The Tokaido (東海道)

When I lived in Japan I became aware of the Tokaido (東海道), an ancient road which once connected Tokyo (then Edo) to Kyoto. The Tokaido was the most important of the Edo Five Routes (Gokaidō / 五街道), five routes set up by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康) (1543 – 1616) to connect Edo to other parts of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600 – 1868). The five routes are: the Tokaido, the Nakasendo, the Koshu Kaido, the Oshu Kaido, and the Nikko Kaido.

Living in central Japan, I was smack bang in the middle of the Tokaido, and both my homes, Nagoya and Hamamatsu, lay on the route of the Tokaido Shinkansen (東海道新幹線), a high-speed train line which I assumed had more-or-less replaced the original route.

Tokaido map

(Image source)

The 53 Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi / 東海道五十三次) are listed here. It’s worth noting that the start point, Nihonbashi (日本橋) in Tokyo, and the end point, Sanjo Ohashi (三条大橋) in Kyoto, are not actually included in the 53 stations. If you include them, there are 55. Also, the Tokaido was actually extended to reach as far as Osaka, so technically there are another 4 stations, with the new ending point being Koraibashi (高麗橋) in Osaka. At each of the stations, travellers would have had the opportunity to rest, but they would have also been expected to present legal documents showing that they had permission to pass through to the next town. The Tokaido is approximately 300 miles (500 km) in length, and it would have taken around 12-14 days to walk the whole route. Most travellers would have had to have walked the route, as access to vehicles (by which I mean wheeled carts) was not common. Higher-class travellers may have used kago (駕籠) (a kind of litter or palanquin) or ridden horses. Women were forbidden to travel along the road alone, and had to be accompanied by men.

Group portrait of a woman in a kago, two bearers and a man using a carrying pole, Japan (Felice Beato, between 1863 and 1877)

Group portrait of a woman in a kago, two bearers and a man using a carrying pole, Japan (Felice Beato, between 1863 and 1877)

(Image source)

Occasionally during my time in Japan I was reminded of the Tokaido, and sometimes heard mention of the old checkpoints and post towns/post stations (shukuba / 宿場 or shukueki / 宿駅), one of which was Arai (新居), in Shizuoka (station number 31). When I visited Arai, I fantasised about what it must have been like to arrive here on foot, having walked all the way from Edo, or perhaps by boat along this river…


Arai (新居)


A bridge in Arai

Lining the bridge in the photo above were reproduced woodblock prints showing ancient scenes of Japan:

Traditional pictures

‘Picture of Ferryboats’ by Utagawa Hiroshige

This one, ‘Picture of Ferryboats’, is an Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) ukiyo-e (浮世絵) woodblock print of Arai itself. On the far right the Arai checkpoint can be seen. Strict inspections would have taken place here as boats passed along the route of the Tokaido.

A year or so later, I was given this gift by a student:

Tokaido Goju-san Tsugi

Tokaido Goju-san Tsugi – coloured landscape woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige depicting the 53 stations of the Tokaido

This set contains 55 postcards of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of the Tokaido (the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, plus the start and finish points). This set is something I treasure, and would love to get framed one day. I often look through the cards and think about what it must have been like to travel along the Tokaido, wondering how much of the route is still accessible on foot today. Since first ‘discovering’ the Tokaido, I’ve read numerous historical novels which have featured great parades of daimyo (feudal lords) and samurai marching long the Tokaido, the ‘Eastern Sea Road’, and I’ve dreamt about making the journey myself.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a captivating and extremely well illustrated Japan Society talk by painter and lecturer Nigel Caple on the topic of ‘The Tokaido Road‘. Having first become aware of the Tokaido after seeing it featured in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Caple made the trip along the route of the old Tokaido himself between 1998 and 2000. Unfortunately he didn’t have the time to attempt to walk the whole route, although says he would have loved to, but still managed to travel along the route using pubic transportation, hopping off to sketch and paint, attempting to find what remained of the original Tokaido.

Caple illustrated his fascinating talk not with his own works, but with woodblock prints by Hiroshige (1797 – 1858), photographs by Italian-British photographer Felice Beato (1832 – 1909), and woodblock prints by Shiko Munakata (棟方 志功) (1903 – 1975), showing how many different kinds of artists have been inspired by the Tokaido over the years. In this post, I would also like to include Caple’s works, which I have borrowed from his website, where you can see his complete collection of the ’53 Stations of the Tokaido Road’.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Nihonbashi…

'Morning Scene' by Utagawa Hiroshige (Nihonbashi)

‘Morning Scene’ by Utagawa Hiroshige (Nihonbashi)

'Nihonbashi' by Nigel Caple

‘Nihonbashi’ by Nigel Caple

These images by Hiroshige and Caple couldn’t be more different, and yet they have both drawn inspiration from the same subject.

Here’s how the bridge looks today, complete with flyover:

Nihonbashi, 2010

Nihonbashi, 2010

(Image source)

Beato’s photographs approach the Tokaido in yet another completely different manner, giving a sense of almost romantic realism.

The Tokaido in 1865 by Felice Beato

The Tokaido in 1865 by Felice Beato

(Image source)

'Scene Along the Tokaido' by Felice Beato

‘Scene Along the Tokaido’ (1867) by Felice Beato

(Image source)

Beato was one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia, and is probably better known for his portraits than his landscapes, such as this one:

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period (1868–1869) by Felice Beato

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period (1868–1869) by Felice Beato

(Image source)

Many of his photographs, such as the one above, were hand-coloured, giving them a very distinct quality. You might even recognise some of his works as they can sometimes be seen on greetings cards.

Caple also showed work by Japanese artist Shiko Munakata, who I had not heard of before. Although his works are woodblock prints, they are incredibly different to those of Hiroshige. He typically uses bold black lines, mixed in with bright, contrasting colours.

'Kiyomizu-dera' by Shiko Munakata

‘Kiyomizu-dera’ by Shiko Munakata

(Image source)

The image above is of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a temple in Kyoto. Hiroshige did not choose Kiyomizu-dera as a subject in his ’53 Stations of the Tokaido’ series, but did include the famous temple in his ‘Famous Places of Kyoto’ series.

Kiyomizu-dera by Utagawa Hiroshige, around 1834

Cherry blossom at Kiyomizu-dera by Utagawa Hiroshige, around 1834

(Image source)

Again, it’s interesting how both artists have represented the view in such very different ways.

It was hard to find Munakata’s Tokaido work online, but I did manage to dig out this striking image of Yoshiwara-juku (吉原宿), the 14th station along the Tokaido:

'Yoshiwara' by Shiko Munakata, from Munakata's Tokaido Road series (1963 - 1964)

‘Yoshiwara’ by Shiko Munakata, from Munakata’s Tokaido Road series (1963 – 1964)

(Image source)

Here’s Hiroshige’s take on Yoshiwara:

'Mount Fuji Seen on the Left' by Utagawa Hiroshige (Yoshiwara)

‘Mount Fuji Seen on the Left’ by Utagawa Hiroshige (Yoshiwara)

Both artists have used trees as the main imagery and, despite being very different works, there are similarities, such as Mount Fuji in the background. Caple’s ‘Yoshiwara’ is very different to Munakata and Hiroshige’s, but I still get a sense of the denseness of the trees from this image:

'Yoshiwara' by Nigel Caple

‘Yoshiwara’ by Nigel Caple

Although I couldn’t find a Beato photograph of Yoshiwara, I did find this wonderful old photo of ‘Fuji from Yoshiwara’ by an unknown photographer:

Fuji from Yoshiwara

“3/3 Fuji From Yoshiwara”
Unidentified artist

(Image source: Cornell University Library)

I’m not sure when it was taken, but it looks very similar in style to Beato’s work, so I would imagine it was from the same period.

In his talk, Caple seemed too modest to include examples of his own work, but I would like to finish with my favourite example of how two artists living many years apart can depict the same scene through very different eyes. Here’s Hiroshige’s view of Yui-shuku (由比宿), the 16th station along the Tokaido:

'Satta Pass' by Utagawa Hiroshige (Yui)

‘Satta Pass’ by Utagawa Hiroshige (Yui)

Caple mentioned that he specifically tried to find the same viewpoint that Hiroshige took his image from. He said that this wasn’t always possible as sometimes Hiroshige’s images were partially composed, but in the case of Yui it seems he found just the spot:

'Yui' by Nigel Caple

‘Yui’ by Nigel Caple

Caple noted that Yui is one of the few parts of the Tokaido that has been beautifully preserved, and highly recommended visiting the town, which is in Shizuoka Prefecture. According to Wikipedia, “At the Tokaido Yui-shuku Omoshiro Shukubakan, visitors can experience various aspects of life in the Edo period shukuba, ranging from schooling and lodging, to working and socializing.” I could find out much more about this place, which I assume is a kind of museum, but I did find this great photo on Flickr and this website in Japanese. This looks like it might be the official website, but I’m not 100% sure as it also seems to be a lot about sakura ebi (a type of small shrimp), which the area is famous for. From what I can gather though, Yui (no longer a town in its own right after having been merged into Shimizu-ku in 2008) looks like a place I absolutely should have visited while I was living in Shizuoka!

Satta-Toge Pass@Yui.Shizuoka.Japan by Kim.Sin

Satta-Toge Pass@Yui.Shizuoka.Japan by Kim.Sin

(Image: Kim.Sin, Flickr)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat meandering ramble along the Tokaido. It’s one of those subjects which I’m sure I’ll come back to, as there’s no way I could cover it all in one post. Nigel Caple spoke with such enthusiasm about the Tokaido that I felt inspired to see more of the route for myself, and hope I get the chance to some day. In the meantime, I’ll be checking out Patrick Carey’s book, Rediscovering the Old Tokaido: In the Footsteps of Hiroshige, which Caple recommended (if I can find a cheap copy somewhere!).

Caple closed with one final encouraging remark about making the journey along the Tokaido: “It’s well worth going, in spite of the heavy traffic“. The Tokaido may have progressed considerably since Hiroshige’s time, but there are still many wonderful locations to be found along the route.

8 thoughts on “The Tokaido (東海道)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s