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Travels through Tokugawa Japan

Dr Sonia Favi explores the travel literature of early modern Japan.

Dr Sonia Favi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Fellow who is carrying out postdoctoral research at the John Rylands Library on the Japanese Collection. In this blog post she introduces some of the maps, prints and guidebooks available to travellers in Tokugawa Japan…

The current travel restrictions under which we are all living as a result of the coronavirus pandemic would not have been wholly unfamiliar to residents of Tokugawa Japan.

The Tokugawa family, who controlled Japan’s government from 1603 until 1868, outlawed travel abroad and established checkpoints to limit movement within the country, as a way to preserve peace (and its own power): non-essential travel was banned. 

Travel permits were issued for work. Goods still needed to be shipped, services to be provided. Local lords (daimyō) from all over Japan were required to take periodical residence, with their retinue of warriors (samurai) and family, in Edo (now Tōkyō), the Capital of the Tokugawa. Travel was also permitted for health and religious reasons, allowing visits to the great temples, shrines and sacred mountains of Japan. 

It is hard, however, to contain the human inclination to explore. And so it happened that “sickly” widows presented permits to travel to hot springs conveniently far from home. And that groups of pilgrims planned their routes so as to touch as many sightseeing spots, shops and restaurants as possible along the road. Not everyone would get away with it, but, in a growing climate of political stability, this loophole left space for the development of a tourist industry. 

Just as today people across the world are turning to books, television, and the internet to fulfil their need to explore, for those in Tokugawa Japan who still couldn’t leave home, literature and art offered a way to explore with the mind. Publishing houses – encouraged by innovations in printing techniques and by a growing literacy – produced maps, prints, fictional works, guides and encyclopaedias, addressed to consumers of all social standing. Some works became true best-sellers, as was the case for the picaresque novel Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (1802), where two simple-minded protagonists travelled (with many detours) to the temples of Kyoto, along the Tōkaidō. 

The Tōkaidō, a 514-km-long highway that connected Edo to Kyoto, was, by far, the busiest and most represented travel route of the time. Today we can embark on a journey on it from the comfort of our own homes, using the University of Manchester’s digital collections to travel in the same virtual landscapes that stretched the imagination of Tokugawa readers. 

Leaving Edo

The starting point of the Tōkaidō was Nihonbashi, the first of fifty-three post stations along the road. 

This is how it appeared in the popular illustrated encyclopaedia (setsuyō-shūEdo daisetsuyō kaidaigura (John Rylands Japanese Collection, Japanese 2). The work (which had at least three successful editions since 1704 – this is a 1864 impression of a 1863 edition) is an overview of the geography and history of “Great Japan”. In its first section, it collects a number of well-known landscapes.

Nihonbashi was right at the centre of Edo, a metropolis of one million people. At most times of day it would be bustling with traffic, with working men and women and samurai crossing the bridge that connected the two sides of the Nihonbashi river. Those who had a moment to spare could enjoy the view of Mount Fuji from the bridge. With no skyscrapers, the mountain was clearly visible, on clear days, from the city.

Fuji dominates another illustration from the first section of the work. The highest mountain of Japan would loom over travellers from afar for most of the first stage of their journey on the Tōkaidō. 

By the end of the Tokugawa period, Fuji was a cultural icon, at the centre of a thriving travel industry. Its Sengen Shrine was home to an annual religious festival that attracted many visitors. Fuji confraternities (fujikō), based in Edo, organized pilgrimages to the mountain. 

People who ventured there could bring back souvenirs. One of them was the map Fujisan shinkei zenzu (Japanese 70), printed and distributed by the Sengen Shrine since 1848.

The map is an aerial representation (a style for which the painter, Utagawa Sadahide, was famous, so much that he was known as sora tobu eshi, “the flying painter”). It depicts the two divine founders of the Fuji cult at the centre of the crater, and pilgrims on the slopes. It could be cut and assembled as a 3D reproduction of the mountain. It was a keepsake of the journey, or a gift for those who couldn’t afford it: a commodified way to experience the sacredness of Fuji at home.

The “famous places” of the Tōkaidō

Fuji was not the only attraction on the Tōkaidō. To find others, one could rely on Tōkaidō meisho zue (Japanese 43). 

Meisho zue were a popular form of large format, multi-volume guides. They presented meisho (famous places) from selected areas, through pictures, descriptions, historical or legendary narrations, and poetry. 

Tōkaidō meisho zue, published in Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka in 1797, collected well-known pilgrimage sites, historical and literary landmarks on the Tōkaidō. One example is Hamana no Hashi (Hamana bridge), a location near current Shizuoka, recurrent in Japanese classical poetry. 

The actual bridge, built in 861, had been destroyed by an earthquake in the fifteenth century, and in the Tokugawa period the river was crossed by boat. Poetry lovers, however, wouldn’t be let down by the meisho zue: the “virtual” journey, in this case, made up for a lost reality.   

Tōkaidō meisho zue also collected “new” meisho – commercial and tourist sites on the rise. This was the case, for example, of Mishima. Its well-known shrine was disregarded in the guide in lieu of a different sort of attraction: its post station, renowned for prostitutes.

A “must see” landmark on the Tōkaidō, near Kyoto, was Mount Hiei, the site of the well-known and prestigious Enryakuji Buddhist complex (founded in 788). In Tōkaidō meisho zue, it appeared in a two-page illustration. A single-page illustration also followed, showing the view from the top of the mountain.


The streets of the Old Capital

Kyoto, with its elegant palaces and temples, was a very popular tourist destination.

It was one of the oldest cities of Japan, founded in 794 as the seat of the Imperial Power, with a rectilinear grid of streets evoking the grandeur of Chinese capitals. 

In the Tokugawa period, it was still the residence of the Emperor, and, formally, the Capital. It would officially lose this status only in 1868, when the Emperor moved to Edo (hence formally named Tōkyō, “Eastern Capital”). It had, however, already lost its centrality as political powerhouse. The Emperor and his Court were just a symbol – albeit a powerful one, which by the mid-nineteenth century would inspire rebellion against the Tokugawa.

With the allure of its aristocratic past, Kyoto remained a tenacious cultural competitor to Edo. 

This is why it was also a popular subject for city maps. Many, like the one above (Shinzō saiken kyō ezu daizen, Japanese 94, 1834), were printed in pocket format. They were meant to be folded and brought around as a practical guide to the city. They were also, however, pieces of art, a mirror to the beauty and order of the urban space of the Old Capital. They were, again, a way to roam and admire its streets even from the comfort of one’s home. 

Find out more: 

  • Wigen, Karen; Sugimoto, Fumiko; Karacas, Cary (2016) (eds.). Cartographic Japan. A History in Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nenzi, Laura (2008). Excursions in identity: travel and the intersection of place, gender, and status in Edo Japan. Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press.
  • Berry, Mary E. (2006). Japan in print. Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period. Berkeley: University of California Press.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 794595

6 comments on “Travels through Tokugawa Japan

  1. Love the post

  2. John bromley-Davenport

    For everyone who would like some light relief in these difficult times, click on the link to listen to my performance of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comic tale Three Men in a Boat. Treat youseles to a really good laugh!

  3. Penelope Blackburn

    Thank for sharing your lovely article🏯I’m currently reading Edmund De Waal’s, ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance,’ and both relate beautifully. Europeans had such a fascination with all things Japanese, especially by the mid Nineteenth Century; it would appear it was big business collecting Japanese Art. We had, and still have! a fascination with it’s culture and landscape and people, I hope I get to go there one day!🌈🏯🏔In the mean time I’ll have to manage with books and pictures🤗

  4. Ana Elisa

    Really enjoyed this post! Loved how you wove the historic significance when describing and explaining the popularity/usefulness of the images and maps. Thank you!

  5. Pingback: Travels through Tokugawa Japan — The John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog – Truth Troubles

  6. Pingback: John Rylands Research Institute | Geographical visions of Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) in the John Rylands Library - John Rylands Research Institute

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