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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal