In Focus

Andō Hiroshige and the Tōkaidō

The Tōkaidō, or Eastern Sea Route, was an early highway in Japan, the general route of which is still followed today between the cities of Tōkyō and Kyōto. The route, determined largely by the country's mountainous geography, developed as a major thoroughfare after the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tōkyō). For over 200 years, Japan had two capitals—one military (Edo) and one imperial (Kyōto)—linked by about 300 miles of "road" which at points became a narrow mountain pass, a ferry-boat ride across a bay, or a wade through a shallow stream.

The Tokugawa shogunate made highway improvement a key element in its systematic and efficient rule. The shogunate required feudal lords called daimyō_ to set up residences in Edo, where their family remained hostage year-round, and where the _daimyō themselves spent alternate or half-years. The daimy__ō traveled back and forth between their outlying lands and Edo, always attended by lengthy processions of retainers. To ease and regulate this travel, the government embarked upon a program of systematically developing old and new highways, establishing post stations at towns and villages along each road to provide services necessary for official travel.

The government set up 53 stations along the Tōkaidō, by far the most heavily traveled of the five major highways radiating from Edo. As travel conditions improved, the number of travelers increased, and the Tōkaidō became a steady stream of daimy__ō, religious pilgrims, mendicant priests, peddlers, couriers, and ordinary citizens seeking adventure. Shops and inns catering to the traveler's every need sprang up along the road, and the seeds of Japan's modern commercial and industrial centers were planted in these post station towns.

The artist Andō Hiroshige experienced travel on the Tōkaidō firsthand in 1832 when he accompanied an official procession from Edo to the imperial court in Kyōto. During the two years following his journey, he produced the prints comprising The Fifty-Three Stations of the T__ōkaidō (Tōkaidō Gojūsan Tsugi no Uchi), which first appeared individually and were published as a complete set in 1834. The set actually includes 55 prints, one of each of the 53 stopping points along the highway and one of each terminus. Hiroshige did not limit himself to a literal interpretation of his travels but also drew inspiration from travel books, earlier illustrations of the Tōkaidō, legendary and literary associations of certain sites, and his own imagination. The result is a delightful array of imagery which gives the viewer glimpses of life in Edo period Japan and of the spectacular beauty of the Japanese countryside, viewed through changing seasons and at different hours of the day. Inexpensive in their day, these prints served as travel souvenirs or as enticements to would-be travelers.

The feudal system of travel was abolished in 1870, two years after the Meiji Restoration when the emperor moved to the newly named capital of Tōkyō; nevertheless, the Tōkaidō continued to be Japan's busiest traffic corridor. Today, following the same general route are a modern highway, a limited access tollway, and the Tōkaidō lines of both the railway and the bullet train. Some sections of the old road remain, too, as remnants of a bygone era.

Adapted from

Anna McFarland, Ichiryusai Hiroshige: The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido, Gallery text, 1986.