Places Along the Tokaido

Places Along the Tokaido

Item number: T-3690
Size: H 47" x W 110" (119.4 x 279.4 cm)
Era: Edo period (1615-1868)

Other views

ca. 1700

Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, mineral colors, gofun (white powdered shell), and gold flakes on paper with gold leaf

The Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road), which runs alongs Japan’s Pacific coast from Kyoto to the eastern Kanto plain, has played an important role in Japanese life for more than 1,300 years, but it was the return of centralized government toward the end of the sixteenth century that ushered in its golden age. In 1601 Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the shogunate that would bear his name, designated 53 regularly spaced shukuba (stations or staging-posts) along the route, which had now acquired a new strategic role as it linked Kyoto, the imperial capital, with Edo (present-day Tokyo), the seat of Ieyasu’s military regime. In particular, the Tōkaidō was vital to the implementation of Ieyasu’s key policy of sankin kōtai (alternate attendance), under which the country’s more than 200 daimyo (feudal lords) were obliged to leave their wives and families in Edo as permanent hostages and spend an allotted period of time there themselves, returning to their own domains for the rest of the year. As the Japanese economy grew and prolonged peace made the journey less hazardous, the Tōkaidō became an early case of “ribbon development”: not long before the time this screen was painted the German visitor Engelbert Kaempfer, traveled along the road and later noted that: “On leaving one village, one enters the next, and in this fashion rows of houses built next to each other continue for many miles with merely a change in name.”1

In addition to government officials, messengers, and elaborate daimyo processions, the Tōkaidō was increasingly thronged with merchants, pilgrims, and sightseers of every class who returned to their home cities with news of the man-made and natural wonders they had seen along the road, the tales they had heard, the regional cuisines they had tasted, and the omiyage (local souvenirs) they had purchased. The best known depiction of the Gojūsantsugi (53 Stations) is Utagawa Hiroshige’s first series of woodblock views of the Tōkaidō, published in 1831–4, about ten years after the final installment of Hizakurige, a comic novel by Jippensha Ikku which recounts the misadventures of two would-be Edo sophisticates, Yaji and Kita, as they make their way along the road, chiefly in pursuit of food, sake, and women. In contrast to these mass-market celebrations of the Tōkaidō, the present screens, executed over a century before, reflect a time when the journey was still a somewhat more exotic, less codified experience. Basing his approach on the earlier pictorial tradition of Rakuchū Rakugai zu (Scenes Inside and Outside Kyoto), with their bird’s-eye vignettes of the bustling imperial capital separated by golden clouds, the artist has created a richly detailed imaginary journey that likely combines elements of direct experience with a strong admixture of hearsay and fantasy.

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