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Japan on foot: retrace part of the famous Tokaido route for a taste of Feudal Japan

Get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and experience life in Edo period Japan.

In Japan, A country where tradition and technology exist in harmony, it’s possible to escape the hurly-burly of daily life by taking an old-fashioned road trip – on foot. And you won’t have to look beyond the most popular route in the country.

To get from Tokyo to Kyoto, modern-day travellers simply hop aboard a bullet train and spend two and a half hours cosseted in blissful comfort. Since 1964, when the world’s first high-speed train, the Tokaido Shinkansen, started plying the route, Tokyoto-Kyoto at 300 kms per hour has been impressively routine.

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It wasn’t always this way, of course. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), a trip along the well-trodden Tokaido – or Eastern Sea Road – entailed strapping on sandals rather than seat belts. Four hundred years ago, you had to walk the trail – all 492 kilometres of it. Now, thanks to specialist tour operators like Walk Japan, anyone with a decent pair of hiking shoes, a week to spare and a desire to avoid the tourist hordes can retrace parts of that ancient route – built in the early 1600s by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, de facto ruler of feudal Japan – and in return get a real sense of what it was like to travel on an Edo-era highway.

  • Springtime view

    Springtime view of a span across the Abe River, with Mount Fuji and Shizuoka city in the distance.

At the time, the stone-paved, tree-lined Tokaido was an engineering feat that rivalled the best roads anywhere in the world. There was a need for daimyo (feudal lords) and their large retinues to travel between Edo (now Tokyo), the shogunate’s administrative capital, and Kyoto, the imperial capital.

The Tokaido, the first in a network of roads that criss-crossed the country, served as the shogun’s official highway, starting from Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo, passing through settlements in the shadow of Mount Fuji and along the Pacific coastline before ending at Sanjo Ohashi bridge in central Kyoto.

Because the journey took about 90 days and travel in the time of the shogunate was highly restricted, with rules strictly enforced, there were checkpoints, rest stops, tea houses and shops along the way. In total, 53 post-towns, or stations, were built to accommodate the heavy traffic. The road was mapped in detail and illustrated guide books provided information about the route.

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Milestones in the form of large mounds of earth planted with a tree on top were spaced one ri (a unit of measure equivalent to 3.9 kms) apart to give travellers an accurate way to gauge distances.

Many of the original post-towns have developed into larger urban districts, but significant stretches of the Tokaido – including coastal paths and trails through cedar forests – are used daily by locals and, on occasion, visitors on walking tours.

Life on the road was well documented and the Tokaido shows up in poems, published accounts and most famously in woodblock prints by the 19th-century artist Ando Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Foreign visitors also recorded their observations. In The History of Japan, a journal of his travels to the country in the late-17th century, the German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) travelled the Tokaido and was deeply impressed by what he saw.

“In addition to the daimyo passing to and from Edo, and escorted by trains of hundreds or even thousands of men, the roads are always thronged by ordinary citizens on business or pilgrimage at certain seasons to one of their numerous holy sites,” he wrote.

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On most days, the Tokaido was “more crowded than a public street in any of the most populous towns of Europe.”

Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e prints of people and landscapes were notably precise and detailed, providing useful references to life during the Edo Period. His most famous work is Tokaido Gojyusantsugi (53 Stages of the Tokaido), a series of travel scenes depicting life in and around each of the post-towns along the trail.

Several parts of our Tokaido itinerary are Hiroshige-themed, including visits to local museums and stops along the trail at scenic points matching those in his prints. “I’ve known about Hiroshige’s 53 stations since I was a teenager,” says Maryann Jacobson, who journeyed from California to walk the Tokaido. “It’s making history come alive.” Interestingly, one of our meals was at Chojiya, a teahouse in Mariko post-town (Station 21) depicted on a Hiroshige print – it remains recognisable today. The family business opened 422 years ago and the house specialty – tororo-jiru, a concoction made from grated mountain yam – is served by 14th-generation members. Multiple works by Hiroshige and his contemporaries line the walls of the restaurant.

Mount Fuji plays a prominent role in Hiroshige’s work – it’s a reassuring presence on the Tokaido and a sight to behold, in this or any century. Meanwhile, river crossings posed major challenges to travellers along the Tokaido. Depending on social standing, their options were limited. Hiroshige depicted porters carrying ordinary travellers on their shoulders while high-ranking officials are shown crossing in some style, in palanquins and with porters in close attendance.

In 1810, the writer Yasumi Roan published Ryoko Yojinshu, a book of illustrated poems and travel tips that served as an essential rule book for travellers. The translated version by William Scott Wilson, titled Afoot in Japan, includes chapter headings like Equipment for Traveling in Cold Provinces and How Not to get Sick in a Palanquin. Much of the advice in the book is still valid: “When you encounter young ladies, female grass cutters or women in a group that are crossing your path in the mountains or on a path across the fields, it is best to offer a simple greeting but not to follow up with any more useless talk.”

You don’t need to be super fit (daily walking distances are between eight and 12 kms). The most challenging part is on the first full day, when some uphill sections (steep enough to warrant walking sticks) and an elevation gain of about 600m have to be addressed. The rest is a mostly gentle combination of stone paths, narrow mountain passes, picturesque trails along the coastline and paved roads through small towns.

Walk Japan’s version of the Tokaido includes transfers along the route by train, bus and taxi. Several kilometres are walked along the Hime-kaido (Princess Way), an alternate trail used during the shogunate by female travellers hoping to avoid the strict inspections at some of the more notorious post-towns. “This is a hidden part of the country,” says Masaki Iwami, our affable and knowledgeable guide. “We try to show you something different from your image of Japan.”

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Geoffrey Eu/BT