Follow in the footsteps of the samurai on Japan’s oldest trail
In the 1650s, a Buddhist priest and his companion set out from Tokyo, then called Edo, for a walk several hundred kilometers west along Japan’s Tokaido highway to Kyoto. Traveling like many under the auspices of a pilgrimage, the couple followed the most important trail of the time along a rugged coastline, through forested mountains and over gushing rivers.
Along the way, they tasted local specialties and visited famous sites: temples, shrines, castles and the symmetrical beauty of Mount Fuji. They also had misadventures: at one point, they were chased by a curly-tailed dog.
Unlike other travelers, however, these two men were not real; they were the main characters in a fictional six-volume guidebook called the Tokaido Meishoki (Famous sites along the Tokaido). In it, the author Asai Ryoi, a Buddhist priest who had traveled the Tokaido, used the often humorous adventures of its protagonists to introduce readers to local culture, customs, and historical information centered on the route. He also included simple manga-like drawings – nearly 150 years before the term was coined – to whet the appetite of readers traveling vicariously from the comfort of their tatami mats.
With a growing printing industry and a relatively literate population, the Tokaido Meishoki and other early guides like Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige helped popularize Edo era travel (1603-1868) and laid the foundation for the generations of guidebooks and travelogues that followed. As Nicole Fabricand-Person put it in The Tokaido Road: Journeys through Japanese Books and Prints in the Collections of Princeton Universityfor nearly three centuries, illustrated books as well as later woodcuts “created and fostered the perception that the Tokaido was more than a route along the eastern coast of the country – it was a destination in itself”.
Although the Tokaido no longer exists as a single major trail, its cultural heritage lives on. From food to hospitality and from art to literature, the Tokaido spawned and nurtured all kinds of developments that you can discover today on fragments of the original path.
The great road of the Edo era
The Tokaido was the most important and busiest of the five centrally administered highways of the Edo era, which together linked the de facto capital Edo with the imperial Kyoto and other key parts of Japan. These well-maintained roads were crucial for trade, communications, and pilgrimages, the latter being the only reason most Japanese were allowed to travel.
The five highways also facilitated the alternating residence policy, with which the power Tokugawa shoguns kept a close eye on potential rivals by requiring the more than 200 feudal lords (or daimyo) spread across the country to reside in Edo every two years. Their families remained in the capital as collateral whenever these daimyos returned to their provinces.
To support all this traffic, a series of 53 post stations (similar to small villages or hamlets in their day, though none entirely intact as post stations now) were developed along the Tokaido, so horses can rest or be put out, weary travelers find shelter, food and maybe even enjoy a little entertainment.
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The modest accommodations of Tokaido were the forerunners of the luxurious and traditional ryokans that are still popular. These are places where customers discard their daily clothes for the comfort of a yukata robe, stay in tatami rooms, soak in natural hot spring baths, and indulge in beautifully presented multi-course dinners.
Postal stations may have helped establish Japan omiyage culture (memory). As Fabricand-Person notes, “Each of the 53 official post houses had its own character and its own special products (meibutsu).” Almost every village, town, and city in Japan has meibutsu. Just as Edo-era guidebooks documented them for early travellers, brightly colored travel magazines and brochures let modern travelers know exactly what omiyage to take back to family, co-workers and anyone else listed on their souvenir list (almost obligatory).
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For Llewelyn Thomas, Managing Director of walking in japan, a company that runs guided tours along the old Tokaido route, the meibutsu that gives us the biggest connection to Asai Ryoi day are the local dishes. “The culture and spirit of the route has survived through the shops and the food. In a sense, the Tokaido essentially becomes a staging point between eating various famous things as you go,” says Thomas.
“If you look at the Tokaido in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is arguably the best section to walk today, Yui (which was post number 16) is famous for sakura ebi shrimp,” continues Thomas. “If you stay in the next post station, Okitsu, the famous dish is amadai sweet sea bream. Then you come to Abekawa and you have the Abekawa-mochi rice cakes, before reaching Mariko and the super famous Choji-ya Restaurantwho served tororojiru (grated yam soup) for over 400 years.
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The Tokaido yesterday and today
Near Choji-ya, travelers remember another Tokaido legacy: a billboard displays one of 55 ukiyo e prints in Utagawa Hiroshigeis iconic 53 Tokaido Stations (1834). The hugely influential series captures a moment from each of Tokaido’s 53 post stations and start and end points in Edo and Kyoto.
In this case, the Mariko sign shows two male travelers in a lonely thatched-roof teahouse (the original Choji-ya) served by a lady carrying a baby on her back. Present-day Choji-ya is also thatched and rustic inside, but today Mariko’s old post house is no longer a blot punctuating the countryside. Instead, it’s a quiet, almost rural part of the suburbs of Shizuoka City, stretching along the original Tokaido Road.
Walking here, it’s quiet enough to hear the buzzing of insects as the road briefly skirts the river. Some houses have bags of fruits and vegetables for sale outside on an honor system.
As you follow what would have been the Tokaido road east from Mariko towards Tokyo, you encounter other faces of Japan. Shizuoka is a bustling regional city, which then gives way to a mix of scenic coastal paths through hillside citrus groves and pockets of concrete sprawl, where the modern Tokaido train line and expressway Tokaido muffle the sound of the ocean. There are also other Hiroshige viewpoints, including a classic view of Mount Fuji from Satta Pass when the clouds are in a pleasant mood. Nothing like experiencing a conventional hiking trail.
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The Tokaido comes closest to a nature trail along the Hakone Hachiri section, which stretches about 20 miles between the city of Mishima in eastern Shizuoka and the walled city of Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture. (on the Tokyo border). Hakone is well known in Japan for Lake Ashinoko, onsen baths, ryokan stays and up-close views of Mt Fuji – this is a classic Tokyo detour. But the Hakone Hachiri trail through the area has remained under the radar.
Segments like this may only represent a fraction of the original grand route, but they still have the power to transport visitors to another time.
“Tokaido is a mixture of today and yesterday, and Hakone is one of the places where you can still smell the air of 400 years ago,” says Hakone-born Shin Kaneko. , CEO and chief guide of the travel agency. Explore Hakone. “You won’t see perfectly preserved post houses, but there are still small traditional villages. Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji have barely changed since people walked there in the Edo period.
“The trail still passes through the towering cedar forest, over sections of historic cobblestone trail and, after a steep climb, stops at the 400-year-old Amazake-chaya teahouse,” it continues. “You feel like you’re sweating like previous travelers.”