and daikon complete the cool stock. The negi however, adds more and more bite as the meal goes on. After some contortions and acrobatics, I abandon the leek and go for a pair of chopsticks. And even then, with the strong flavour of the leek, I have to concede defeat: it was just too spicy for me.