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The passage linking Tokyo and Kyoto

Nihon-Bashi (Japan Bridge), the very center of downtown Tokyo, was where the Tokaido started.

Like telegraph roads and mail routes in the United States, Japanese public transportation system started in the same way. Follow the passage to find the Japanese tradition’s now and then.

Back in the day before the modern transportation system was established in human society, people in Japan, just like in the rest of the world, were traveling only on foot or horses. Over the course of traveling traffic between major cities in the country, Japan established five major passages known as gokaido (five routes). Along the passages are the birthplace of many communities that facilitated travel-related businesses and functions, and a lot of them still remain to this day.

The most prominent among gokaido is Tokaido, which was established as the passage between Kyoto, the imperial capital and Edo, today’s Tokyo, where the Tokugawa Shogunate settled down and united Japan in 1603. Although the shogun was the actual ruler, Kyoto was still the official capital because the Emperor was residing. For the thorough unification and rule over the entire Japan, the Shogun, Tokugawa, kept frequent visit and gifts to Kyoto to avoid offending the imperial family and was very careful of potential power growth among other regions. Therefore, he facilitated the main route to Kyoto, which became Tokaido.

The Edo Period witnessed the blossom of the civil culture: throughout the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), the merchant class, the lowest class in the Japanese society back then, prospered, and that became the momentum of the cultural blossoming. Travel became very popular among civilians, and the number of travelers increased dramatically along five routes. However, under the strict travel control of the Shogun, travelers were required to carry travel permits, which were issued only for particular purposes of travel. Most civilian travelers on the Tokaido were pilgrim travelers because it was the easiest way to get the permit. The frequent traffic of civilians between the old and new capitals became the momentum of Japanese cultural development nationwide.
The Tokaido, literally translated as the eastern ocean passage, was the busiest among the five main passages in the country because it links the shogunate and imperial capitals. The Shogun facilitated this main eastern sea path with 53 stations to overlook the regions along the Tokaido, and these stations were called shukuba. Travelers had to go through the stations and sometimes through an official inspection. The majority of travelers were messengers who relayed a message or a delivery and traversed the 300.7 miles of the passage in around 90 days.

At each shukuba, the Shogun regulated all the business along the Tokaido to maintain social stability and his power throughout the country. Along the Tokaido, each shukuba accommodated government offices, lounges, restaurants, snack booths, inns and other service for travelers. Some of these facilities still remain today with the same function.

TOIYA-BA, the courier depot

Hiroshige’s print of a busy day at a toiya-ba

Courier service is one of the top three functions at each station. Couriers would travel to deliver mail, commodities, and important documents from Edo to Kyoto and vice versa all the time. Toiya-ba was where couriers and horses for package delivery were standing by, and sometimes there were two toiya-bas in one station, so that each team took turns in every half month. Under the law, a station along the Tokaido was allowed up to 100 couriers and 100 horses per day.

Toiya-ba was the only business licensed to send couriers for delivering official government packages and mail. Once received, all the packages and documents were thoroughly inspected for any small damages, smears, and rips. Therefore, they were trained as very careful professionals and the management staff received full trust from the authorities, and the managing person of toiya-ba was often one of the leaders of the neighborhood.

SEKISHO, the inspection checkpoints
The Shogun’s control over the passages was thorough and strict to protect the Edo area where he established his power. Accordingly, there was a strict inspection of all travelers at the entrance gate of each station, which was called sekisho. It was almost like today’s international border inspection, where each traveler was asked to present the travel permit, the destination and the purpose of the travel.

To keep his territory from being attacked, the Shogun was holding hostage family members of daimyo, powerful regional warlords in Edo, so that they wouldn’t attack his castle. Therefore, sekisho inspection was to identify everybody passing through, and Hakone, one of the most popular tourist destinations near Tokyo, was one of the four strictest checkpoints around Edo. Someone breaking through the checkpoints would be sentenced to capital punishment.

HATAGO, travelers’ inns
The word “hatago” originally meant the basket of grass for horses, then the basket that travelers carried food in. By the time the passages were developed, hatago came to accommodation facilities. The number of hatagos varied from station to station, but the largest number of hatagos recorded was 248 in Miya-juku, known as Atsuta of today’s central Nagoya City.

They were watching single travelers coming to hatago, because many criminals traveling the passage were usually alone. Therefore, hatago was required to report single travelers to the authorities. For competitive business among hatagos in the same station, hostesses were often hired by a hatago to attract customers.

CHAYA, snack shacks

A relaxing chaya in a Hiroshige’s print

Apart from hatagos, people stopped at a chaya to sit down for lunch, light meals or a snack break. Chaya literally means tea house. However, they serve varieties of dishes and local specialties, which were always popular among travelers. Some stations had more than ten chayas and many of them were located close to accommodation facilities or somewhere with scenic views. There still are chaya businesses in today’s Japan, particularly along the Tokaido passages, where you can find local favorites and traditional meals.


The Tokaido today
Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, is one of the most popular among travelers to Japan, and the first line that was opened in 1964 is called Tokaido Shinkansen, linking Tokyo and Shin-Osaka (new Osaka) just as the Tokaido passage does. This also signifies the importance of this passage connecting two mega cities of Japan that remains over the centuries, serving as a commercial, economic and social network.

The National Route 1
Easy enough to compare, the national roads are all numbered just like the interstates in the United States. The Japan’s National Route 1 starts in Chuo-ku (the central ward) of Tokyo to Osaka. This 351.4 mile long route runs along the original Tokaido, and the starting point of the Route 1 is very close to where Nihon-Bashi Bridge (Japan Bridge), where the Tokaido started, was. The Shogun extended the Tokaido on to Osaka in 1619, and the end of the National Route 1 is where the extended route known as Kyo- Kaido ends.

Hiroshige’s travel print
In 1832, Hiroshige, one of the most famous Japanese print masters from the 19th century, traveled along the Tokaido, accompanying an official delegation of the Shogun traveling to the imperial court in Kyoto. Hiroshige drew each station and scenic views along the passage. At his return to Edo, he presented his artworks from his trip as a series of prints. This is the world famous “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” His elaborate descriptions in the prints showcase people’s lives and traditional culture from the Edo Period.

Nori Akashi : Marketing Specialist at the New York Office of JNTO

Japan National Tourist Organization
New York Office

One Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020
TEL: 212-757-5640