Tokaido: The End of the Road

On January 4, 1868, the Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) officially proclaimed the “restoration” of imperial rule and on April 7 promulgated a Charter Oath that abolished feudalism and instituted a new democratic government. On September 19, the Emperor announced that the name of the city of Edo would be changed to Tokyo, and shortly thereafter began a journey to the new “eastern capital” by road. There would be more battles to come before the last supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate were defeated, but the 16-year-old Emperor’s arrival in Tokyo was nevertheless symbolic of the end of an era. Throngs lined the road to welcome the imperial procession.

An illustration in Le Monde, published on February 20, 1869, depicting the Meiji emperor traveling on horseback along the Tokaido road from Kyoto to Edo, present-day Tokyo. The procession symbolized the end of Tokugawa rule and premised the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912).  PUBLIC DOMAIN


Like countless daimyo feudal lords, dignitaries, samurai and common folk before him, the Emperor Meiji made the journey to Tokyo along the Tokaido. A triumph of Edo-period government and engineering, the Tokaido was one of the Five Routes of Japan established under the Tokugawa shogunate, a 514-km route running along the East coast of the main island of Honshu from Kyoto to Edo. In fair weather, the journey on foot could be made in about a week. The modernization of Japan under the new Meiji government, which included the rapid development of the railways, soon rendered the old Tokaido road redundant and most of it has been lost to redevelopment and natural disasters. However, a real sense of what it was like to travel in Edo times can still be gained at Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, where sections of the old road have been restored and maintained as a public footpath. 


A section of the old Tokaido road between Hatajuku and Moto-Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture.  THE JAPAN JOURNAL


The best preserved section of the old road extends from the village of Hatajuku to Moto-Hakone on the shore of Lake Ashi, or the other way around if you prefer to walk downhill. 

The starting point to the best preserved section of the old Tokaido road is Hatajuku, a small village that is the production center of the parquetry craft known as Hakone Yosegi Zaiku. Pictured, a craftsman’s workshop on the twisting new road that leads to the lake. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


The Hakone Yosegi Zaiku technique is said to have been developed by one Ishikawa Nihei about 200 years ago. Travelers along the old Tokaido were as keen to pick up souvenirs as tourists are today, and Hakone’s distinctive form of parquetry proved a hit. Ishikawa’s workshop, Hamamatsu-ya, is still a family-run business, now in its seventh generation of ownership. Visitors to the shop can hear a full explanation of the local parquetry and marquetry techniques in a room on the second floor.  THE JAPAN JOURNAL


An alternative walk from Hatajuku to that along the old Tokaido road is the 40-minute ascent to the Hiryu-taki waterfalls. It’s a steep hike in places but one that is well rewarded by the two-tiered “flying dragon” falls. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


In the early years of the Tokaido, the Hakone section of the road was paved and repeatedly repaved with locally harvested bamboo, an expensive business. In 1860 the shogunate repaved the road with large stones placed atop lightly packed pebbles. That is the surface preserved to this day. 

Amazake Chaya teahouse close to Moto-Hakone, the last remaining lodge offering rest and refreshment at this grueling point on the hilly Hakone section of the Tokaido. This photograph is taken from the new road. The old Tokaido road passes behind the building. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


The stretch of road immediately before, or after, the Hakone Sekisho checkpoint is today called Cedar Avenue. It was restored along with the checkpoint in 2007. The towering trees that flank this flat lakeside stretch of road are said to have been planted exactly 400 years ago in 1618, at the same time the Hakone Sekisho was settled. The trees not only provided travelers with shade but also lent a sense of extended order to the approach to the first, or last, checkpoint before, or after, Edo, present-day Tokyo.  THE JAPAN JOURNAL


For most of the way the walk is surprisingly easy going, if a little slippy, despite the steep ascent, but the large protruding stones on the stretch closest to Lake Ashi are undeniably difficult to walk on. The inferior paving here seems to have been a device to keep visitors making the approach to Hakone from the Kyoto side of the road “on their toes,” for they were about to enter the sekisho checkpoint. 

Nerves would have been jangling and travel permits fingered as the novice traveler made the final, cedar-lined approach to the Hakone Sekisho. Settled in 1619, Hakone Sekisho was the biggest and most important of all the fifty-three checkpoints established by the Tokugawa shogunate. Its main function was to stop arms from entering Edo and to prevent women from leaving. Either offense would be indicative of a potential uprising.

The West (Kyoto) side gate to and from the reconstructed Hakone Sekisho THE JAPAN JOURNAL


Hakone Sekisho has been painstakingly restored to its original imposing design using traditional construction techniques. Work was completed in 2007 based upon excavations of the original site and the discovery of a detailed report on the dismantlement and repair of the buildings at the end of the Edo period.

The view from the Lookout at the reconstructed Hakone Sekisho. In the Edo period, it was forbidden to cross Lake Ashi by boat. The Edo side gate is the structure on the right of the compound in the center of the picture. The long building with the blue noren curtains is the office where Sekisho officials inspected travelers. The building also served as the officials’ off-duty quarters. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal



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