When you first start looking at ukiyo-e you almost immediately come across a reference to the famous Tokaido Road. This great highway runs 303 miles from the old capital of Kyoto to what is now Tokyo and for centuries has been the most important arterial route in Japan.
It is impossible to separate the Japanese print artist Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) from this highway and the two remain synonymous even today. It’s a huge subject to cover in one blog post and we shall return to it from time to time, but first a little history.
The route was established in the seventh century but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the road assumed its great importance. The government of the day reinforced the highway and introduced 53 post stations, collections of inns and hostels to make the journey easier. The post stations quickly grew into large settlements and the tradition of travelling the route became fashionable. By the nineteenth century the craze for a kind of virtual tourism through the medium of guide-books and novels became very popular and Hiroshige added a further dimension with his successful and exquisite print series of 1832, The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road. On the back of this success many
print artists produced their own Tokaido series, mostly appropriating the original Hiroshige series as source material and adorning the prints with actor portraits, historical or mythical scenes. Out of this grew the epic, you might say mythologising of a simple route. In many ways similar to the great American Highways like Route 66, the Tokaido Road became a metaphor for aspiration and the setting for national desires about belonging and identity – the road becoming a stand-in if you like for the place of dreams. Like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, the Tokaido became a common arena for the collective imagination.
What of Hiroshige’s great series? Hiroshige was required to accompany a shogunate official party taking the route from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto early in 1832. Whilst making the trip he made careful observational drawings of the start and finish point and scenes and events from each of the 53 intermediate stations en-route. On returning to Edo he then set about producing the famous series of woodblock prints documenting the entire route. His great work was revolutionary, not only as a landscape series but also in his depiction of ordinary scenes of peasant life: porters, fellow travellers, ruffians and peasants, tea shops and inns. The series was an immediate success and Hiroshige returned again and again to the subject, producing comic versions, small formats and vertical series.
Fellow ukiyo-e artists were quick to see the popularity and many imitative series were produced in the mid nineteenth century, perhaps the most famous being the Kunisada 1852 version which uses the Hiroshige landscapes as a backdrop to portraits of actors and scenes from well known kabuki plays. This great road’s place as the spiritual home of the Floating World came to an end with the restructuring of Japanese society under the Meiji Empire and the industrialisation of Japan. In 1872 the Tokaido Railway was established taking traffic away from the road and the traditional route fell into disrepair. The great avenues of trees that were planted to provide cover for foot travellers were almost all cut down and by the twentieth century faster routes by-passed the original highway. Yoshitora’s Tokaido series of the same year (1872) records in its framework of telegraph poles the encroaching modernisation that would eventually see the collapse of this great highway and metaphorically change the heart of the Japanese people.
It is still possible to walk the same route that Hiroshige did in 1832. A very great guide to this epic walk is Rediscovering the Old Tokaido: In the Footsteps of Hiroshige by Patrick Carey.
Toshidama Gallery will be showing several examples of prints picturing the Tokaido Road in our forthcoming Spring Exhibition which opens on the 15th of April 2011.