Lasting Impressions from an Artist's Expedition

When a person of certain interests hears "the Tōkaidō road" their mind is automatically drawn to Utagawa Hiroshige's seminal series of woodcut prints, "The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō." Hiroshige's work is generally regarded as one the pinnacles of ukiyo-e genre, which began a decline after his death.

During Hiroshige's lifetime, laws prohibited the depiction of courtesans and actors in ukiyo-e but loosened travel restrictions, so the subject of travel scenes and landscapes became popular in ukiyo-e. Hiroshige's first wife often financed his trips to sketch scenes around Japan, but in 1832 he was invited to travel along the Tōkaidō with an official delegation taking an annual gift of horses from the Shogunate in Edo to the empire in Kyoto. The sketches that he drew on this voyage became the famous "53 Stations".

The coastal Tōkaidō road was the major artery for trade and communication through Japan until the establishment of the railroad in the late nineteenth century. Much of the traffic along the road consisted of regional daimyo lords and their households. These lords were required to perform sankin kotai, or alternate residence duty. Twice a year they would live up to 6 months in Edo and then return to their home regions, leaving their families behind in Edo as collateral to ensure their loyalty to the Shogunate.

Pleasure travel for commoners was forbidden on the Tōkaidō road, but those making pilgrimages to the various shrines along it were permitted. While many of the pilgrims traveling the route had genuine religious intentions, using a pilgrimage as an excuse to see the sites was common practice among the newly emerging merchant class. And despite the travel restrictions, guidebooks describing lodgings and highlights were widely distributed.

The two original Hiroshige prints from "The 53 Stations" in our March Gallery Auction come from Hiroshige's series published by Tsutaya Kichizo.

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The first depicts Station 34, Yoshida. Yoshida was a prosperous castle town, and boasted one of the only major bridges along the Tōkaidō. It also had a robust community of "meal-serving women" who provided much of the "entertainment" along the route.

The second print is a scene from Station 26, Kakegawa. This was the last stop along the road for travelers to the Akiba Shrine, popular with pilgrims praying for fire prevention. The gates in the print mark the boundary between the secular and the religious Shinto world, though the shrine itself was another 20 miles up a treacherous mountain path.

Hiroshige became a Buddhist monk in his later life and died during the Edo cholera epidemic of 1858. Upon his death he left a poem: "I leave my brush in the East / And set forth on my journey / I shall see the famous places of the Western Land" The Western Land he refers to is not only the Buddhist paradise, but also the strip of land along the Tōkaidō road.

Content produced by the Leland Little editorial team.