Winding along the eastern coast of Japan, the Tokaido was the most traveled road during the Edo period (1603-1868). By 1689, fifty-three stations connected the eastern capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), the seat of the shogun, to the imperial capital of Kyoto, the home of the emperor. Cutting across rivers and mountains, this artery of Edo period Japan pulsed folklore, politics, artistic inspiration, and insatiable zeal for adventure.
Hiroshige, Kusatsu from 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1855. Ronin Gallery.
In the early 19th century, Hiroshige captured life on the Tokaido as never before. Born in Edo in 1797, Hiroshige was raised in a minor samurai family and his father belonged to the firefighting force assigned to Edo Castle. While he began his artistic training in 1811, Hiroshige’s genius went largely unnoticed until 1832. According to current scholarship, that year Hiroshige accompanied the official delegation traveling the Tokaido to deliver the shogun’s annual gift of horses to the emperor. The artist was so inspired by his experience traversing the varied and beautiful landscape that he transformed his many travel sketches into designs for full-color prints immediately upon his return. These compositions became the incomparable 53 Stations of the Tokaido, a series of 55 prints published by Hoeido between 1832 and 1833.
The enormous popularity of this first Tokaido series led Hiroshige on a lifelong artistic exploration of the famous highway. He designed over three-dozen interpretations of the Tokaido over the course of his career. Among shifting formats and varied emphases, the 1855 series 53 Stations of the Tokaido, known as the Upright Tokaido, stands out as one of Hiroshige’s most popular visions of the road. In this 55 print series, he explores the familiar path from a new perspective. Published by Tsutaya Kichizo (Koeido), the Upright Tokaido breaks from horizontally oriented landscapes, using vertical space to capture the distinctive beauty of each station. Known for its distant views and plentiful waterside scenes, this series presents Hiroshige’s bold eye for composition and enduring romance with the Japanese landscape.
Hiroshige, Fujikawa from 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1855. Ronin Gallery.
The history of the Tokaido begins long before Hiroshige’s time. Though the road attracted travelers as early as the 8th century, it became an exciting and integral aspect of life during the Edo period. As centuries of ancient feudal wars came to an end in 1603, Japan entered an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Surpassing one million residents, Edo became Japan’s largest city. The Tokaido became the vital channel of administration and transportation, essential to the political stability of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate and to the economic health of Edo. The road was tactically designed for battle and enabled the careful regulation of trade and travelers.
The majority of traffic on the Tokaido resulted from sankin kotai, or alternate residence duty. By 1642, all daimyo (regional lords) were required to spend a portion of each year in Edo. Between 250 and 280 daimyo passed through the capital in a given year. While a daimyo was allowed to return to his feudal domain following his allotted service (often a period of six months), his family would remain in Edo as collateral. Through sankin kotai, the shogunate deprived regional lords of the time or funds to stage a coup.
In addition to obligatory travelers, the Tokaido attracted great numbers of merchants, monks, messengers, pilgrims, and adventurers. The average messenger could travel from Edo to Kyoto in 10 to 14 days, but if the message was more urgent, the wealthy senders could choose an express service. This relay method took a total of approximately 3 days and 10 hours. Aside from these official couriers and a steady flow of merchants pedaling their goods, the Tokaido surged with pilgrims. Though guides, novels, and woodblock prints reveal the widespread fervor for adventure, travel for the sake of pleasure remained prohibited.
Many chonin (members of Edo’s newly emerged merchant class) visited Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines to satisfy their wanderlust. Though travel restrictions had loosened, religious journeys were the only sanctioned form of travel for commoners. While certainly some of these pilgrimages were religiously motivated, many chonin traveled for pleasure under the pretense of pilgrimage. The Tokaido promised local souvenirs, regional delicacies, and storied outlooks, all of which were described in the popular guidebooks of the time. Familiar with these works, the Edo-period traveler would embark on their journey aware of the pleasures and dangers of the road ahead.
Hiroshige, Yui from 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1855. Ronin Gallery.
Hiroshige’s wholehearted discovery and celebration of travel revived the landscape genre. Tracing back to the Heian period (794-1185), meisho-e, or pictures of famous places, were tied to waka poetry, pairing specific, idealized landscapes with sentimental poetic verse. Hiroshige traded this stale, aristocratic conception for recognizable scenes of contemporary Japan. These works were relatable to Edo’s burgeoning merchant class, inviting the viewer to capture a memory or revel in travel aspirations. His ability to create designs that convey an intimacy of life on the road and a palpable atmosphere of each specific moment is unsurpassed. By his death in 1858, he had produced over 5,000 unique print designs, more than 2,000 of which presented scenic views of his beloved Japan.
Amidst changing seasons and creative viewpoints, the Upright Tokaido guides the viewer through each station of this historic road, providing a window into Edo-period culture with each print. Hiroshige incorporates the use of reflection and single-point perspective into his distinct pictorial style to create daring and dynamic compositions. His innovative use of cropping and diagonal line emphasizes the natural splendor of the journey. Often reduced to silhouettes, travelers become secondary to the landscape in this series. Hiroshige takes advantage of the vertical orientation to create expansive views with distant horizons, frequently marked by Mt. Fuji. With a lyricism of color and form, a palpable warmth, and creative composition, Hiroshige forefronts the natural beauty of the Tokaido. While novels, prints, and guidebooks celebrate the human pleasures and pitfalls of the journey, the Upright Tokaido resounds as an ode to the Japanese landscape.
1. Though the venture began as a collaborative between effort Takenouchi Magohachi (Hoeido) and Tsuruya Kiemon, only 11 prints were released jointly. Hoeido alone published the remaining 44 designs.
2. Donald Jenkins, The Floating World Revisited (Honolulu: Portland Art Museum and University of Hawaii, 1993), 7.