The Tokaido Road

An abbreviated look into its life, people, and its vistas

by Sensei Mike Pepe


       The Tokaido highway started out as a dusty and lonely dirt road, avoided by commoners, infested by bandits and scoundrels who preyed on the innocent few who dared travel its length. More than just a road, the Tokaido (eastern sea route) took on a life of its own as it evolved into Japan’s most important thoroughfare during the EDO period (1600-1868), connecting the great cities of Edo and Kyoto. Nobles, military, and peasants alike made up the pulse of the road’s life, and its scenic landscapes and diverse travelers have been highlighted in history books and artistically portrayed in art and literature. It is an amazing story, a story of growth, prosperity, and eventually death.

       This narrative is an attempt to bring to light the Tokaido’s importance as well as its beauty and mystique during these memorable years.


       Travel with me as I chronicle an imaginary trip along this celebrated road as taken by the famous artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). Best known for his expressive series of paintings titled Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi (53 stations of the Tokaido), Hiroshige got his inspiration during a trip along the famed road in 1832. Although the actual trip Hiroshige took was in the late summer, his series of paintings show the Tokaido through four seasons. He was able to accomplish this by drawing on works of other artists and sketches called meisho (official drawings of famous places). He also made use of “poetic license” and imagination to express his view of the road as it may have looked at different times of the year.

       We too, will use our imagination to travel silently along with, albeit a few steps behind Hiroshige, to witness the spectacle of the Tokaido and listen in on his thoughts and his observations of the sights and sounds of this famous thoroughfare. He is leaving around 1600 and will conclude his journey in late 1889 with the birth of the Tokaido Railroad, and the death of the Tokaido road.

*Although Hiroshige’s soliloquy will be factual, each stopover may not be visited at the same moment in history however, each chapter will be correctly numbered according to its place along the Tokaido.



 All Journeys start in EDO    

       I never remember it being this busy. In 1590, when then ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi awarded this isolated village to Ieysau Tokugawa, a war lord with whom he held an uneasy alliance, and instructed him to build fortifications and residence here, it was just a small castle village of a few thousand people.

Shortly after Hideyoshi’s death, Ieysau defeated Ishida Misunari at the bloody battle of Sekigahara in 1603, then defeated Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, in the 1613 Siege of Osaka castle to solidify his reign. This time in history took Ieysau’s family name and came to be known as the Tokugawa period or the EDO era. The emperor then bestowed the title of Shogun on Ieysau and hence, Edo became the military capital of Japan with Kyoto remaining the Imperial capital, home to the Emperor, who in essence became a mere figurehead to the power of the Shogun. This remote area, chosen by Hideyoshi to keep Ieysau at bay, has now become the most important city in Japan with a population exceeding one million! 

       As strict a ruler as he was, the new Shogun knew the importance of mobility and set about improving the roads with special attention to the Tokaido and the Nakasendo routes.

There were five major routes of travel. The Gokaido (five roads) were the Tokaido (the eastern road), Nakasendo (road through the central mountains), Koshukaido, Nikkokaido, and the Oshukaido.

       The Tokaido route being the flattest, most direct and thereby the easiest of the group to traverse, was the obvious choice to update and maintain and it would start with the building of the Nihonbashi Bridge (Japan Bridge). Constructed in 1603, the five great roads merge here at the edge of Edo’s city center and it was decreed that all official distances be measured from this point. The bridge becomes the epicenter and the official entrance to Edo.



       The gates to the city are unlocked at daybreak, but Hiroshige has waited until mid-morning to depart and as he reaches the city limits, he turns for one last look of Edo and is immediately transfixed by the site before him.

       The bridge has come alive (plate 1). Merchants selling wears, women who rose before dawn, bartering for the freshest fish for their days meals, couriers and half-naked laborers with strong shoulders, carrying bamboo poles that bend under the weight of their loads, all leading separate lives yet interacting here in a daily unscripted dance of sight and sound. This is the fish market district and the waters of the Sumida are crammed with boats bringing in the morning catch. Along its banks, fish venders with their carts are crammed together, each barker claiming to sell the freshest. This…this orchestra of life compels Hiroshige to bring brush to canvas (plates 1, 2).

       Nihonbashi is not a large bridge but it is “the” bridge of all Japan. Pilings buried deep in the riverbed offer strong structural support as they rise gracefully above the throngs to hold the creation aloft. The sweeping arc of the walkway is aesthetically pleasing and functions well by directing rainwater down its graceful slopes. Handrails and balusters built with a hardwood known as katsura wood are of simple design yet exude a strength assuring its passengers a safe crossing. Metal post caps are an added detail, in place to keep moisture from seeping into end grains and give a finished look.

       Hiroshige then adds Edo’s massive wooden gate* to his impression.
Impressive structures such as this were common to many communities. They served as the first line of defense against attack, and kept out unsavory characters. The gates were swung closed and secured each night. Neighborhood residents patrolled the area nightly and anyone walking the main road within the city late at night could be held and questioned by the authorities until proper answers were given.



The finished sketch is truly three-dimensional. The plates below illustrate this point and express the scope of Edo life. If we gaze over Hiroshige’s shoulder at the painted scene, we might feel ourselves

absorbed into its landscape where we are pulled along with the hustle and bustle of daily life on and around the Nihonbashi Bridge…Listen through the din and you may hear the venders, as they call out their daily seafood special!

    At this point Hiroshige cleans his brush, turns back around, and begins his journey to distant Kyoto.

*The gate to the city in plate one, is visible past the far side of Nihonbashi Bridge. In plate, two the gate is in the foreground.



From Hiroshige’s “100 views of Edo”

Plate, 1

From Hiroshige’s “100 views of Edo”



 From Hiroshige’s “53 stations” series

Plate, 2

From Hiroshige’s “53 stations” series


Onward to Shinagawa

Hiroshige’s trip includes many twists and turns. Literally. The Shogun, ever the shrewd general began reconstruction of the Tokaido for defensive purposes. He builds fortifications called castle cities along the route between Kyoto and Edo and gives them to his allies. On the approach to these fortifications, he adds bends in the road. If two curves in the road will slow an attacking force, twenty are better therefore, Ieyasau builds in no less than twenty-seven twist and turns on the approach to his former home of Okazaki alone!

   The artist winds his way along this rapidly developing road on his way to his first stop, Shinagawa. As we follow, we settle into a steady pace. The Tokaido’s length, commencing at Nihonbashi (of course) and ending in Kyoto covers 319 miles. Not that long a distance by most standards and actually  the trip to Kyoto could be completed in a week if we hurried, but we’ll stop overnight and stay an extra day or two if the surroundings are inviting so it should take us two weeks to get to our destination. That is average for travel in the 1600s as all travel is accomplished by foot. There is no wheeled transportation along the roads. Rarely, a heavy load is wheeled along, but heavy cargos for building and such are most often shipped along a water route. Common travelers such as us walk, the upper-class travel in palanquins called kago or on horseback. For these reasons, the width of the Tokaido road is only 5ken, roughly thirty feet, the same as a modern day residential street. The road is lined with cryptomeria (cedar) trees (plate 3) intermixed with pines, both planted closely together along the road’s edge. This serves as a passive fence persuading travelers to keep to the road and inhibit them from trying to pass boarder stations undetected. Fines were severe for those found avoiding the marked route. At heights of one hundred feet, branches reach for one another from across the road to offer shade to travelers and protect them from inclement weather as they make their way along.


 Cryptomeria along the Tokaido road.

Plate 3

Cryptomeria along the Tokaido road.




Hiroshige’s legs are fresh and he makes good time on this, the beginning chapter of his journey. His first stop is close and with an excited spring in his step, he advances toward Shinagawa.


The stench is awful. You know you are getting close to Shinagawa by the stink. In the hot days of summer, you can smell the rotting bodies all the way to Edo.

  The post station of Shinagawa prospers because of its close proximity to Edo. Many goods, including fish are gathered and taken into the city to sell. Stores, restaurants, souvenir shops, and “entertainment” make a good living on the coat tails of the big city

   Hiroshige is used the foul odor as we bury our nose in our armpit in a futile attempt to block the smell. Around the next bend, the severed heads come into view. Bodies piled in a heap, there must be twenty this time. Ownerless dogs and crows pick at the remains. Some heads are propped on stakes; others peer lifelessly down, still attached to crucified bodies, gruesomely displayed on foreboding crosses.

  These are the execution grounds. Here on the outskirts of Shinagawa, criminals, dissidents, and Christians were among those put to death and displayed here to make known what happens to those who live outside the law. What we witness between 1650 and 1868 are the executions of between ten and twenty thousand people at this site alone.


The one story of note is that of the famous 47 ronin. Lord Asano’s 47 loyal retainers were taken here to mete out their own punishment, seppuku, in accordance to the law, for extracting revenge in honor of their Lord, Lord Asano by killing another regent, Lord Kira in 1702.

   Past this “unfortunate” welcoming, we do get a fresh look at the beautiful area of Shinagawa. This city is the official “first stop” of the famous fifty-three stops along the Tokaido. Located just to the south of Edo the town lays along the edge of Edo bay (later Tokyo bay). As we round another bend and come upon a rise we glimpse the bay below. Low tide gives us a look of the wide beachfront and marshes being worked by “clammers” carrying wire buckets and claw type shovels to harvest mussels for market. Fishing nets explode from the hands of experienced anglers; blanketing the waters, to be retrieved, spilling over with fish to be sold later that morning from the carts along Nihonbashi Bridge. The maize colored shoreline is in sharp contrast to the cobalt blue waters it is trying to corral. Across our field of vision, a flock of waterfowl glides silently then swoops toward the overflowing nets, for their morning buffet of fish.

    However, Hiroshige does not capture this scene. Instead, from his perch above the town his sketch (plate 4) portrays a row of shops along the shore of the bay with small ships anchored, swaying rhythmically in a light breeze while others in full sail maneuver their way through the bay. Stretched out along the dirt road above can be seen a contingent of orderlies carrying the bamboo “suitcases” of an unnamed Daimyo surely in route to Edo to begin his six month stay.




  From Hiroshige’s “53 stations of the Tokaido

Plate 4:

 From Hiroshige’s “53 stations of the Tokaido

Already we have arrived at our first post station and it is time for a short rest and lunch. We stop at a local restaurant for a bento box of omu-rice, (rice with a sweet red sauce and an egg on top) some noodles, a slice of tofu (bean curd sometimes confused by foreigners as cheese), the desert of our boxed lunch, a piece of sweet bread called are-pan, served hot with a topping of cinnamon or chocolate! (I picture a powered donut or even fried dough) 

  Our feet enjoy the rest but the artist is anxious to get back on the road. As most travelers, we would expect to pass through four or five post stations a day and by doing so, we could walk as many as twenty-five miles. Since we have traveled less than five, we quickly resume our trip.



Introducing the Tokaido:

This beautiful highway, brought to life through the artistic eye of impressionist Ando Hiroshige, was in its infancy during the Kamakura period (700-1100), (so named after the capital city of the time) when it was a natural trail between Kyoto and Kamakura. Then through the Muromachi and the Warring States periods Japan had been in the mist of years of civil war as feudal warlords called Daimyo, battled constantly for land and power thereby leaving no ruling authority to maintain the road’s infrastructure, making travel a burden and something to be avoided. The old Tokaido was seen as an underworld of dark figures and bad spirits.

    Traveling for pleasure or vacation was non-existent. Travel was an unsafe and miserable task, therefore avoided. Eventually, in 1568, a superior Daimyo fought his way to the top and was able to begin the unification of Japan. His name was Nobunaga Oda and it was he, who began to improve the dilapidated Tokaido. During his fourteen-year reign, he had begun to widen the road in certain sections. After his death in 1582, the second of three leaders attempted to unify Japan. Hideyoshi Toymotomi (ruled 1584-1598) continued developing the road for easy access through Japan’s larger cities, increasing the mobility for official envoys and began the task of purging the road of bandits who were the main concern of travelers.

       However, it was the legendary Ieysau Tokugawa who finally became leader of all Japan, and with that, a blanket of peace and prosperity fell over the country. With Japan under one ruling authority, a number of events take place that increase the fame and growth of the old Tokaido. Much of the road is improved with a deep layer of crushed stone topped with another deep layer of packed sand. Many sections are cobble stoned and trees are planted along its route. Mile markers are installed and the road is widened, to it is barely thirty feet.

       Traffic along the Tokaido increases with the Shogun’s edict that all Daimyo must live in Edo for six months each year. This law keeps busy, any persons who might attempt an overthrow of the government, as they must pack, travel, and reside near the Shogun, then pack and travel back to their lands while leaving their family in Edo as virtual hostages.

The road is almost a constant parade of Daimyo, half returning from and half moving in to paying their six months of respect to the shogun. A traveling Daimyo’s entourage causes much of the congestion. A low level Lord would travel with up to one thousand porters, an entourage of four thousand for high level Daimyo. Villagers also travel to Edo selling their wares, knowing there are many rich costumers living in the capital. These farmers leave their families for weeks as they travel along the Tokaido. Men did most traveling as women were forbidden. Women caught traveling alone could be detained harassed and even have their hair cut for their infraction. Nuns on the other hand traveled free from persecution therefore criminals often disguised themselves as nuns in an attempt to deceive border guards.

     The most frequently used excuse for travel was a Pilgrimage. “Pilgrimages” were welcomed when applying for travel documentation as it was assumed you were paying your respects to a deity. One only need say “pilgrimage” to assured a stamp of approval. These “pilgrimages” though, were just a front for men to then, visit entertainment districts for fun and folly. Prostitutes abound in every district. Zones were established in each town where drinks and dancing occurred nightly. Women aggressively propositioned men and vice versa.  

       Now becoming a highway of people with a need for travel, whether official or fanciful, the 1600s become an awakening for the Tokaido highway.

       In order to felicitate the increased number of travelers, post stations blossom along the route, providing inns and restaurants as well as entertainment for weary travelers. The Shogun(military ruler), Ieysau Tokugawa authorizes Fifty-three stopping or post stations and establishes them at five-mile intervals. Between these are located a different kind of city called castle towns. These towns were lands allotted to allies of the Shogun. Build for defense they act as fortifications. It is at these blockades one needed to stop and show identification. Also sprinkled along the route are teahouses, offering tea, trinkets, souvenirs and anything else in an attempt to part a traveler from their money.

       There are no distinct boundaries between towns along this route, therefore as the last building fades from sight another municipality appears.




The Tokaido as art

       The Tokaido runs along the eastern seaboard of Japan’s main island of Honshu. As one often travels within site of the ocean, there are many vantage points, offering a natural view grand enough for any postcard. The route is flat but as it serpentines its way towards Kyoto, it cannot avoid some mountainous terrain. Hiroshige’s artistic eye is flooded with ideas of works born from this beauty (his resume boasts over five thousand illustrations)! There are many panoramic views of the ocean from along the highway, true to what he would have witnessed along the way, but travel through mountainous sections gave a different perspective. Rock ledges and life below are often put to canvas. Japan is also blessed with the four separate weather cycles. Because of this, the Tokaido wraps herself in a spectacular “kimono” of seasons, romanticized in many artists’ drawings during Hiroshige’s time.





    As night falls, we make our way into the bustling village of Totsuka. This lucky place is most often the first stay-over stop for travelers coming out of Edo. Many villages are just that; Simple villages authorized by the shogun as official rest stops. They are neither big nor famous, just lucky to be in the right location. We have already passed through the towns of Shinagawa, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, and Hodogaya, to sleep here in Totsuka, the fifth station of Hiroshige’s 53 stations of the Tokaido.

    As we walk through town to the inn, we pass a stable of horses. Used as a method of quick travel horses were rented here. The larger cities maintained up to one hundred. They were rented, rode, then rested, and returned at a pre-arranged village further down the road. There were also premier steeds set aside at the ready, for use only by the Shogun’s messengers, who needed to pass along the Shogun’s official business to other cities. His animals would be ready at each station along the full Tokaido, guaranteeing messengers a fresh steed every five miles, allowing each to run full out, to be replaced by another fresh horse. In this leapfrog style of rider to horse, the shogun’s information could be sent and returned in a matter of days. Totsuka is our fifth stop, but a quick look back would reveal six cities, including Edo. Edo though, along with Kyoto on the other end is not considered a stopover or post station. Instead, they are correctly labeled the starting and termini points’ respectively in one’s journey. Artists who include these two subjects in their artwork correctly label their work with the number fifty-five in the title. Our own Hiroshige sold his 53 sketches of The Tokaido, then added Edo and Kyoto, coming out with a second edition set a couple of years later. 

   Since it is the place, most travelers will spend their first night, Totsuka is a busy district. Our guide will sketch an image here and rework it once he is back in his studio. He prints a traveler (plate 5), dismounting a horse at one of the many teahouses. The groom, on the horse’s right, will care for the visitor’s steed, as the well-dressed woman on the porch leads him in for a warm beverage. The woman in the street plays a flute to attract patrons. A keen eye for detail, notices the stylish geta (wooden shoes) worn by the woman on the porch compared to the sandals of the male traveler. Who might he be? Upon closer inspection, we see leggings rather than a tucked up hakama, a sword inconspicuously peeking out from under a shortened robe and a wide brimmed straw hat often used to cover the face from prying eyes. Many samurai, off duty from their lord for an evening of revelry, would hide their face with hats such as this, so as not to be recognized while on an evening excursion thereby embarrassing their lord. Could this “traveler” be such a man?

   We have decided to stay the night at an inexpensive inn at the end of the street. A room in the back might give us some protection from the constant ruckus of nightlife outside. Our two-tatame room is a mere six feet square and the hearth at the inn’s center will give off a welcomed radiant heat to warm our room as well as the others. Our tired bodies’ welcome the rest and the low drone of outdoor voices quickly lull us to sleep.

   Hiroshige awakes with a start. He is not sure if it is real or a dream. He cocks his head, turning his ear to a nonexistent sound. He is so unsettled; he stumbles outside nearly knocking over a maid sweeping the dirt from the wooden floor. He peers down the road toward Nihonbashi twenty-five miles away. He is not sure if Edo is still there or destroyed as his dream had told. The sound still resonating in his head, must have been the rumbling of an imagined earthquake he had thought, alas, thankfully, only a dream.

   Still clearing his head, our sandals move to meet the gravel of Japan’s greatest highway, the Tokaido.



Plate 5


The Tokaido had three fathers. Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toymotoi, and Ieyasu Tokugawa. Their names here, are given in the American style with the given name first. The Last name had always been the district or province of their birth. Hence, The Oda family line was from the village of Oda. Males would take on multiple names until their adult years. It was common to have up to five names in one’s life. Take for example well-known swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Born, Bennosuke, he took the adult name of Takezo, in his early teens, after winning his first duel, then shortly after, changed it to Musashi, which is just another way of pronouncing the same characters making up his name. He took as a last name Miyamoto, the village of his birth. If he wanted to sound like a warrior, he called himself Shinmen Musashi; using the family name of the lord with whom he was associated. 

    What is interesting about the three unifiers, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu, more than their name were their personalities. It is said, if the question was posed to the three; “How would you make a nightingale sing?” they would answer as such. Nobunaga, a ruthless man with little patience answered, “I would force it to sing.”, Hideyoshi, the negotiator, who could always find a compromise to get people to do his bidding answered, “I would coax it to sing.”, and Ieyasu would answer, “I would wait, eventually it will sing.”

    With this patience, Ieyasu accomplished things that, in his heart, he felt were good for all of Japan. He created a class structure. This classified people according to a rank within society. Each group respected, in accordance with their ability to help society. The samurai were of the highest rank followed by farmers, considered important because of their ability to raise food. Craftsmen (artisans) were next and last the merchants. Merchants were disliked since they did not contribute anything to society, although they very often had more money than people of higher notability did. However even below the merchant class was the eta (outcasts). Actors, dancers, and beggars fell into this category. Since they contributed nothing to society, their life was deemed worthless. Accepted while performing, actors, were shunned when the stage curtains closed. Hiroshige fell into the class of Artisans, therefore grouped with the craftsmen.  

    Ieyasu perceived the Christians as a threat to his authority therefore his executed thousands. He then closed the ports of Japan to dam the flow of missionaries and their beliefs. He figuratively closed the doors of Japan, leaving no access to foreigners, except for the Dutch, who agreed to denounce all things Christian in order to continue trading with Japan. The country was isolated from the rest of the world and although they could trade, the Dutch were confined to a very small island in the southern section of Japan near the port of Nagasaki.

   Ieyasu Tokugawa ruled for only two years, 1603-1605. Feeling he could accomplish more from behind the scenes, he abdicated his position to his son, Hidetada thereby solidifying a family rule that would continue uninterrupted from father to son for the next two and a half centuries.

  As with the previous rulers, Ieyasu died shortly after his climb to the top, passing away in 1616 and although the country lives in peace for two hundred and fifty years, the peace comes with a price.     

   Western technology does not infiltrate Japanese life. Inventions, the idea of gravity and Isaac Newton are unknown and to be sure, deter Japan’s advancement. They support no navy or ships used on the high seas. All water vessels sail close to the Japanese coast. Weapons become antiquated. Japanese only marry Japanese. The Tokugawa era is by many accounts a slow suffocation and a time of darkness for Japan lasting over two hundred years.

   However, Hiroshige is innocent of the dark ages that engulf his country. His artwork continues to display the simple and beautiful life of Japan’s people intertwined with spectacular topography that will not be witnessed by gaijin (foreigners) for hundreds of years. His thoughts reach ahead toward his tenth stop, the treacherous Hakone pass.



Traveling the Tokaido is enjoyable yet tiring, boring yet exciting, relaxing yet stressful and of course dangerous. Bandits have been virtually eliminated but it is not bandits we fear as we approach Haknoe.

   Here we must cross the treacherous Hakone pass. The now dormant Hakone volcano made the Hakone Mountains three thousand years ago and what remains are treacherous spiked peaks jutting menacingly skyward, humbling the village below. To prepare for this, the most dangerous part of our journey, Hiroshige has led us to the nearby village of Odawara where we spend the night, since we must rise very early to complete the trek during the safety of daylight. Fortunately, what remains from the old volcano are steaming, hot springs, called osen. A traveler’s delight, we disrobe and melt into the pool’s aromatic vapors to revitalize our muscles in preparation for the next morning’s toil. Hakone will become a popular place for tourists, flocking here to see the marvelous views of Hakone in one direction and Fuji-san in the other and nestled in-between, the beautiful Lake Ashi. Add to this recipe the deep greens of the landscape, brought to life after the volcano’s destructive lava and we stare in wonderment at the earth’s ability to form an awe-inspiring sight with nature’s tools.

    Approximately sixty-five miles from Nihonbashi, Hakone is our tenth stop. Hiroshige sketches a near vertical slope (plate six) near the top of the pass and the accordingly, low greenery due to its height (approx. 12,000ft). The colored rocks emit a sense of instability and the possibility of breaking loose at anytime, crushing those below. Along the narrow pass is a long line of travelers. A closer look reveals similar clothing and head wear allowing us to assume a Daimyo’s caravan is passing. With further curiosity we find in the background, Mt. Fuji dressed in its kimono of white snow.

   An accompanying photo (plate seven) allows us a modern view of the mountain range. Notice a same, near vertical ledge at the top of the pass.

  Crossing the peak of the mountain, down to the safety of the plains below we feel for the first time, detached from Edo many miles and a mountain away. Like climbing a fence in spite of the no trespassing sign, and landing on the other side, we feel an excitement. With the weight of our home and responsibilities behind us, we move with a renewed determination, onto Kyoto!



Hakone pass

Plate six

Hakone pass




Random picture of Hakone Mountain area (modern)

Plate 7

Random picture of Hakone Mountain area (modern)


Introducing our guide Ando Hiroshige.


Our channel into the past was born in the year 1797 and given the name Ando Tokutaro, the suffix “taro” meaning “great son”, commonly given to the first male child. He was born in Edo, the son of a low samurai, who was a fire warden for Edo Castle. As he grew, he too worked as a fireman in Edo. He could draw at a very young age and to make ends meet, his parents sent him out to work with the artist Utagawa Toyohiro. He was given the artistic name Hiroshige by his master, a name he used until his death in 1858 at the age of sixty-one. His prints sometimes bear the name Utagawa Hiroshige, taking a part of his teacher’s name.

     Hiroshige should not be confused with Hiroshige the second, or third. Hiroshige the second was a student of Ando Hiroshige who took the name of his master Ando Hiroshige then actually married his daughter. Our guide is a jovial man who loves to paint. He has in his portfolio over five thousand sketches including views of Edo, views of Mt. Fiji, birds, women, landscapes and of course his 53 and 55 views of the Tokaido. 

     Under Tokugawa’s strict social structure, Hiroshige falls into the group of Craftsmen. Unlike the roofers, masons, carpenters and other true craftsmen, he falls into a sub category called artisans. He is able to wander and set up his trade at any stop. The Shogun’s social ranking edict outlines specific clothing to be worn by individuals and as Hiroshige is on the lower end of the social scale, he might have worn simple clothes. He most definitely could not wear silk, as his garments would be made of a coarse material. He might have worn a type of kimono called a ‘kosode” (plate eight), a one-piece garment with small sleeve openings (hence it’s name), held snug at the waist with a sash. His colors would have also been limited to his rank and gender. A memorial portrait of Ando Hiroshige is seen in plate nine.

    The artist’s drawings are his artistic representations of many sights. They are not always accurate within time and space. As any good artist would, Ando is able to take each piece of a subject and portray its feeling onto a canvas. Sometimes he adds a view of Mt. Fuji in a painting whereas the Mountain cannot be seen from that vantage point. He might also depict a village on the left of the road when it is actually on the right. These are but two examples, although with many artists accuracy does not always lend itself to a great subject! Let us not worry as we watch our friend “touch up” another painting!

  Let us put our faith in Hiroshige’s attempts to create images that we hope will withstand the critics of time, to become a portal into the past for young enthusiasts, yet to be born.




Actor wearing simple kosode.

Plate eight:

Actor wearing simple kosode.




Ando Hiroshige (image slightly distorted to fit page)

Plate 9

Ando Hiroshige (image slightly distorted to fit page)


Our journey continues:

    The pathway stretches out before us, sometimes busy, sometimes with a welcomed silence, giving us time to contemplate our meager existence here on “the road”, as it is sometimes called. The country is closed to outside technology and yet it thrives. Hiroshige sees the road’s formative years as a microcosm of Japan itself. Like a melon, whose hard outer covering acts as a restriction, houses inside, a hidden treasure of natural taste, color and beauty, so to, is Japan and specifically, the road Tokaido. Full of restrictions it pulsates with a life unsurpassed in the outside world. With a vitality and growth, it will eventually explode from its shell many years later. This expansion does not happened in Ieyasu Tokuagawa’s lifetime alone. To be sure, it is hard to put exact dates to many moments. It has been more of an evolution of blurred happenings that define the road. It is amazing that for the next two hundred sixty-eight years, each shogun continues with the same resolve as the last. Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third shogun in 1623 reigned for 30 years and it was he, who restricted foreign ships to the southern port of Nagasaki. He forbade any Japanese from working on foreign trade vessels under the penalty of death. He forbids Japanese ships from leaving the country. The next shogun was Itesuna Tokugawa. He lived a sickly life, so the country was run by the previous shogun’s officers, for another thirty years. These sixty years did much to solidify the ideals of the Tokugawa generations

   The 1701 event of the forty-seven ronin took place under the fifth shogun, Tsunioshi Tokugawa who thought himself a god and forbade the killing of any animal including dogs and birds hence his nickname the “dog” shogun. The Tokugawa period of Japan’s history will tell the story of fifteen Shogun, from the Tokugawa family line.

    The Tokaido infrastructure generates much money. Laborers are needed to keep the road passable, even extending it to Osaka in 1619. The building of villages takes many Craftsmen as well as architects. Bridges, ferries and shrines hotels and restaurants, all generate the flow of money and taxes. Commerce is booming. The Tokaido and its adjoining areas are teeming with life. On its every breath, the road expands from its center like the folds of a fan, not a progress of steps forward, but multiplying within its self-giving it the density of a well made sword.

    We have come to a small, secluded shrine, erected many years ago and used by travelers to pray for safe passage during a time when bandits roamed the gravel trail. We prop ourselves against a stately pine, probably planted a hundred years ago, hiding ancient stories within its trunk. Hiroshige easily squats on his hindquarters like a modern day catcher, crosses his arms on his knees, and rests his head. It is a very natural position for him but not so for our long American legs and back, weakened by many years of sitting in chairs. The position is more a torturous battle of balance and pain but we are determined to try. The sweet breeze carries a wisp of lilac and pine that permeates our brain, until, like the travelers en route to Oz; we fall into a quick slumber.

    Suddenly aroused, our guide covers his head, pulls his knees to his chest and squeezes his eyes shut, afraid for his life. This time we heard it too, and cling to a nearby sapling, we stare heavenward. It is the sound of a tornado ripping through the trees. Branches bend and snap, but not a branch is moving. Standing in bewilderment, once again we have been jolted awake by a terrible nightmare. Hiroshige fixes his hair and turns three-hundred sixty degrees searching the silent forest for an answer. The noise had been deafening and the feeling so real and yet, a dream. Hiroshige feels a sense of urgency deep within his soul, the supposed area just below the bellybutton known to the Japanese as the hara. An urgency of what, he does not know. He prays again to the solitary shrine and with a sense of danger building inside of him, we quicken our step toward Shono and beyond.




Shono and beyond

It started as a drizzle, the thick Tokaido canopy able to protect us from heaven’s tears. It is colder as the seasons begin to change as proven by the vapors, evident with our every breath. Now, as we enter the mountainous area of Shono the rain is relentless. We climb the steps to the crudely built overhang of another of the many shrines along the road and don our raincoats. The term is used lightly however, as the rainwear was certainly not a coat! Instead, rainwear consisted of layers of straw bundled together and lashed around the neck like a cape, another cinched around the waist not unlike a Hawaiian hula skirt. The finished look was that of a walking, thatched roof! As we hunker under the man made umbrella, we enjoy watching others scamper from the downpour (plate 10). Two “coolies” as they are called, have thrown a blanket over a cheap palanquin and make a dash for safety, another leading a fare in the opposite direction, to wait out the storm. 




The rains of Shono

Plate 10

The rains of Shono


    The weather shows no sign of letting up though, so Hiroshige pulls out a snack from his weathered travel sack. Sticky rice rolled into a snowball-sized orb wrapped in seaweed, hits the spot in our empty belly.

    Areas of Japan are inundated with seasonal rains, which often cause flooding and ravage rice crops. A particular story comes to mind as Hiroshige sits. Shono (the forty-fifth post station, is often besieged with rain and the townspeople had had enough. They petitioned to build a dam to save the town, but were denied by the magistrate of the ruling castle town. Determined to build the dam themselves, It was decided, if men had gotten caught building the dam they would surely  be killed and the town would not survive without the men folk, therefore two-hundred women volunteered to complete the arduous task. The women toiled for six years and completed the dam but eventually the construction was found out. Instead of a death sentence, they were commended for their determination and grit.

    Hiroshige’s smile quickly turns to disappointment. He had hoped to cross the nearby river on foot but now he is sure the river must be overflowing its banks and he might have to wait weeks to make the passing.               

    One of the many jobs along the Tokaido is that of the ferryman. His wallet loves this weather. On dry days, crews wait like taxis on the smaller riverbanks offering piggyback rides for any wishing to keep a dry foot while crossing. Sometimes they take luggage sometimes a high-ranking official is the cargo. As with any entrepreneur an easy way to make a little extra coin on one of these crossings is to feign instability while in the process of carrying a burdensome client, having them shout “be steady there!” and offer a larger tip if the carrier could keep them dry and not pitched off into the drink!

   It is raining all along the coast from Shono to Tsuchiyama, the forty-ninth post station (plate 11). The rain has become a deluge and with no dry area nearby, a Daimyo’s procession continues their march while attempting to maintain a regale appearance. The men lower their heads and hunch their shoulders in a futile attempt to divert the rain away from their nape. Attached to long poles, might be the name of the leader, protected from the rain with a covering. Porters carry crates displaying the mon, or crest of the Daimyo on their sides. Their formation slightly askew as they cross a narrow bridge that is soon to be swallowed by the river, engorged with water coursing down from the mountains, forming the white water seen to the procession’s right.



Downpours in Tsuchiyama

Plate 11

Downpours in Tsuchiyama



Japan consists of four main islands; Hokkaido in the north, the main island of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in the south along with over two thousand smaller islands. The country lays on approximately the same longitude and latitude as the east coast in the United States. If the two were superimposed, Japan would stretch from Maine in the north to the northern tip of Florida in the south and receive the same type of weather. There is much snow, north in Hokkaido, but then, warmth in the south onto Okinawa. The majority of people reside on the main island of Honshu; we exist on the little over three-hundred miles of the Tokaido.

   Hiroshige has been sitting in a pensive state for hours. People passing us, think he is a beggar with no donation bowl, others suppose he is a monk who has forgotten how to chant the sutras. However, he is merely deep in thought. The changing season, the cold rain, the recent nightmares and the physical direction of our journey weigh on Hiroshige like a debt of obligation that cannot be repaid (giri).   

    Our journey started in the spring, and yet a week later, it is now the dead of winter. We travel away from Edo from east to west unlike most, who now move from the west and toward the modern city.

   The artist is clearly a troubled man. He has prayed to the Shinto gods of travel, burned incense for the god of weather, and eaten a concoction of crushed herbs from the apothecary to rid him of his demons, to no avail. We have passed forty-nine, memorable points of interest but he is compelled to sketch again. His hand is steady and his judgment still clear as his imagination transports him back to Kameyama, the forty-seventh scene (plate 12). 


Snow on Kameyama

Plate 12

Snow on Kameyama


Snow, snow and more snow. Although there was none as we passed, his brush, uncontrolled by conscious thought, covers the canvas with white innocence. We can tell by the town’s name Kama-“yama” there are mountains and we see Kameyama castle nestled in the ledge. A feudal lord’s procession heads toward the castle’s shelter.

    Hiroshige is famed for his use of diagonal lines, shown well here along the mountain slope and tree lines. The concept of slanted lines moving from the foreground to the back, give a painting a sense of movement making objects in the foreground appear larger than those moving to the back. Today this effect is common and as natural as looking at a “small” ship on a horizon. Hiroshige is one of the first of his generation who grasps how to draw this affect.

    Unlike our troubled friend, the picture illustrates a clear day after a snowstorm.

  Our journey is almost complete. We have traveled some three hundred plus miles to reach Ohtsu, the fifty-third and last stop before our destination, Kyoto. 

  We will take a well-deserved rest here along with a bath and have our sandals mended. We must look our best to enter Kyoto, the true capital of Japan since the Heian Period (794-1868). Later, before we bed for the night, Hiroshige writes his wife a letter. In it, he describes his trip and that she is missed, and then something almost never done; he tells her he loves her. He leaves his letter at the mail station for the runner the next day. Then, as Hiroshige sleeps, we too, scribe such a letter and place it along with the mix of others. Ours to be delivered in a different time and place.




 Entering Kyoto

   Kyoto had been the capital since 794AD and is still the imperial capital, Edo, becoming the military capital with the arrival of the Shogun. Kyoto is approximately three square miles in area and its streets are laid out in an easy to negotiate grid pattern. People enter the city through Sanjo (Third Street) bridge, which spans the Kamo River. If all distances commence at Nihonbashi in Edo, the Sanjo Bridge is the end of the Tokaido road, and the end of our journey. The city is magnificent in its mix of old and new. Modern buildings stand side-by-side traditional single level structures topped with clay roofs with upswept corners. Today Kyoto is one of the major tourist attractions in Japan.

  Undefeated swordsman Miyamoto Musashi fought duels with the Yoshioka family here, the facts of which could grace the pages of a great novel. It seems Musashi’s father beat one adept from the Yoshioka school and there ensued bad blood between the families. Years later Musashi, surely carrying on the family feud, challenged the oldest son, then the younger son. Arriving late to both matches, he easily defeated them. The family was then obligated to uphold the family name by sending forth, their youngest son at the tender age of twelve. For this duel, the Yoshioka family also sent a number of swordsmen and archers to kill Musashi. Fortunately, Musashi took a different strategy this time and arrived early, hiding until the entourage arrived. He was then able to throw the mob into confusion and kill the third Yoshioka heir. Later in the official Yoshioka family history book, it will purport there was only one duel which Musashi Lost.

With a long sigh of relief, we wearily follow Hiroshige toward Sanjo Bridge, the entrance to the city. Suddenly the cobblestones beneath our feet begin to shake. Our guide falls to one knee, bracing himself with one unsteady hand, on the quaking earth. He peers over his shoulder and we follow his gaze down the Tokaido, from whence we came. Then, propelled by fear, we bolt in unison to the edge of the bridge. It is here, as time travelers, we must step aside and silently bear witness to what follows…

…He races across Sanjo Bridge for the safety of Kyoto then turns to face the unknown. Here on the edge of history, he comes face to face with the beast of his nightmares. American author Steven King wrote about Langoliers, monsters, which eat each yesterday to make room for today. Yesterday is no more. The past has been wiped clean. Langoliers make room for another day. Ando Hiroshige has come face to face with his langoliers and he becomes frozen with fear. Nevertheless, through his terror, he makes a conscious effort to shelter the city from destruction. He extends his arms to the sides and expands his chest as if he could encircle the demon, but his attempt is futile. His brain signals his mouth to scream, but before his lips can form the word, a metamorphosis occurs. His human form disintegrates into tiny grains of sand, falling lifelessly to the ground, then in another instant, blown away, gone forever, in the winds of time…

 …The railroad has arrived. The iron dragon. Dark and cold. Bearing down with a single Cyclops like eye casting a pale yellow beam ahead of its arrival. It breathes billows of smoke that fill the sky above its head, surrounding it in hues of black and gray. Unrelenting wheels, churn up the miles on ribbons of steel and from within its depths a continuous, thundering, rumble, that rivals the ominous bagpipes of terror, played by the Scottish armies or the war chants of the great Zulu warriors, sending fear into the hearts of all.

Yes, like it or not, Japan’s future has arrived. The past is gone. Make way for a new day…






Commodore Matthew Perry entered Japan in 1853 in a failed attempt to establish trade relations with the mysterious country, Japan. However, the winds of change had been blowing for some years now. Other countries have been negotiating without success with the Japanese administration. Japan on the other hand could not bar the doors forever and they knew it. The Americans need Japan’s trade, its ports, and its sea routes. They need a stop where they can reload their coal supply, used as fuel for their steam-powered ships while whaling and trading on the high seas. Another reason the Americans and other countries needed an open Japan was to help shipwrecked sailors and give them safe haven until they could be returned home. Moreover, the Americans along with the European nations foresaw the great revenue from trade.

   To be successful takes a second trip to Japanese shores. In 1854 the arrogant Commander returns with many black hulled war ships, all cannons pointing toward Japan’s heart, Edo, and he demands Japan open its doors. A Japanese emissary orders Perry to dock further south in Nagasaki Bay where all ships were relegated to but the bullying American played his game of “chicken” well, and refused to leave. Since Japan had no military and no navy, they eventually succumbed to the brash American’s demands and he is given his audience with the Emperor. These negotiations ended with the signing of the Kanagawa Treaty, which, allowed among other concessions, significant trade through two ports and the lending of aid to shipwrecked sailors.

   As a show of good faith, Perry brings many gifts. Pistols, carbines, whiskey are some. Telegraph instruments, ocean maps and other mechanical treasures were also given to help the budding country modernize. Japan also agrees to the modern, day-night cycle, and calendar. The emperor actually held an “audience” with the gods to tell them of the change! Last but not least, a locomotive and coal car along with rails, which astonished and frightened the Japanese who had never witnessed steam power!


…The floodgates are opening.


  A new emperor ascends the throne:

In1867 the one hundred-twenty second emperor ascended the throne in Kyoto. He is a mere sixteen years old but is believed to be a direct descendant of the gods. He assumes the name Meiji or “enlightened rule”. The elders in his realm direct him, but it will be his decisions that lead Japan into the future. To lead in this era of change, he moves the imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo, where he also changes the name of the city. He uses an anagram of Kyoto, which means “capital city” and using the same characters, creates the name Tokyo, meaning “eastern capital” or “capital in the east”, is born. It is a new era in history called the Meiji era (1868-1914). The Tokugawa shogun sees fit to step down from his position and power was “restored” to the emperor hence, it is also called the Meiji restoration. The young emperor decrees that all people are equal, dissolving the strict social ladder that kept people from advancing in social status. Samurai are no more. Top knots are to be cut and western attire has become the fad.


One last gasp

   These events anger a number of staunch conservative samurai. The Satsuma clan, stage one last battle to overthrow the new emperor in an attempt to return Japan to its traditional roots. The battle is swift and decisive. The guns and cannons of the emperor’s new conscript army massacre the samurai, most fighting with traditional swords. The battle takes place near Edo and one of the leaders, Samurai Saigo Takamori will be remembered as Japan’s last samurai. What had taken over two and a half centuries to establish, has been wiped out in just over a decade.






The train signifies the end of a dark age for the Japanese and their emergence from a long sleep if you will, to awake and blossom into a modern society,

   The Japan Railway is built parallel to the Tokaido Road. First, the two anchoring stations were built in Tokyo and Kyoto, then, the body of the track was assembled along the route. At times, the train veers from the traditional road, especially in the mountains, and travels around smaller cities to pass through larger and more profitable ones. Cities, towns and villages that lay between stops evaporate, their names forgotten as the train rushes past.

  Although the locomotive symbolizes progress, it comes with a cost… It has killed the Tokaido Road. Much of the traditional route becomes neglected and overgrown, a ghost of its former self. In other sections, trees and cobblestones along with their captivating history are unceremoniously uprooted and replaced with cement and asphalt highway. What used to take weeks to travel now takes mere hours.

    The landscapes and breathtaking vistas become a blur to those who now sit within the train’s belly, oblivious to the beauty that surrounds them. Travelers, who once moved slowly along the Tokaido’s length becoming one with the terrain, are now transported through decades of history in the blink on an eye. 

  Imagine a traveler, eyes filled with desire; gazing out a finger-smudged window from the side of a speeding train, catching a glimpse of the distant Mt. Fuji as the provocative mountain exposes her seductive shoulders, only to have her instantly leave our view as the train speeds past.

    Alas, we have Ando Hiroshige to thank for his compulsion to sketch and the fruits of his labors, his vivid sketches of “old Japan”. His prints become our time capsule to the past, beckoning us in, like the hypnotizing songs of mermaids, sung to capture our minds and imaginations, trapping infatuated hearts forever.


 The Tokaido road did start out as a dusty path and grew into a main artery in Japan’s highway system. Today, it is called highway 1 and still a connecting route to the three major cities, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The Japan Railway runs the length of the Tokaido also, but fear not, it is said that some of the old Tokaido road still exists for those who might gather their own brush and canvas, then, at the fork in the road; take the one now, less traveled.


The years of Japan’s isolation should not be considered a Dark Age. Instead, Japan should be seen as two beauties. Once as a child, innocent and unsoiled by outside influences and then again as a mature adult, full of the wisdom and loveliness that comes with age.





Facts gleaned from these sources:

The Tokaido Road, traveling and representation and Meiji Japan; Jilly Traganou, author

Everyday life in Traditional Japan; Charles Dunn, author

Japan, its history and culture; W. Scott Morton/J. Kenneth Olenik, authors

The Tokaido Road; Lucia St. Clair Robson, author


Memoirs of a secret empire found at:



The “story”, if that is what you call it is original. It is my humble way to appreciate and come to understand a little about Japan’s elaborate history, captivating landscapes, its charming people, and it’s fascinating culture.





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