Plenus “kome” Academy

Rice and Regional Culture

From the period that rice-growing was brought to Japan approximately 3,000 years ago, right up to the present day, our ancestors toiled to find a way to grow a large amount of rice on narrow terrain.

Japan is described in the Kojiki, a record of the country’s development into a nation, as the “Country of Lush Reed Plains,” a reference to the bountiful growth of rice and an indication of how rice has symbolized Japan since ancient times.

In this corner, we will introduce you to Toyama’s diverse rice culture through its history, culture, and beautiful natural scenery.

Gunma Prefecture

Mt. AkagiThe Jomo Karuta card game refers to Mt. Akagi with the phrase “susono wa nagashi Akagiyama” (“Mt. Akagi, skirted by long plains”). Akagi Shrine is often considered to be a spiritual hot spot.

The Climate and Culture of Gunma Prefecture

Gunma Prefecture is an inland prefecture located almost in the center of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and because of its shape, it is called "the crane-shaped Gunma Prefecture" by the Jomo Karuta, a local card game based on the culture of Gunma. During the feudal era, it was known as Kozuke Province, also known as Joshu. Spanning from the Mikuni Mountains, which run from Gunma’s west to its northern border, to Nikko in the northeastern part, there is a 2,000-meter-high mountain range. Three mountains in the central part of the prefecture, Mt. Akagi, Mt. Haruna, and Mt. Myogi are known as the Three Mountains of Jomo (Jomo Sanzan—“Jomo” being an old word for Gunma). The Kanto Plain starts toward the southeast. There is an elevation difference of over 1,000 meters between the towns of Kusatsu in the northwest, famous for its hot spring resort, and Itakura in the east end, and there are large differences in climate the between different regions of Gunma. In northwestern Gunma, it snows a lot in winter, and the annual precipitation exceeds 1,700 mm, while in the southern plains, the annual precipitation is about 1,200 mm. In winter, dry wind blows over the mountains in the northwest—a phenomenon popularly known as “karakkaze”.

The Tone River boasts the largest basin area in Japan and is also known by its nickname, Bando Taro. It originates from Mt. Ominakami in the northern part of Gunma, and brings water from many other rivers as it traverses through the central part of the prefecture. However, Gunma’s water supply in general has been lacking since ancient times, and the land is unsuitable for rice production. This is due to the quick-draining volcanic ash soil resulting from the repeated eruptions of a number of volcanoes, such as Mt. Akagi, Mt. Haruna, and Mt. Asama on the border of Nagano Prefecture.

Gunma’s ancient predecessor was Kamikenu Province, which flourished as a central province of Yamato rule, with many ancient tombs and ruins remaining to this day. In ancient times, it was a key traffic point connecting the Tosando and Tokaido highways, as well as the Hokurikudo highway provinces through station roads and other government roads. In medieval times, it was a strategic point where the Todo highway, connecting the capital and Oshu (the old province of northeastern Honshu), and the Kamakurado highway, connecting Kamakura and Shin-Etsu (modern-day Nagano and Niigata), intersected. In the Edo period (1603–1867), the various roads centered on the Nakasendo highway were a hotbed of traffic and commerce, and even today, Gunma is an important binding point for expressways and the Shinkansen.

Gunma is also famous for its many clear streams flowing into the Oze and Tone rivers, its thriving natural environment, and hot springs such as those of Kusatsu, Ikaho, Minakami, and Shima. Though Gunma’s rice production has historically been lacking, the prefecture remains a substantial agricultural and livestock center known for its Joshu Wagyu beef, Shimonita green onions, shiitake mushrooms, and a strong flour-based food culture, represented by okkirikomi. It is also an area with developed industries, such as the automobile industry and traditional handicrafts.

Left: Mt. Akagi (Maebashi, Shibukawa, Showa-mura, Numata, Midori, and Kiryu)
Middle:Mt. Haruna (Takasaki, Higashiagatsuma, and Shibukawa)
Right:Mt. Myogi *1 (Annaka, Shimonita, Tomioka)

These three mountains, the Jomo Sanzan (Three Mountains of Jomo), have been the object of mountain worship since ancient times. Close to the major city of Edo, they were popular destinations for pleasure jaunts, and even today, people of the prefecture fondly regard them as the mountains of their hometowns.
Above:Mt. Akagi (Maebashi, Shibukawa, Showa-mura, Numata, Midori, and Kiryu)
Middle:Mt. Haruna (Takasaki, Higashiagatsuma, and Shibukawa)
Below:Mt. Myogi *1 (Annaka, Shimonita, Tomioka)

These three mountains, the Jomo Sanzan (Three Mountains of Jomo), have been the object of mountain worship since ancient times. Close to the major city of Edo, they were popular destinations for pleasure jaunts, and even today, people of the prefecture fondly regard them as the mountains of their hometowns.
Stone tools excavated from the IwajukuⅡRuins. Photograph courtesy of Iwajuku MuseumThe discovery of an obsidian stone spear by Tadahiro Aizawa soon after the Second World War led to an investigation by Aizawa and Meiji University in 1949, which produced academic evidence that people had lived in the Japanese archipelago more than 30,000 years ago.
Left:Heart-shaped haniwa. Private collection / Image courtesy of Tokyo National Museum
Right:Haniwa figure of a standing armored man. Image courtesy of Tokyo National Museum / Image: TNM Image archives

Earthenware figures were made in the Jomon period (c. 14,000–300 BCE) to pray for agricultural prosperity and health, and the haniwa variant were made in the Kofun period (300–538 CE) as ritual items for the powerful. The heart-shaped haniwa excavated from the Gobara site in Higashiagatsuma is a surprising example of the Jomon people’s refined sense for abstract art. However, the intricately detailed haniwa figure of a standing armored man is the only one to be designated a national treasure rather than an important cultural property. Gunma Prefecture is nicknamed “the land of haniwa”, and approximately 40% of the haniwa that have been designated as national treasures or national important cultural properties were unearthed there.
Left:Watanuki Kannonyama Tumulus Furnishings
Right:Watanuki Kannonyama Tumulus Haniwa.
Collection of the Agency for Cultural Affairs / Photograph courtesy of Gunma Prefectural Museum of History

The Watanuki Tumulus Cluster lies in the southern part of Takasaki City (tumulus = a burial mound). This cluster includes the Kannonyama Tumulus, whose undisturbed stone chambers revealed tomb furnishings with a rich international flavor, including metalwork that tells of interaction with the Korean Peninsula, as well as haniwa (earthenware funerary figures). These are all precious items indicating the prosperity and power of the people who were buried there, and they are now designated as national treasures.
The Three Stelae of Kozuke (Takasaki). Photograph courtesy of Takasaki CityKnown as the Kozuke Sanpi in Japanese, these three stelae consist of Yamanoue no Hi, Emperor Tenmu’s monument to his late mother (681), Tago no Hi, a monument commemorating the establishment of a new administrative division (711), and Kanaizawa no Hi, a monument erected to memorialize ancestors and pray for the prosperity of their descendants (726). All three of these are located in the southern part of Takasaki City. Only 18 ancient stone stelae (from the 7th through 11th centuries) remain throughout Japan. In 2017, these were registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World program.
Kusatsu Onsen *1 (Kusatsu)These hot spring baths are said to have been founded by the high priest Gyoki in the Nara period (710–794), and it is also said that Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founding shogun of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), bathed here during a makigari hunting session. In the Edo-period Shokoku onsen kounou kagami (Guide to the Virtues of the Provinces’ Hot Springs), Arima Onsen is given as the best hot spring of the west, while Kusatsu Onsen is given as the best of the east. At that time, more than 10,000–20,000 people visited Kusatsu each year, and it was renowned as the town of a thousand bath houses. Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, is said to have ordered waters to be brought to Edo Castle from Kusatsu. This area produces the most natural spring water in Japan.
Oze National Park * 1(Katashina)This national park became independent from Nikko National Park in 2007. It is a special natural monument and a Ramsar Convention wetland. The park is a beautiful treasure trove of nature and precious ecosystems spread over Fukushima, Tochigi and Niigata. Watarase Reservoir and Yoshigadaira Wetlands in Gunma Prefecture are also Ramsar Convention wetlands.
Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple (Takasaki) Photograph courtesy of Daruma-ji TempleThis Zen temple was built in the early Edo period. It is known as the birthplace of lucky daruma figurines, and every New Year, from January 6 to 7, it plays host to the Nanakusa Festival, also known as the Daruma Market. Around 1935, the internationally renowned architect Bruno Taut took shelter at the Senshin-tei, a building that remains today in its original condition.
Jomo Karuta Photograph courtesy of Gunma Prefecture(License No. 04-01044)A set of 44 Japanese playing cards with Gunma themes, originally sold in 1947. This deck was created after the Second World War by Masahiko Urano, who wished to pass down the history and culture of his beloved home prefecture to the children of Gunma. The cards depict famous places and historic sites in the prefecture, as well as famous Gunma people.

History of Rice Production in Gunma Prefecture

Ancient and Medieval Rice Cultivation

It is said that rice cultivation started in Gunma Prefecture in the middle of the Yayoi period (around 2nd century BC). While developing its own culture, Gunma strengthened its relationship with the Yamato administration and developed as the base of Yamato control over eastern Japan. In the Nara and Heian (794 –1185) periods, jori paddy fields (jori: a system of land subdivision by the state), were also developed.

Spread of social influence based on rice cultivation. Ota Tenjinyama Tumulus, the largest of its kind in eastern Japan. (Ota) Photograph courtesy of Ota City Board of EducationThis is the largest keyhole-shaped mound in eastern Japan, with a length of 210 meters. Notably, the center of the tomb contained a distinctive long stone coffin called the Coffin of the Great Lord, which tells of the existence of a large ruling clan with strong connections to the Yamato administration. The lord of the tumulus may be an ancestor of the Kamitsukeno clan, descended from Toyokiiribiko no Mikoto, a son of Emperor Sujin. Legend has it that clan was dispatched here by the Yamato Administration. In ancient times, the area that includes Gunma Prefecture and the southwestern part of Tochigi Prefecture was called Kenu, and this large tumulus is a symbol of the region’s prosperity as the center of the Yamato administration’s management of eastern Japan.
Rice paddy remains in the ruins of Ofuro (Takasaki) Photograph courtesy of the Takasaki City Board of EducationThese paddy fields with an irregular shape were constructed between the 3rd and 4th centuries and buried under volcanic ash from Mt. Asama. At the beginning of the 6th century, neat small plots were built on top, but they too were buried, this time by the eruption of Mt. Haruna. In the design, one can see efforts to efficiently distribute a small amount of water over plots of 3-5 square meters.
Mitsudera I Ruins Left: Restored model, photograph courtesy of the Kamitsukenosato Museum / Right: Overhang on the west side, photograph courtesy of Gunma Prefecture
This is the residence of a chieftain of the Kofun period found at the southern foot of Mt. Haruna. Approximately 86 meters on each side, the residence was surrounded by a moat with fences and stone walls, and the surrounding plateau is also home to the ruins of larger settlements and the remains of paddy fields. The residence is thought to have been the home of local ruling family representing the Seimo area, which surrounds the base of Mt. Haruna.
Mitsudera I Ruins
Above: Restored model, photograph courtesy of the Kamitsukenosato Museum
Below: Overhang on the west side, photograph courtesy of Gunma Prefecture

This is the residence of a chieftain of the Kofun period found at the southern foot of Mt. Haruna. Approximately 86 meters on each side, the residence was surrounded by a moat with fences and stone walls, and the surrounding plateau is also home to the ruins of larger settlements and the remains of paddy fields. The residence is thought to have been the home of local ruling family representing the Seimo area, which surrounds the base of Mt. Haruna.
Distant view of Arima-jori Ruins (Shibukawa) Photograph courtesy of Gunma PrefectureIn the 6th century, Mt. Haruna's Futatsu-dake (in the rear of the photograph) erupted twice, and despite being buried under volcanic ash, the area repeatedly underwent reconstruction, showing the fortitude of the people of that time.
Onnabori (Isesaki) Photograph courtesy of Isesaki City Board of EducationAt the southern foot of Mt. Akagi lies the remains of a massive waterway called Onnabori, which is about 12 km long, 15–20 m wide, and 3–4 m deep. It is said that this canal was constructed for the purpose of developing medieval manors in the middle of the 12th century. The Omama alluvial fan, formed by the Watarase River, and the hills at the foot of the volcano are in short supply of water, so while this major construction project accompanied the development of rice paddies and reached beyond the manor area, it was ultimately never completed.

Edo and Modern Rice Production

Two-thirds of Gunma Prefecture are comprised of areas morethan 500 meters above sea level. In the middle of the Edoperiod, 73% of the arable land area (87,500 ha) consisted ofupland cropland, the second highest after Oki Province (84%),due to the poor availability of water.
In the Edo period, new rice fields were developed by applyingconstruction and mining techniques cultivated in the Sengokuperiod (1467–1615) for flood control and irrigation. A classicexample of this is the construction of Tenguiwa irrigationcanal, which irrigates the cultivated land on the southwardplateau west of the Tone River. Nagatomo Akimoto, lord of theSoja Domain, planned to draw water from upstream to theplateau over the Tone River, and obtained permission from theShiroi Domain to do so. The canal was completed after threeyears of construction starting in 1601, and the yield of SojaDomain was 6,000 to 10,000 koku (a dry measure equivalent to180 L of rice used to determine land value and for taxation).Afterward, the waterway was extended by Tadatsugu Ina, thelocal governor of the shogunate government, to enrich theTamamura region.

Tenguiwa Canal (Maebashi) Photograph courtesy of Maebashi Convention and Visitors BureauThe name “Tenguiwa” can be interpreted as “Tengu Rock”,and it is said that it originates from a legend that atengu, a legendary creature of Japanese folk religion,came to help with removing a massive rock from the waterintake.
Ryokuden Iai Stele (Kogan-ji Temple) (Maebashi)Photograph courtesy of Maebashi City Board ofEducationThis stele was erected in 1776 by farmers to honorNagatomo Akimoto’s achievements.
Changes in the amount of rice produced in the Edo period
Kozuke Province (Feudal Gunma) Japan
1598 496,000 koku 18.51 million koku
1834 637,000 koku
Approximately 140,000 koku
28% increase
30.56 million koku
Approximately 12 million koku
65% increase

* The lower rate of increase in Kozuke compared to the rest ofJapan during the Edo period indicates the difficulty ofsecuring a water supply there.

Modern Rice Production

Since the prewar era, a combination of rice and barley farmingand sericulture was the common mode of agriculture in GunmaPrefecture. Until only recently, there were areas wherecultivation of farmland, let alone rice farming, had beendifficult, such as areas with weak water retention resultingfrom volcanic ash soil, and terrain on plateaus higher thanrivers.

Drawing water at the western foot of Akagi Source: Kanto Regional Agricultural Administration OfficeThere had never been any rivers with sufficient watervolume at the western foot of Mt. Akagi, and even in themodern era, there was a chronic water shortage due to thelack of water development. Even after the war, peoplecontinued to travel several kilometers every day to fetchwater and make a living. The renovation of the waterwaysstarted in 1960 and continued until 1998, and they nowenrich more than 2,000 hectares of farmland.

Meanwhile, the hilly and mountainous areas of the northernpart of the prefecture are abundant with both water sourcesand hours of sunshine, and the climate is marked by asignificant temperature difference between day and night,producing tasty rice. The Numata region here stands alongsidethe Uonuma region of Niigata and the Iiyama region of Nagano,which together form “the triangle of good taste” inrecognition of the quality of their produce.

Rice production in the Tone-Numata region. Photograph courtesy of JA Tone-NumataThe large temperature difference between day and nightresults in active photosynthesis during the day and limitednocturnal respiration. This allows a sufficient amount ofstarch to accumulate in the rice grains, producing a highyield of tasty rice.

The Relationship between Lightning and Rice Cultivation

Summer lightning and dry winter winds are well-knownfeatures of Gunma’s climate. Japanese has a couple of wordsfor “lightning” that include ina, a word for rice: inazumaand inabikari. This is because lightning helps the riceharvest. The discharge of lightning combines nitrogen in theatmosphere with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides that plantscan absorb, increasing the amount of nitrogen that absorbsinto the rice paddies, leading to a good harvest of rice.Nitrogen is an essential component of plant growth, andsince there is a saying that “a flash of lightning makesrice grow a full inch”, one can see that our ancestors hadan empirical understanding of this. Shimenawa (sacredrice-straw ropes) are fitted with paper streamers that havea lightning motif, and perhaps these were intended asprayers for a good harvest.

Raiden-jinja Shrine (Itakura) © We Love Gunma

Food Culture in Gunma

Gunma Prefecture has a climate with many sunny daysthroughout the year, and due to its well-drained soil thatmakes it suitable for growing wheat, the cultivation ofwheat has flourished here since ancient times, making it oneof Japan’s leading production areas. Alongside okkirikomi,udon, yakimanju, and other traditional dishes, various otherlocal foods using wheat flour, such as pasta, yakisoba, andmonja, have spread across the people of the prefecture aspart of a “flour-based food culture”.

Wheat field overlooking Mt. Akagi
Photograph courtesyof Maebashi Convention and Visitors Bureau

[Gunma Local Cuisine]

Okkirikomi (also known as okirikomi/niboto) Rural Culture Association Collectionhis dish is thought to have become popular after themddle of the Edo period, when stone mills becamecmmonplace among common people. Broad noodles aresmmered with seasonal vegetables and mushrooms. Thenodles are boiled as they are, without adding salt,gving them a thick texture.
Yakimanju *1Steamed buns made from koji-fermented dough, placed on bamboo skewers, coated with a rich, sweet miso sauce, and grilled. This soul food for the people of Gunma is said to have originated at the end of the Edo period.
Mizusawa udon *1This dish has a 400-year history, and is said to have been served to visitors to Mizusawa-dera Temple in ancient times. It is characterized by a texture that is both chewy and smooth.
Mayutama dango Image courtesy of NPO Gunma FoodCulture Research AssociationIn areas where sericulture thrives, people pray for thehealthy growth of silkworms during the Lunar New Year,and make these cocoon-shaped dumplings from ground ricescreenings, sticking them onto decorative tree branches.Rice dumplings were so precious that they were onlyeaten at festivals and other celebrations.
Konnyaku cuisine Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Website *2Gunma Prefecture accounts for more than 90% of thedomestic production of konnyaku potatoes. Thewell-drained volcanic ash soil and the high frequency offine weather makes the area well suited for production.
Catfish tempura Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Website *2River fish have long been a valuable source of proteinin Gunma, an inland prefecture. Various kinds of fishsuch as char, yamame salmon, ayu (sweetfish), dace,carp, crucian carp, and eel were caught from theupstream, and the people came up with methods to fishand cook them.
Highland cabbage *1The Agatsuma region, centered on the village of Tsumagoi, boasts Japan's largest cabbage crop, which is cultivated in a cool summer climate. The sight of the sprawling cabbage fields is almost overwhelming.

World Heritage Sites that supported the modern industry of the Meiji era

In 2016, four historic sites, including the Tomioka Silk Mill, were registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This was in recognition of their technological innovation in modern mass production of raw silk, their role as forums for technological exchange between Japan and the world, and for their contributions to the development of silk culture around the world.

Joshu Tomioka Seishijo no zu (“Illustration of the Joshu Tomioka Silk Mill”) Collection of the National Diet LibraryEstablished in 1872, this government-run mechanized silk mills became the symbol of the promotion of new industries. At the end of the Edo period, when Japan began trading with foreign countries, raw silk was Japan’s largest export, but the rapid increase in exports caused the problem that many low-quality raw silk threads were being sold. To speed up the improvements to the quality and production of raw silk, restore Japan’s credibility, and earn foreign currency, the Meiji government decided to build a model factory under government management, equipped with Western-style reeling machines. Under the guidance of the Frenchman Paul Brunat, female workers from all over the country, who had adopted Western techniques, honed their skills here and returned to their hometowns to become instructors in the production of machine yarns.

The healthy growth of silkworms requires warm temperatures, humidity, light and fresh air. During this period, more rational methods for raising silkworms were established according to the local climate and climate conditions.

Former residence of Yahei Tajima *1 (Isesaki)Yahei Tajima established the seiryo-iku method of raising silkworms, which emphasizes ventilation. Under this method, the silkworms are raised in a natural environment, with the sericulture rooms kept ventilated with fresh air at all times. Through this practice, the design of modern sericulture farm buildings with rooftop turrets for ventilation was established.
Takayama-sha ruins *1 (Fujioka)Chogoro Takayama drew from the best features of the seiryo-iku method, which emphasizes ventilation, and ondan-iku, a method that raises the temperature of sericulture rooms during cold weather, to establish seion-iku. He also established the Takayama-sha sericulture association to teach his methods. By spreading standardized breeding methods, it became possible to achieve stable cocoon production anywhere. Through these efforts, the seion-iku sericulture method became the national standard, and contributed greatly to the promotion of sericulture in the Meiji era (1868 –1912).
Arafune Fuketsu (Shimonita) Photograph courtesy of Shimonita-machi History Museum
This wind pit is a natural refrigerator in which silkworm eggs are preserved using natural cold air. Until wind pits like this came into use, sericulture was generally carried out once a year in the spring. But by adjusting the hatching time of eggs, sericulture could be conducted more frequently to increase the production of cocoons, supporting the increased demand for raw silk for export throughout the Meiji and Taisho (1912 –1926) eras. Wind pits were put into practical use in Nagano Prefecture by end of the Edo period, and it is said that there were more than 300 such pits nationwide once. Arafune Fuketsu had the largest capacity for silkworm egg storage in Japan.

Gunma Prefecture Cultural Trivia

The Great Eruption of Mt. Asama

Mt. Haruna and Mt. Asama, which lie on the border with Nagano Prefecture, have had many major eruptions since ancient times. In particular, the terrible eruption of Mt. Asama on July 8, 1783 is recorded in detail, showing the extent of the damage.

“The whole mountain shook violently, [...] the first wave shook the earth like a terrible black ogre [...] the second wave threw mud and firestones hundreds of meters high [...] a million lightning bolts flashed in the darkness, and it was as if all of creation were collapsing.” (Asamayama yakedashi taihenki, “Record of the Disastrous Eruption of Mt. Asama”)

Asamayake Agatsumagawa Tonegawa doro oshie-zu (“Illustration of Volcanic Mud Flow at the Agatsuma and Tone Rivers during the Great Eruption of Mt. Asama”) Photograph courtesy of Gunma Prefectural Museum of History

Pyroclastic flows and other avalanches of debris flowed into the Agatsuma River, forming volcanic mud flows that hit coastal villages and fields. Even after merging with the Tone River, the debris continued to surge toward Maebashi and Isesaki, killing more than 1,500 people and causing many deaths due to famine.
In response to this, the shogunate and each domain responded quickly, and began payments of money and rice to the farmers affected by the damage in July. In August, the shogunate issued a plan to restore roads, bridges, and fields, and in the following New Year, ordered the Kumamoto Domain in Kyushu to provide assistance. It is said that 400 feudal retainers of Kumamoto clan went to the site, and 100,000 ryo was invested to distribute relief money and rebuild infrastructure. There were also support activities led by village headmen and their associates, and donations from villages that had avoided the disaster. One can see a glimpse of how our ancestors were united by the spirit of mutual aid since ancient times in Japan, where major natural disasters are frequent.

Kambara Kannondo lower stone steps excavation site (Tsumagoi) © Tsumagoi Folk MuseumThis site vividly conveys the scene of a village buried in an instant by hot volcanic mud flow. The photograph shows the remains of a woman who was attempting to climb the steps to the shrine carrying an old woman on her back.

Local Culture in Which the People Play a Leading Role

During the Edo period, Gunma Prefecture’s feudal predecessor Kozuke Province was a mixture of shogunate, hatamoto high-ranking samurai, and daimyo feudal lord territories. Many of the shogunate’s governors and hatamoto also resided in Edo, so not many officials were assigned to the local governor’s office. Furthermore, even the Maebashi Domain, the largest daimyo territory, had a yield of only 150,000 koku of rice, including its enclaves. In other areas, there were many small clans with koku yields in the tens of thousands, and it can be said that governance in those areas was weak.
On the other hand, following the middle Edo period, many industries developed here, including sericulture, silk reeling, textiles, hemp and leaf tobacco produced in the northwest, lumber and processed products from rich forests, wild vegetables, mushrooms, firewood and charcoal, and mineral resources, as well as tourism to Kusatsu Onsen, which was famous as a hot spring resort. Though the area was not blessed with rice crops, it had abundant supplementary industries and cash income. As the rule of the samurai families was weak, they had no mechanisms to siphon off profits from these industries, and the commodity economy enriched the region, thereby fostering various cultures.
The strength of the people was demonstrated by the number of uprisings and village riots (about 1.5 times as many as in other areas throughout the Edo period). Furthermore, the sericulture and textile industries could not have been established without the ability of the women. Female-led households fostered women’s independence and equality, giving rise to the famous local phrase kakaa tenka ni karakkaze—“wife’s rule and dry winds”, the female-led household and the dry wind being two hallmarks of the region.


In Kozuke Province, where upland farming played a central role instead of rice farming, sericulture, silk reeling, and the textile industry developed as supplementary businesses to keep households afloat after the middle of the Edo period. The high-grade silk fabric techniques of Nishijin in Kyoto were introduced to Kiryu in the 18th century, and due their proximity to Edo, a major consumer area, their reputation was such that Nishijin represented western Japanese silk, while Kiryu represented that of the east. Even today, Gunma Prefecture produces the largest amount of cocoons and raw silk in Japan, and is actively engaging with the future of the sericulture industry by developing original silkworm varieties and fluorescent silk cocoons.

Photograph courtesy of Kiryu Textiles Weavers Co-operative Association
Kabuki stage in Kamimiharada*1 (Shibukawa)

Constructed in 1819, the center of the stage has four mechanisms, including a revolving stage 7 m in diameter. It is the oldest revolving stage used for rural kabuki in Japan. At first, kabuki was mainly performed by Edo actors who traveled to participate, but it is said that from the middle of the 18th century, the farmers started their own truly local performances, jishibai, taking the roles of the actors themselves.

Haiku offering (Kanmuri Inari-jinja Shrine, Ota)

The economic development caused by the spread of commercial crops and convenient transportation led various intellectuals to visit from Edo and Kyoto. The high literacy rate, thanks to the spread of terakoya (temple elementary schools during the Edo period), allowed cultural activities such as haikai (seventeen-syllable verse), classical Chinese poetry, waka (poems of thirty-one syllables), learning, and literature to flourish among a wide range of people from merchants to farmers.

Photograph courtesy of Kanmuri Inari-jinja Shrine
The bakuto gambler Chuji Kunisada (Soun Tazaki)

As cash began to circulate among the common people, specialist gamblers known as bakuto became rampant. To earn their money, they brought in young people and the homeless from the villages, secured territory to open a gambling parlor, and invited local townspeople, villagers, and travelers to gamble. The prevalence of these gamblers, the foremost of which was Chuji Kunisada, a vagrant from Kozuke Province, caused the shogunate to create a police agency whose jurisdiction crossed the borders of their administrative boundaries in Kanto.

Collection of the National Diet Library
Omama Matsuri (August 1–3, Omama)
Photograph courtesy of Midori City

This is one of Gunma’s three major Gion festivals. Records of this festival appear as far back as 1629. There, one can see the spectacular sight of a procession of sacred osakaki trees and sacred horses, with people using ritual salt to purify the way ahead of them.

Numata Matsuri August 3–5, Numata)
Photograph courtesy of Numata City

This festival started when Nobuyuki Sanada, lord of the castle, built Suga-jinja Shrine in the early 17th century. Here, you can see the magnificent mikoshi and dashi floats.

Nakanojo Torioi (Bird-Chasing) Festival (January 14, Nakanojo)
Photograph courtesy of Nakanojo-machi Tourist Association

This event is said to have started in 1604 as a pre-harvest festival to drive away harmful birds and insects and pray for a good harvest.

Shibukawa Dashi Matsuri (Every other year in mid-August, Shibukawa)
Photograph courtesy of Gunlabo!

This dashi float festival is often called the best in Kanto, and is also known as “Abare Dashi” (Wild Dashi) because of its high-spirited energy.

Highway Nodes to Various Regions

There were many highways in Kozuke Province, such as the Nakasendo highway, one of the five highways of the Edo period, and the Nikko Reiheishi Kaido highway, leading from Kyoto to Nikko Toshogu Shrine. These highways thrived with people and goods coming and going, and the post towns on the highways prospered.
Like the Tokaido highway, the Nakasendo was an important highway connecting Edo and Kyoto. 7 of the 67 stations were in Kozuke Province. The Mikuni Kaido highway was the shortest route connecting Echigo and Sado, connecting the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean sides of the island. The development of the Ashio Copper Mine resulted in the construction of the Ashio Copper Mine Highway, also known as the Akagane Highway, which was the route for transporting copper for the shogunate to Edo.

Sketch of the Joshu Kaido highway

The Shinshu Kaido, Shimonita Kaido, Jikkoku Kaido, Aizu Kaido, and Numata Kaido highways were developed as branch roads along the back roads of the Nakasendo highway, and various goods such as rice for annual tax, agricultural products, silk, hemp, tobacco, paper, firewood and charcoal, wood products, whetstones from Tozawa, sulfur and hot-spring sulfur flowers, knick-knacks, and household goods were transported to Edo.
Mass transit at that time was supported by water transportation. Goods were actively transported between Kozuke Province and Edo through markets along the banks of the Tone River, also known by its nickname, Bando Taro, and by boat. The Agatsuma, Karasu, Kabura, Hirose, and Watarase rivers, which join the Tone River, were also used, and it is said that there were about 40 riverbank markets.

Right: Full view of Kurakanojuku/Above: Unloading from the boatWhile the Tone River, with its 40 riverbank markets, was the main artery of distribution between Kozuke Province and Edo, the Kuragano market was an important hub located on the Karasu River, a tributary of the Tone River that conjoined with the Nakasendo highway.
Above: Unloading from the boat/Below: Full view of KurakanojukuWhile the Tone River, with its 40 riverbank markets, was the main artery of distribution between Kozuke Province and Edo, the Kuragano market was an important hub located on the Karasu River, a tributary of the Tone River that conjoined with the Nakasendo highway.
Hatsuichi New Year market (Takasaki/Kiya) by Yoshiteru Icchinsai Source: UAG Institute of Fine ArtsMitsui Echigoya and Omi merchants opened stores for the silk trade in Takasaki, a town of merchants, and the area was so bustling with activity that it was said “if you want to really see Edo, go to Takasaki Tamachi”. The production of cocoons, raw silk, and silk fabrics developed as a supplementary industry among farmers, and sericulture, silk reeling, textile production, and logistics distinguished themselves as separate industries, with the benefit of only three days’ travel to Edo via the Nakasendo highway
Usui Checkpoint ruins (Annaka) Photograph courtesy of Annaka City Board of EducationOne of the four major checkpoints of the shogunate, rivaling the Hakone Checkpoint, the Usui Checkpoint was once infamous as the checkpoint through which guns passed into Edo and the wives of feudal lords slipped out of the capital. By 1867, it had become a checkpoint in name only, and it was finally abolished in 1869. One-fourth of the shogunate’s checkpoints nationwide were in Kozuke Province.

Gunma Prefecture is located in the center of Japan, about 100 km from Tokyo. In modern times, four of Japan’s major highways pass through it: the Kanetsu, Joshinetsu, North Kanto, and Tohoku Expressways. In 1982, the Joetsu Shinkansen opened, followed by the Hokuriku Shinkansen route to Kanazawa in 2015. These developments established the prefecture as an important hub connecting Japan’s east and west, and between the Pacific and Sea of Japan sides.

*1 Reproduced from the “Gugutto Gunma Photo Studio” website.

*2 Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries website