The Tōkaidō Road: Connecting Japan

  • Exhib_slideshow_tokaido

    Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Winter Desolation at Hamamatsu, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tökaidö, Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), ca. 1833-1834, Color woodblock print, Gift of James A. Michener, 1978, (17255)

November 26, 2009 - January 24, 2010
Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

November 25, 2009 -January 24, 2010
When the Tokugawa shogunate moved the political center of Japan from the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto to Edo (modern Tokyo), the Tōkaidō (“Eastern Sea Route”) connecting the two cities took on a special prominence. One of several major highways, the Tōkaidō was the route used to transport the shogun’s annual official tribute to the emporer—a symbolic offering of white horses. There was also a steady stream of daimyö processions, sometimes with as many as 2,000 retainers, along the Tōkaidō. Daimyö were regional lords who were required to alternate their residences between Edo and their fiefdoms, leaving their immediate families hostage in the new capital.

Non-official traffic—of pilgrims, merchants and other travelers—also increased rapidly when travel restrictions were eased in the late Edo period. The travel boom led to new towns springing up along the road, all with inns, teahouses, restaurants, and souvenir shops. At the same time, illustrated guidebooks, travel literature and fiction, and art depicting famous locations around the country were issued to meet the demands of an audience eager for information about the Japan beyond the narrow confines of their homes.

The young Utagawa school artist Hiroshige (1797-1858), still in his thirties and struggling to develop his individual style, collaborated with the publisher Hoeidö around 1833 to release the single print series The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō Road. The instant blockbuster vaulted Hiroshige to stardom and established him as one of the foremost print artists of the late Edo period. Hiroshige would return to the & Tōkaidō theme over and over again, and also to other major highways such as the Kisökaidö. His output for the rest of his life was dominated by prints depicting locations of natural beauty and special interest all over Japan, culminating with Famous Places of the Sixty Provinces, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, the last inspired by the series of the same name by his predecessor Katushika Hokusai. However, he remains best known for his first Tōkaidō series, now internationally recognized as the ultimate expression of a distinctly “Japanese” artistic sensibility.