You know those documentaries that show us the wacky Japan as we know and love it: oddly energetic schoolgirls playing Dance Dance Revolution, working class heroes singing their throats sore in karaoke bars and otaku visiting maid cafes in Akihabara?
This is not that documentary.
In the summer of 1832, Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige traveled from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto along the Tokaido, Japans most important road. Along the way, he made drawings of the 53 post stations that had been established along its 500 km length. Published a few years later, the resulting series of prints would make him one of Japan’s most admired artists.
178 years later, I received a DVD from my grandfather called Tokaido: A Journey. It contained the report of the travels from a certain Luc Cuyvers along the Tokaido. Cuyvers bought one of Hiroshige’s prints and decided to follow in his footsteps to see whether anything is still left of what Hiroshige saw back then.
Sadly enough, not much. The road that connects Kyoto and Tokyo nowadays, Route 1, is one big city. However, traveling along the ‘new Tokaido’ taught Cuyvers –and me- a lot about Japanese society and culture.
In this post I will show you my favorite Hiroshige prints of the Tokaido from the first 5 episodes of the documentary, along with some pictures of how that place looks nowadays. However, since this is Culture Month, I’ll also tell you something about the cultural elements that are typical for that area, then as well as now.
Nihombashi was the starting point of the Tokaido. Hiroshige’s picture shows merchants making way for a daimyo’s cortege. As you may know, feudal Japan was ruled by a military lord, a shogun and smaller regions were ruled by daimyo’s. This picture shows how both peasants and royals alike traveled the Tokaido.
Nowadays, there’s still a bridge in this part of Tokyo. However, there’s a highway built right above it. Such architectural atrocities are typical of Japan, mostly because of the country having to recover fast, after being laid waste during the war, and politicians mostly not caring about beauty or order.
Fujisawa, the sixth station, is the first Tokaido post station outside the area of modern Tokyo. Hiroshige’s print shows a bridge leading towards town, with Yugi-o-Ji temple above the mists. This temple is still present today, however I chose Fujisawa for a very different reason: its wedding church. Even though only one percent of the Japanese is Christian, many Japanese couples opt for a Christian style wedding. The ‘priest’ of the wedding chapel explains that around 70% of all Japanese weddings are Christian-style chapel weddings. Traditionally, Japanese couples give each other their words in the Shinto traditions, however chapel weddings rose to fame around twenty years ago, probably because of the desire to imitate fairy-tale like Hollywood weddings.
Of course, these ‘ceremonies’ are mere symbolism and the ‘churches’ most of the time nothing more than commercial businesses who make big bucks organizing weddings. Weddings are very important in Japan, mostly because they are rather formal and symbolic, two virtues the Japanese cherish. Above all that, the priest explains, the Japanese don’t care if their wedding is celebrated by the standards of a faith they actually don’t believe in. To the Japanese it’s important that there are gods, whether these are the Shinto gods or the Christian gods. That’s why most Japanese are Buddhist and Shintoist at the same time.
After leaving the beautiful Hakone lake behind them, Tokaido travelers arrived in Mishima, the twelfth post. If we may believe Hiroshige, it was rather misty down there. The Taisha temple is still the biggest Shinto sanctuary in the area.
Sadly enough, most buildings were rebuilt in the 1860s so it’s still not what Hiroshige saw. But what the heck is Shinto actually?
A temple priest explains: “Shinto is a Japanese religion of nature that is passed down from generation to generation. It has no laws or writings like other faiths, no prophet and no gods or idols. Shinto is a faith that honors nature in all its forms.”
Hiroshige’s print for Mariko, post number 21, shows two travelers enjoying the local speciality, Tororo jiru, or yam broth, at a wayside teahouse, while watching the plum trees blossom. Basho, Japan’s most famous haiku poet, has been here as well, and enjoyed his stay that much, he wrote a poem about it:
Mariko Juku has grated yam soup
at the time of Plum Blossoms and Fresh Herbs.
Those who played Persona 4 might’ve heard of kigo –words that symbolize the season of the poem. In this case, the kigo is ‘Ume’ (plum blossoms), referencing spring.
Most likely, because of Hiroshoge’s drawing, the restaurant is still there. The Chojiya Inn was established in 1596 and today, there still is the possibility to eat Tororo Jiru made the same way as it was made back then. The fact that people from all over Japan come all tthe way to Chojiya to eat the same dish travellers ate in Hiroshige’s times, proves that, while most of it may be gone, the Tokaido still hasn’t lost its historical satus. This is one of the few places along the current Tokaido where you can –litteraly- taste the past.
Almost halway the Tokaido, at the 26th stop, Nissaka, laid a very steep road. In his sketch of this odd road, Hiroshige drew a group of travelers observing a lone rock. However, “the night weeping stone” isn’t a mere rock. Many legends about the rock circulate, however all of them talk of a pregnant woman who was killed by robbers on her way along the Tokaido. The stone then called out to a priest who succeeded in saving the child. The real rock is still there and according to locals, you can see the carvings the bandit’s sword made in the rock.
Bridges were rare along the Tokaido. The shogunate wanted to keep an eye on the travelers voyaging from Edo to Kyoto and therefore they made sure there would be as few brigdes as possible over the rivers that crossed the Tokaido. In stead, travelers and their belongings were carried over on the back of a ‘carrier’. Thus, not much people would cross the rivers at the same time and the shogun could more or less control the flow of travelers along the Tokaido.
Hiroshige’s print for Kakegawa, post number 27, shows a elderly couple fighting the wind while crossing the bridge and a child chasing and mocking them. When arriving at Kakegawa, Cuyvers pays a visit to a local high school and checks out some of the clubs. Most of these clubs are not simply about playing an instrument or practicing a sport, they’re also about training and are part of teaching students disipline and how to work in a team, something very important in Japanese society. However, one perticular club caught his eye –as well as mine: the Kyudo club.
Kyudo means ‘the way of the bow’ and is a Japanese kind of archery. While archery may seem like an individual discipline, the Kyudo club shows a team at work, with a clearly defined hierarchy and clearly defined rules. Utter concentration, as well as a relaxed posture and inner quietitude are required for this noble sport. A student tells: ”You have to find the right position, but also face your own problems. That we learn, step by step.”
Travelling along the Tokaido shows you the different faces of Japan: one part modern and progressive, one part cherishing its history and nature; one part crazy and load, one part disciplined. The documentary, as well as Hiroshige’s prints showed me, that Japan is even more fascinating than I originally thought. I might make a second part, but I’ll have to watch the final 3 episodes before that.
Watch the entire Tokaido collection by Hiroshige
The Tokaido on Google Earth