"If you ever plan to motor west,
travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six."
(Lyrics by Bobby Troup, recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1964)
The road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto was called the Tokaido and it was the most important and busiest road in old Japan. Today nothing is left of it but a small stone-paved path in the mountains, where the tourist buses stop.
The Tokaido probably would have been forgotten, if it had not been immortalized with a series of 55 prints by Ando Hiroshige, 1797-1858, one of the great masters of Japanese printmaking. The series is called "The 55 Stations of the Tokaido" or Tokaido no Gojyusan Tsugi in Japanese.
During the period of the Warring Provinces, Japan was ravaged for more than hundred years by powerful regional warlords, the daimyo. They fought against each other for supremacy with ever-changing alliances, until finally in the early 17th century one of them, Ieyasu Tokugawa, could unite and pacify Japan under his rule. From now on the Tokugawa shoguns ruled over the Japanese Island until 1868.
Ieyasu Tokugawa was a clever statesman. He established a system of rules that was aimed at preventing the local rulers from getting again too powerful. The daimyo had to maintain a permanent residence in Edo (Tokyo), the new capital. It was a kind of family hostage situation.
Furthermore the daimyo were obliged to pay their respect to the shogun in large processions with all whistles and bells every two years, later every four years. This produced a considerable necessity for increased traffic between the provinces and the capital.
At the time of Ieyasu's unification of Japan, the Japanese emperor had his residence for centuries in Kyoto, the former capital. He had been a powerless figurehead for centuries. Nevertheless, the shogun as the actual rulers, wanted to avoid any obvious offenses of the emperor and followed a system of formal ceremonies and regular visits and gifts to the emperor. More traffic on the road!
To facilitate this growing need for comfortable travel and to be able to send troops fast into remote provinces, Ieyasu had decreed the expansion of the road system from Edo to Kyoto and into the other provinces. 53 stations were established along the Tokaido. These were posts with government offices, lounges, restaurants, snack booths and all the facilities that you would find in a rest area along today's modern highways.
And last but not least, the Tokaido was a necessity for commercial traffic of goods and merchandise. In the early 19th century, Edo was one of the largest cities of the world with a population of estimated one million inhabitants.
Ando Hiroshige, was born in 1797 as the son of a low-ranking samurai in the service of the fire brigade assigned to Edo castle, the residence of the shogun. Within the rigid system of classes, Hiroshige had inherited the post from his father.
At the age of 13 - the usual age in feudal Japan to start a profession or apprenticeship - Hiroshige became a pupil of the printmaker Toyohiro Utagawa.
Hiroshige's career developed slowly. But by and by he could make himself a name in Edo - with depictions of birds and flowers (kacho-e) and with a series about famous places in Edo.
In 1832 or to other sources maybe as early as 1830, Hiroshige had a possibility to accompany an official delegation of the shogun on its way to the imperial court in Kyoto. The delegation had two white horses with them - a present for the emperor.
Hiroshige made sketches of each station and of spectacular or trivial views along the road. When he came back to Edo, he presented the sketches to several publishers. The famous series 53 Stations of the Tokaido was born.
The 55 panels were published over a period of at least one year - according to most sources from 1833 to 1834. The challenging project was undertaken by the artist together with two different publishers, Tsuruya Kiemon and Takenouchi Magohachi (Hoeido).
One event may have been a major driving force for the whole undertaking. In 1831 Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji had been published and had been a commercial success.
Hiroshige's series followed in the commercial footsteps of the "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji". Tokaido no Gojyusan Tsugi proved so successful that Hiroshige should continue to produce more series of the Tokaido in all sizes and shapes as well as print images of another road in old Japan, the Kisokaido. Even cooperative works were set up with Kunisada and Kuniyoshi - two other great printmakers of the first half of the 19th century.
Needless to say, that Hiroshige was now too busy to pursue any longer the task of an official of the fire department. He had quit that post in 1832 anyway.
These are the names of all 55 stations of the Tokaido, starting in Edo (Tokyo) at nihonbashi, the Nihon Bridge. As the starting and destination points (Nihonbashi in Edo and Kyoto Bridge) are no stations in the sense of the other 53, Hiroshige titled the series as 53 Stations, although it consisted of 55 designs/prints.
In 1862, four years after Hiroshige had passed away of cholera, an incident on the Tokaido, known as the "Richardson Affair" had led to a severe crisis in the relations of Japan with the Western powers.
In 1854 Japan had been more or less forced by the U.S. in the "Treaty of Kanagawa" to open the country for trade relations with the West. Similar treaties followed with England, France, Russia and the Netherlands.
The presence of Westerners was restricted to the tiny, artificial island of Yokohama. The treaties and the presence of foreigners were considered as unfavorable for Japan and were heavily opposed by many Japanese and their influential provincial leaders, the daimyo.
One day in 1862, three Englishmen and a lady from the Western Yokohama enclave went on an excursion ride on the old Tokaido. On the road they hit on a formal procession of one of these opposing, provincial leaders, the daimyo of Satsuma in the South of Japan on his way to Edo.
What happened was apparently a clash of cultural misunderstandings mixed with stupid behavior of one of the Englishmen, Charles Richardson, and too much hot temper on the side of the Japanese party. In any case, some samurai who accompanied the procession, drew their swords and began to attack the Englishmen. Richardson lay dying on the ground. The rest of the party could flee.
This incident had roused an outcry among the British public. And several months later, a combined British and French expedition force bombarded Kagoshima, capital of the Satsuma province, with artillery shells.
But obviously none of the parties involved was politically interested in an escalation or felt strong enough to achieve victory. Thus the "Richardson affair" ended with this demonstration of saber rattling so typical for the period of imperialism in the 19th century.
Author: Dieter Wanczura