Tōkaidō Road

A Brief History

The Tōkaidō Road was an essential part of the Tokugawa period. It connected the imperial capital of Edo to the political capital of Kyoto. With 53 stops, this was thought to be the fastest route between the capitals. These 53 stops were used by the government monitor trade and collect taxes. Throughout the route were also checkpoints that travellers needed to show their travel permits for in order to continue their journey. A good way to think of what the 53 stops along the route are, locations in which travellers could rest and restock their supplies. They had stables for horses, lodging, food and other things for visitors to do. Most of the people who travelled along the route, travelled by foot and only those of the high class travelled by palanquin. Men were most common along the route, as women were not permitted to travel alone and the Tokugawa government restricted them. Traganou notes that there had been various incidents that ordinary women had been caught with shaved heads just so they would be given the chance to travel freely. Furthermore, “obligatory traveling was mainly for administrative and sankin kotai purposes” (Traganou, 66).

Sankin Kotai, or alternate attendance, was created in 1635 by Tokugawa Iemitsu. Simply put, sankin kotai was a way for the shogun to ensure that the daimyo would not have enough money to rebel against him. The daimyo would travel to Edo alternating years (or even months) from all areas of the country. The shogun further ensured that the daimyo didn’t rebel, essentially, by holding the daimyo’s wife and children as ‘hostages’. Furthermore, daimyo were, also, expected to stay in “luxurious honjin” (Blacker, 593). Through, traveling expenses, paying their samurai and servants, and maintaining both their home in their domain and their home in Edo, the shogun was able to ensure that daimyo would not have enough to rebel. Additionally, because of sankin kotai, daimyo used the Tōkaidō Road frequently.

Another group that used Tōkaidō Road were those who went on pilgrimages. However, pilgrimages were “met with disapproval […] on economic grounds,” because deciding to take off weeks meant that “farmers neglected their proper duty and caused a fall in production” (Blacker, 604). Some han ended up placing restrictions. For example, they limited the number of people allowed to go and the duration of their travel time. During this time, a pilgrimage was seen as “an unnecessary luxury” (Blacker, 604).

Ukiyo-e’s literal translation is ‘floating world picture,’ and it used to represent life or courtesans and actors during Edo; however, currently, Ukiyo-e refers to woodblock prints. As Traganou notes, “road-maps of the popular culture were often made by ukiyo-e artists and had varying degrees of pictorial elaboration” (35). A significant figure during this time showing this was Utagawa Hiroshige.

Utagawa Hiroshige, also known as Ando Hiroshige, adopted his name from the Utagawa School, where he studied under Toyohiro. Hiroshige created a series of Ukiyo-e woodcut prints, called “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō” or Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi, after his first time travelling along the Tōkaidō Road in 1832. The “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” are a series of 55 woodblock prints which included every stop along the Tōkaidō, including the first stop in Edo and the last stop in Kyoto. After this, and over the next twenty years, Hiroshige created 16 to 19 different series of the Tokaido road. One thing he was known for was having rain and snow in his scenes (Chiappa, Hiroshige). This led him to become known as the “artist of rain, snow and mist” (Chiappa, Hiroshige). Traganou notes that Hiroshige’s artwork typically showed a “harmonious combination of landscape and figures” (163). Both of these facts are evident on the map I have chosen by him.


The Maps

There were two maps that I chose to look at. First was Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi ichiran created by Andō, Hiroshige, or Utagawa Hiroshige. Second was Tōkaidō meisho ichiran created by Katsushika, Hokusai.

Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi ichiran Andō, Hiroshige, 1797-1858 Oct 4, 1839
Tōkaidō meisho ichiran Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849

There are various types of printing type for woodblock. Starting from sumizuri-e, or ink printed pictures, which used only black ink. To aizuri-e, which are blue printed pictures and used the imported bero-ai, Prussian blue pigment. This was also a pigment that Hiroshige used in other works for the Tokaido road, as well at the map I have selected. The type of pigments mostly used “for these prints were water based, vegetable dyes, which produced a soft and subtle range of colors” and by the time that Hiroshige and Hokusai arrived the “ukiyo-e prints were produced with up to twenty different colors, virtually each requiring its own carved blocked,” (Khan). One thing that is evident and could be argued between the two maps I’ve selected is that “artists were constantly trying to outdo one another in their prints, not only with beautiful colors but also clever compositions” (Khan). We can see examples of both, the use of colors and the compositions in both maps.

In Hiroshige’s we see his use of bold colours. His blues and green are very strong and emphatic. This helps the viewer to distinguish between the red signs and the rest of the background. Furthermore, his use of the mist helps to create an air of mystery and calm. On Hiroshige’s map, there are various towns, as well, one can see a daimyo’s procession travelling through along the road. This is a ten panel map, with the two ends panels represent an unrolled makimono, which is a Japanese scroll, typically read from right to left. As mention in a previous paragraph, Hiroshige, was known as the “artist of rain, snow and mist.” What was see in this map are patches of mist. I interpret his use of mist as a way to fill in gaps in his work. As mentioned before, Hiroshige travelled the road and created the “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido,” so it would make sense for him to have more detail in those individual woodblocks than this map as one could argue that this is more of a summary of the route.

In Hokusai’s map, he uses shades of green and beige to show his map. I think that this print type might be either, benizuri-e, which used red, or sometimes green, ink details or highlights added after the printing process or tan-e, which used orange highlights with a red pigment. Hokusai’s distorted map, according to the metadata, shows “roads, towns and castles.” Both Kyoto and Edo are on the right side of the map, with Mount. Fuji appearing on the left. Additionally, this is noted to be a mandala style of map. Mandala in Sanskrit means circle. Through this meaning, I interpret his map to show the more important city (Edo) in the center, while all others are around it. The reason why I think this is because during this time Edo was the new capital where everyone now gravitated towards.

The placement of both Kyoto and Edo in each map is also unique. What one can see in Hokusai’s map is that each city is in a strange location in comparison to not only each other but also Mount Fuji. Though, the placement of Kyoto and Edo in both maps are slightly accurate.  In Hiroshige’s map, both cities are on the correct side; however, Mount. Fuji is in the background when it should be in the foreground. In Hokusai’s map, both cities are on the right side of the map. When looking at a modern day map of Japan, one can see how Kyoto is lower than both Tokyo (Edo) and Mount. Fuji.

Both maps show the use of finer details. With the bold colours, Hiroshige’s subtly adds in his details, through people traveling along the route and rooftops to signify cities or castle towns. With Hokusai, though his map is more condensed and the lack of striking colours, he still added details. For example, he added in the detailed lining of roofs and walls.

Overall, the Tokaido Road was not only useful for travel and trade, it was also useful in the arts. Since it’s birth, there has been many maps and woodblocks prints created helping to inspire artists in many ways.



Chiappa, J. Noel. 2017. “Glossary Of Woodblock Print Terms”. Mercury.Lcs.Mit.Edu. http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/glossary.html.

Chiappa, J. Noel. 2017. “Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)”. Mercury.Lcs.Mit.Edu. http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/hiroshige.html.

Damian, M. M. (2010). Archaeology through art: Japanese vernacular craft in late edo-period woodblock prints (Order No. 1476575). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (375357773). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/docview/375357773?accountid=14656

“Khan Academy”. 2017. Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/edo-period/a/the-evolution-of-ukiyo-e-and-woodblock-prints.

“Sankin Kotai | Japanese History”. 2017. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sankin-kotai.

“Tokaido Road”. 2017. Hiroshige.Org.Uk. http://www.hiroshige.org.uk/hiroshige/tokaido/tokaido_road.htm.

Traganou, Jilly. The Tokaido Road: Traveling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan. Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.


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