With mountainous terrain covering 85 percent of Japan’s landmass, geography naturally has a firm say in what happens where in the country. Thus, the bullet trains that efficiently whisk passengers between Tokyo and Osaka largely follow a coastal path because, well, there aren’t too many other options. That geography has of course existed since ancient times, and so the route along which trains and automobiles hurtle today is the same as that on which for most of its history humans were obliged to plod on foot. And that ancient road was known as the Tokaido.
Today, the Tokaido corridor links Japan’s four largest cities and is by far the country’s most important transport artery. But back in around the fifth century, when it became the main route to the east, that part of Japan was little developed. Edo, as Tokyo was formerly known, didn’t become prominent until a decisive victory in 1600 by the military lord Tokugawa Ieyasu left him the sole ruler of a unified nation. When Tokugawa made it his headquarters a decade earlier, Edo was little more than a fishing village. But in 1603, he assumed the title of shogun, and Edo became Japan’s administrative center and focus of real power. Just over a century later, Edo’s population leapt to over a million, making it the biggest city in the world. Much of this growth was fed by the traffic along the Tokaido, which, with the flourishing of Edo, entered its golden age.
Just as Edo became Japan’s new political hub, so did the beginning of the Tokaido become its geographic center. All distances throughout the land were reckoned from the start of the highway—the bridge in the heart of Edo known as Nihombashi. Even today, Nihombashi is the point from which distances from Tokyo are calculated. At the other end of the Tokaido from Nihombashi, about 500 kilometers away, stood the finishing point, the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto.
Though the Tokaido began and ended in a bridge, travelers didn’t enjoy the luxury of many other bridges across large rivers along the way. Where the rivers were fairly shallow, people were usually taken across on piggyback by porters or lifted over in a palanquin—a kind of litter carried on a pole by bearers. When waters ran deep, boats were employed. Over other parts of the route, most travelers had to reach their destinations on foot, though those with the means went on horseback or in a palanquin. Under good conditions, the journey from Edo to Kyoto could be made in ten to twelve days, though bad weather and floods could make it last up to a month.
Porters carrying freight and palanquins were a common sight on the road. These characters were colorful, unruly types who were known as kumosuke (cloud men) since they drifted like clouds and had no fixed abode. They drank like fish, were notorious gamblers and womanizers and, while piggybacking a passenger across a river, frequently found that there was no finer spot to open renegotiations about the fare than a deep point midstream.
When the government brought the Tokaido under its control, an essential part of the process was setting up fifty-three post stations along its course. For the traveler, these were places where the journey could be broken and rest and refreshment sought. Accommodation was available, and porters and horses could be hired.
It was those fifty-three stations that inspired the son of an Edo fireman. In 1832, the aspiring artist left the metropolis and traveled down the Tokaido for the first time. The following year, the fruit of his impressions of the journey began to be published as a series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints under the title of Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. The young man’s name was Hiroshige, and the enormous success of this series won him instant celebrity and acclaim as the greatest living ukiyo-e landscape artist.
That world so exquisitely depicted by Hiroshige is of course no more. But from his masterful portrayals, it is possible to imagine something of the atmosphere of the road and picture the lives of its various travelers as they made their way along the great highway.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.