Follow in the footsteps of samurai on this ancient trail

In the 1650s, a Buddhist priest and his companion set out from Tokyo, then called Edo, on a several hundred mile walk west along Japan’s Tokaido highway to Kyoto. Traveling like many under the auspices of a pilgrimage, the pair followed the era’s most important trail along rugged coastline, through wooded mountains, and over gushing rivers.

On route, they sampled local delicacies and took in famous landmarks: temples, shrines, castles, and the symmetrical beauty of Mount Fuji. They had mishaps too: at one point they were chased by a curly-tailed dog.

Unlike other travelers, however, these two men weren’t real; they were the main characters of a six-volume fictionalized guidebook called the Tokaido Meishoki (Famous Sites Along the Tokaido). In it, author Asai Ryoi, a Buddhist priest who had traveled the Tokaido, used his protagonists’ often humorous adventures to introduce readers to local culture, customs, and historical information centered on the road. He also included simple manga-like drawings—almost 150 years before the term was coined—to whet the appetite of readers traveling vicariously from the comfort of their tatami.

With a growing printing industry and a relatively literate population, the Tokaido Meishoki and other early guides like Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige helped to popularize Edo-era (1603-1868) travel and laid the foundations for generations of guidebooks and travelogues that followed. As Nicole Fabricand-Person puts it in The Tokaido Road: Journeys through Japanese books and prints in the collections of Princeton University, for close to three centuries illustrated books along with later woodblock prints “created and fostered a perception that the Tokaido was more than a route along the country’s eastern seacoast—it was a destination in and of itself.”

Although the Tokaido no longer exists as a single, major trail, its cultural legacy lives on. From food to hospitality and art to literature, the Tokaido spawned and nurtured all sorts of developments that you can experience today on fragments of the original path.

The Edo era’s great road

The Tokaido was the most important and most traveled of the Edo era’s five centrally administered highways, which together connected the de-facto capital Edo to imperial Kyoto and other key parts of Japan. These well-tended roads were crucial for trade, communications, and pilgrimages—the latter being the only reason most Japanese were permitted to travel.

The five highways also facilitated the policy of alternate residence, with which the ruling Tokugawa shoguns kept a close eye on potential rivals by requiring the 200-plus feudal lords (or daimyo) spread across the nation to reside in Edo every other year. Their families remained in the capital as collateral whenever these daimyos were back in their provinces.

To support all that traffic, a series of 53 post stations (similar to small villages or hamlets in their day, although none are fully intact as post stations now) was developed along the Tokaido, so horses could rest or be switched out, weary travelers could find shelter, food, and perhaps even enjoy a little entertainment.

(These samurai devotees bring a cherished culture back to life.)

The modest accommodations on the Tokaido were forerunners of luxurious, traditional ryokan that are still hugely popular. They’re places where guests shed their daily clothes for the comfort of a yukata gown, stay in tatami mat rooms, soak in natural hot-spring baths, and over-indulge on beautifully presented multicourse dinners.

The post stations may have helped establish Japan’s omiyage (souvenir) culture. As Fabricand-Person notes, “each of the 53 official post stations had its own character and its own special products (meibutsu).” Almost every village, town, and city across Japan has meibutsu. Just as Edo-era guides documented these for early travelers, colorfully designed travel magazines and brochures let modern travelers know exactly what omiyage to take back for family, co-workers, and anyone else on their (almost obligatory) souvenir list.

(Sea turtles, hummingbird charms—what not to buy on vacation.)

For Llewelyn Thomas, managing director of Walk Japan, a company that operates guided tours along the old Tokaido route, the meibutsu that gives us the greatest connection to Asai Ryoi’s day are 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,” Thomas says.

“If you look at the Tokaido in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is arguably the best section for walking today, Yui (which was post station number 16) is famous for sakura-ebi shrimp,” Thomas continues. “If you stay in the next post station, Okitsu, the famous dish is amadai sweet sea bream. Then you get to Abekawa and you have the Abekawa-mochi rice cakes, before reaching Mariko and the super famous Choji-ya restaurant, which has been serving tororojiru (grated yam soup) for more than 400 years.”

(Good food may be one way to unlock the secret to a long life.)

The Tokaido then and now

Near Choji-ya, travelers are reminded of another Tokaido legacy: A billboard displays one of the 55 ukiyo-e prints in Utagawa Hiroshige’s iconic 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1834). The hugely influential series captures a moment from each of the 53 post stations and the Tokaido’s start and end points in Edo and Kyoto.

In this case, the Mariko sign shows two male travelers at a solitary thatched teashop (the original Choji-ya) being served by a lady carrying a baby on her back. The current Choji-ya is also thatched and rustic inside, but these days the former post station of Mariko is no longer a speck punctuating the countryside. Instead, it’s a quiet, almost rural part of the suburbs of Shizuoka city, stretched out along the original Tokaido route.

Walking here, it’s quiet enough to hear the hum of insects when the route briefly skirts the river. Some of the houses have bags of fruit and vegetables outside for sale on an honor system.

Following what would’ve been the Tokaido route east from Mariko toward Tokyo, you encounter other faces of Japan. Shizuoka is a lively regional city, which then gives way to a mix of scenic coastal trails through hillside citrus groves and pockets of concrete sprawl, where the modern Tokaido train line and Tokaido expressway drown out the sound of the ocean. There are more Hiroshige viewpoints, too, including a classic vista of Mount Fuji from the Satta Pass, when the clouds are in an agreeable mood. It’s nothing like experiencing a conventional hiking trail.

(Learn why hundreds of thousands of people climb Mount Fuji every year.)

The closest the Tokaido comes to a nature trail is along the Hakone Hachiri section, which runs for roughly 20 miles between the city of Mishima in eastern Shizuoka and the castle town of Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture (bordering Tokyo). Hakone is well known in Japan for Lake Ashinoko, onsen baths, ryokan stays, and up-close Mount Fuji views—it’s a classic Tokyo side trip. But the Hakone Hachiri trail through the area has remained under the radar.

Segments like this may be only a fraction of the original great road, but they still have the power to transport visitors to another time.

“The Tokaido is a blend of now and then, and Hakone is one of the places where you can still feel the air of 400 years ago,” says Hakone-born Shin Kaneko, the CEO and chief guide of tour company Explore Hakone. “You aren’t going to see perfectly preserved post stations, but there are still small traditional villages. Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji have barely changed since people walked here in the Edo era.”

“The trail still goes through towering cedar forest, over historic stone-paved stretches of trail, and after a steep climb stops at the 400-year-old Amazake-chaya teahouse,” he continues. “You feel like you are sweating just the same as earlier travelers.”

Rob Goss is a Tokyo-based travel writer. Follow him on Instagram.


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