In this blog post I’ll tale a deeper look at the Tōkaidō road, the road connecting Edo (modern Tokyo) to Kyoto, and one of the most important routes during the Edo period. For starters, here’s a map showing the road and it’s famous 53 stops:
The road starts at Shinagawa in Edo, and ends in Sanjō Ōhashi in Kyoto. It was the most popular out of 5 roads the Tokugawa shogunate set up to connect Edo with other parts of Japan. The government issued 53 rest stations along this large road, which were taken from the 53 Buddhist saints that Buddhist acolyte Sudhanavisited to receive teachings in his quest for enlightenment. At this rest stop travelers could rest, had access to horse stables, food and entertainment.
Travel was a popular topic in literature around that time and many haiku, guidebooks and illustrations were made about this Tōkaidō road and its 53 stations, not counting the start and end. The famous artist Utagawa Hiroshigedepicted each of the 53 stations in his work “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō”. Hiroshige made Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of every stop after his first travel along the Tōkaidō road in 1832.
The work was so popular, that he made multiple versions of it, each one different in size and colors. The most popular series is the Hōeidō edition, although you can see all the versions in the gallery over at this site, a recommended look!
The art was really popular both in Japan as overseas, and introduced a new kind of Ukiyo-e, with more of an emphasis on famous views. The art inspired Van Gogh’s works who was an avid fan and collector of Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e work. It’s worth noting that Hiroshige only drew sketches during his travel along the road, and did the actual woodblock prints when he arrived home, all based on these sketches and his memory.
The road itself was a though one, as there were plenty of rivers who were unbridged, as to slow down the movement of a potential large rebel army. The towns along the road were also closed by wooden gates at night, so travelers arriving at night sometimes had trouble getting in. The road also had checkpoints with guards, set up by the Tokugawa government, who held watch and sometimes denied access to travelers without the appropriate license.
Travelers traveled by foot, while members of higher society traveled by Kago (see header). Women were forbidden to travel along the road alone, and had to be accompanied by men. Nonetheless, travelers would easily be on a 12-14 day journey to span the 500km between the 2 major cities. Some people travel the route even today, for sport or for religious reasons. When you visit one of the cities on this route, you might even find a display of Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e for that place.
To me, this road should be called the 53 Stations of Hiroshige as he is the one who beautifully depicted and introduced the culture and people of these locations to a worldwide audience.
http://www.hiroshige.org.uk/hiroshige/tokaido/tokaido.htm (collection of all the prints)