The Tokaido Highway

The Tokaido was designated Japan’s most important thoroughfare at its creation in 1603. It was to be the Number One highway from the shogun’s capital in Edo (Tokyo) to the imperial capital in Kyoto: the coastal route was easier than the alternative mountain route (the Nakasendo). In 1619, it was extended to Osaka, and the 57 official post houses between the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo and Umeda in Osaka defined the heart of Japan’s political, economic and social structure. Goods, people, and most of all information passed up and down the Tokaido’s length, strictly regulated and efficiently serviced.

They still do, only now they travel on Japan National Route 1 or the Shinkansen, both of which parallel the old road. But the modem highway and express train both cut through hills and shave awkward angles in the name of passenger comfort; and their ribbons of steel and asphalt are anyway hemmed in by buildings and advertising. Almost forgotten, alongside but very much intact, the Tokaido remains, some of it accessible by car, and in some areas like Mie Prefecture, it is 95 per cent intact. Even where the new road is literally on top of the old, the Tokaido is signalled by the shrines, temples and official buildings of its former official status; and one section, in the lovely mountain region between Hakone and Machi has been officially ‘preserved’ – each November a Daimyo Gyoretsu (‘feudal procession’) of about 200 people acting as servants, porters, palanquin-carriers and spear- carrying guards re-enacts typical history. Of the rest – the majority – it is astonishing how much survives of the original road fabric. You could use the 1830 pictorial guide of the Tokaido’s stages, and still recognize most of it. It is one of Japan’s most exciting surprises that you can get so close to its social history.

 

HOW:

By car or on foot

WHEN TO GO:

Year-round (May to October if you plan to hike and/or camp)

TIME IT TAKES:

Traditionally, over the 489 km/303 ml route -15 days (women), 12 days (men), 90 hours (professional and official messengers, operating in relays). Now, 4-12 day tours offer selective highlights and the time to marvel at them. 

BEST HIGHLIGHTS:

Comparing Hiroshige’s 19th century picture of Satta Pass and Yul Town near Mount Fuji – once a very dangerous, narrow section of the Tokaldo, now shared with the JR Tokaido Line, the Japan National Highway 1 and the Tomei  Expressway. 

The 1.5 km (1 mi) of Edoera merchant and domestic buildings at Seki in Mie Prefecture – completely undisturbed since.

The mountain villages and forested hills around Hakone.

Arriving at Kyoto’s Toji, one of Its most Important temples.

YOU SHOULD KNOW:

Official shukuba (‘post-houses’) on the Tokaido had to Include a toiya-ba (courier depot) with horses and personnel at the ready; a sekisho (‘entrance gate’) where papers,
permits and goods were officially examined; and one or more
hatago (‘basket of grass’, originally for horses, and thus ‘accommodation facility’). There were often more than
one of these travellers’ Inns: Mlyajuku, now Atsuta in central Nagoya City, had 248
hatago.

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