Late Edo Era Maps of the Tōkaidō: Distortion and Representation

To the Japanese, and to travelers of Japan, the Tōkaidō is a well-known historical route that stretches from the old capital city of Kyōto, to Tōkyō (what was known as “Edo” in the Tokugawa Period).  In fact, the route that the modern Tōkaidō-Shinkansen takes travels roughly along this historic path.  Owing to its historical, cultural, and economic importance, it should come as no surprise that many maps and other pictorial depictions were made of it during the Tokugawa Period.  What perceptive observers may notice upon first encountering such maps is that many of them do not fit into the schema of what a modern person would envision a map to be.  They are often presented in unusual perspectives, or involve spatial and/or unexpected geographical distortion.

One such map I wish to introduce as an example is the Tōkaidō meisho ichiran, produced by the renowned woodblock print artist known as Hokusai.

Fig. 1: Tōkaidō meisho ichiran by Hokusai cdm.tokugawa.1-0216043.0000fullSource:


This map is a representation of the aforementioned Tōkaidō, depicting notable roads, towns, and castles along the route.  What might strike one as peculiar about this map is that its perspective has been highly distorted, rendering Mt. Fuji in the upper-left corner, with Edo in the lower-right, and Kyoto in the upper-right.  The Pacific Ocean is in the center of the map.  This is a geographically impossible orientation to have by simple rotation.


Cartography and Purpose


Being so profoundly warped (and being rather large, at that), it is difficult to imagine that this map would have served potential travelers of the route by way of guiding them directionally.  It has been suggested that the distinction between maps and other artistic visual media such as paintings or other types of illustrations during the medieval era, and leading up to its end, were not quite as clear-cut as they are in the modern era.  The fact that this map, itself a woodblock print, was illustrated by a famous woodblock print artist may hint at this trend.  Cartography inherently requires the projection of spatial, political, and/or other sorts of information onto a 2D plane (conventionally speaking), and so we can understandably assume that cartographers are highly selective about what information they represent, and how they represent it in accordance with their goals.  It should also be noted that in Japan, and elsewhere, prior to the early  modern period, travelers did not necessarily rely on, or even trust, maps in the same way that a modern traveler might.  This may be due to any number of factors, including the difficulty of accurate surveying, the reliability of signage and/or route infrastructure, or perhaps the fact that topographically accurate maps were often the domain of high level government and military officials, who had a vested interest in keeping such valuable information from being common knowledge.

Given this, we have room to ascertain the aims this map may serve, and how the spatial distortion we might be a result of this.  Art depicting meisho, which can roughly be interpreted as “places of renown”, had existed since the Heian Era, and is known to have had ties with waka poetry culture, and the utamakura they many of them were thematically tied to.  It is telling that many such waka poems and the utamakura to which they refer were not necessarily described in ways that accorded to reality, and that in fact, many times, the authors had never visited the oft-cited and well-renowned sites.  Could this importance of ideal over substance in the literature of the time have influenced cartographical philosophy as well?

Regardless, these works apparently inspired ukiyo-e artists, such as Hokusai, to create prints with similar themes, especially as the Edo Period’s famous 200 years of peace had ushered in an era of economic prosperity leading to increased interest and engagement in travel for both recreation and other purposes.  These illustrations likely retained some influence from earlier examples of Japanese cartography, resulting in depictions that were not always geographically contiguous, and perspectives that were not necessarily functional in the modern conception of maps.

In the case of our map by Hokusai, it is worth considering that it was produced in 1818, late in the Edo Period, and indeed nearing the Meiji Period, when one can expect that the Tōkaidō road was already highly developed in terms of its infrastructure, and had wide renown.  It is entirely possible, even likely, that the perspective of this map was chosen in order to represent and name the many roads and locations along the route in a compact and aesthetically pleasing manner, rather than to provide accurate geographic direction (the ichiran in its name may be telling, as it roughly translates to “overview”).  The purpose of this piece may not be to allow viewers to navigate spatial routes, but rather informational ones.

Further evidence to suggest that this piece was one of aesthetic purpose is located in the top and bottom right corners of the map beside Kyōto and Edo are located, respectively.


Fig. 2:  Poetry on the map











The script in the boxes next to the red circles with the cities’ names, is written in hentaigana (変体仮名), a syllabic system that used characters different from standard hiragana to represent the sounds of Japanese language.

Kyōto poem: 







Edo poem: 




Note: Transcription into hiragana was kindly provided by my girlfriend’s father, and question marks indicate uncertainty


Unfortunately, I lack familiarity with classical Japanese and am unable to parse the meaning of these poems.  Their presence, however, along with the other design features of this map (as well as the existence of many other works illustrating similar subject matter) suggests incredible cultural significance of the Tōkaidō and its primary destinations of Kyōto and Edo.


How it All Began: Sankin Kōtai (参勤交代)


Proceeding from the sakoku closed-country policy of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan was ushered into a state of relative peace for some 200 odd years, the latter half of which saw an explosion of consumer economy, travel, and popular culture, the likes of which had never been seen before.  This is what facilitated both the means of production of, and demand for, maps much like the Tōkaidō meisho ichiran.  But how did this occur?

The shogunate decree that all daimyo must perform sankin kōtai can be said to have started it all.  Every lord, under this system, had to spend half the year in Edo, where his family was held effectively hostage by the Edo shogunate, and then return to his own domain for the remainder of the year.  The trip was both lengthy, and prohibitively expensive, as lords were expected to travel in the kind of luxury worthy of their station.  Some figures have it that they may have each spent as much as half of their yearly incomes on the trip alone (this excludes the expenses of having had to maintain residences in both Edo and their home domain).  This phenomenal cost in terms of both time and money effectively meant that they would be unable to fund or incite rebellions, which contributed to the peace the era was known for.  These trips also necessitated a means of paying for goods and services along the way, and precipitated the development of a standardized coin currency accepted across the nation, resulting in a sort of centralized banking system based in Ōsaka.  The needs of traveling daimyo and the cash-flow into towns and shops and rest stations along routes such as the Tōkaidō created an explosion of the Edo period economy, a burgeoning middle-class with the financial means to travel, the desire to consume, and the necessary infrastructure to support it all.  Although in theory, travel was highly restricted by the shogunate, in practice it is suspected that many who could afford to do so would travel under the pre-tense of religious pilgrimages or other official reasons sanctioned by the government.

It is also important then, to realize that it is also during this period that woodblock printing and prints became exceptionally popular, with famous artists such as Hokusai gaining wide renown.  While original colour prints would have been expensive, monotone prints were often available to the wider public at affordable prices, allowing for the spread of popular culture, and increased literacy rates.  Many of these consumers would have been travelers, looking for travel guide-books, and presumably maps of all sorts.  These depictions of travel and travel locations were produced in great numbers toward the end of the period, and many would have served their consumers many different purposes.  Some may have been route maps and guides to attractions and local specialties, and yet others may have been expensive décor for wealthy lords or merchants.


Fig. 3: Tōkaidō Meisho Zue (1864) by Utagawa, Yoshitora.  



For example, the above map, a meisho zue, depicts a daimyo’s procession from Edo (bottom right) to Kyōto (upper left) through the Tōkaidō.  There are elements of temporal and physical displacement here, as the procession can be seen winding through towns and landmarks across the spread.  It is fairly clear that this work’s primary purpose is to be an aesthetic depiction of a procession through the highway.  Works such as these would likely have been exceptionally expensive given their size and detail, and demonstrate the cultural and historical importance of these processions.  Anyone who may have possessed this would not have been a typical traveller, but must have been quite a wealthy individual.


So What IS a Map?


We can note now, having considered the historical and cartographical perspectives, that maps, and specifically these panoramic maps of the Tōkaidō, need not necessarily serve the purposes to which we have all been familiarized as users of GPS and services such as Google Maps.  The “cartographers” were not always expert surveyors and were more often than not artists commissioned to produce aesthetic works.  Even those who wished to produce accurate maps may not have had access to the information to do so.  Consumers at the time produced demand for artwork, illustrated travel guides, maps, and all these categories may have had lines that were blended together in ways that we might find both intriguing, and confusing.




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Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Japan in print: information and nation in the early modern period. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2007.

Goree, Robert Dale, Jr. “Fantasies of the Real: Meisho Zue in Early Modern Japan.” Order No. 3414979,Yale University, 2010.

Traganou, Jilly. “The Tokaido—Scenes from Edo to Meiji Eras.” Japan Railway & Transport Review 13 (September 1997): 17-27.

Traganou, Jilly. The Tôkaidô Road : Travelling and Representation in Edo and Meiji Japan (1). London, US: Routledge, 2004. ProQuest ebrary.

Vaporis, Constantine N. “To Edo and Back: Alternate Attendance and Japanese Culture in the Early Modern Period”. Journal of Japanese Studies. 23(1). 1997. 25-67