Saturday, August 24, 2013

Utagawa Hiroshige and the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido

Figure 1: Nihonbashi, the terminus of the Tōkaidō road in Edo, as depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige in the Hōeidō edition of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

For a large part of the Edo period (江戸時代, 1603-1868), after the Battle of Osaka in 1615, it was a time of relative peace and stability for a unified Japan under the tight rule of the Tokugawa shoguns.

In 1635, as a means of keeping military lords (called daimyo, 大名) in check and assuring their loyalty, Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), the third Tokugawa shogun, formalized the already customary sankin-kotai (参勤交代) system, wherein daimyo were required to maintain alternate-year residency in Edo, the shogunate seat. These biennial trips to Edo and back, and maintaining a second residence in Edo, entailed a considerable amount of a daimyo's resources and manpower. Moreover, a daimyo's wife and heirs were required to stay in Edo, effectively serving as hostages of the shogun.

The Tōkaidō road

The Tōkaidō (東海道) was a principal road which connected Edo to the provinces at that time. It was an eastern coastal route, approximately 300 miles long, stretching from Edo to the imperial capital, Kyoto. This main road and businesses along it flourished during the Edo period, due in large part to the traffic generated by the sankin-kotai system. In the ritual procession to and from Edo, a daimyo's cortege could consist of hundreds or thousands of men.

Ordinary citizens, too, provided they secured the necessary travel documents, travelled this road, many of whom would travel to visit Kyoto, the imperial capital and therefore considered the center of the nation. Travel for the ordinary folk would be mostly on foot, and on water vessels when rivers or bays had to be crossed. Under ideal conditions, the entire trip would take about a week; under bad conditions, it could take up to a month. Travellers who had the resources could travel via palanquin or horseback [1].

Along the Tōkaidō route, there were 53 established post stations, or post towns. At these stops, weary travellers were able to avail of accommodations, refreshments, supplies, and entertainment. In addition to these post towns, there were the terminuses of the Tōkaidō: In Edo, the terminus was Nihonbashi (日本橋, see Figure 1), and in Kyoto, the terminus was the Great Bridge of Sanjō (三条大橋).

These 53 post stations of the Tōkaidō plus the two terminuses were the subject of the print series that secured the position of Utagawa Hiroshige as the preeminent ukiyo-e artist of Japan.

Utagawa Hiroshige

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art genre which has its origins in the Edo period. It was art for the common folk, depicting scenes from ordinary life, and typical subjects being people and landscapes. The Japanese word ukiyo (浮き世) is a term used to describe the fleeting or transient nature of life. So the term ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is often translated as "pictures of the floating world," perhaps designated as such in contrast to the the "eternal" world in which members of the imperial court reside [1].

Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) was born in Edo in 1797, a time when the art of ukiyo-e was already flourishing in the city which was its creative and popular center. At a rather young age of 13, he inherited the position of fire warden when his father died. And at the age of 15, he became a pupil of the artist Utagawa Toyohiro.

In the summer of 1832 (天保3, Tempō 3), as part of an entourage tasked by the shogun to deliver a gift of horses to the emperor, who at that time was Emperor Ninkō (仁孝天皇), Hiroshige travelled the length of the Tōkaidō route for the first time. By the time he returned to Edo, he had accumulated numerous sketches of scenes from what was perhaps a memorable journey along the Tōkaidō. He immediately set about preparing his drawings for reproduction as woodblock prints. By early 1834, Hiroshige's woodblock print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次), was complete and was published, at first, jointly by Takenouchi Hōeidō and Senkakudō Tsuruki, and then later by Hōeidō alone. This first edition of Hiroshige's Tokaido series, generally known as the Hōeidō edition, was a huge success, and in fact "remained the greatest success of all floating-world pictures [1]."

Versions of Hiroshige's Tōkaidō series

The Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Tōkaidō series became the defining collection of any such series produced before or since. In the wake of its unqualified success, other artists published their own versions of the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō. Hiroshige himself, in the decades to come, would produce several other versions of his Tōkaidō series, printed by different publishers. The variations involved not only remakes of the 55 Tōkaidō scenes, but also changes in themes, print sizes, and aspect ratios. By the end of his career, he had published over 900 prints about the Tōkaidō [1]. Indeed, it is estimated that Hiroshige produced more than eight thousand art prints in his lifetime [2]. You can see reproduced images of some versions of Hiroshige's Tōkaidō series, including the Hōeidō edition, on this website dedicated to Hiroshige's works.

Muneshige Narazaki's "Hiroshige"

Ever since a Japanese friend introduced these topics to me, I've been wanting to learn more about the Tōkaidō and Hiroshige's print series. I've found few good English-language sources on the internet about Hiroshige's ukiyo-e series, fewer still when it comes to the Tōkaidō itself and the post stations. So I bought a book written by Muneshige Narazaki entitled, Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. This book is no longer in print, and there is not much information about it online in English either. But I took a chance and bought a used copy. If it turned out not to be such a good book, it would set me back less than $10, I thought.

Figure 2: Jacket cover of Muneshige Narazaki's Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

Figure 3: Cover of Muneshige Narazaki's Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

Having now perused this book, I don't regret buying it, and in fact recommend it. It is an authoritative reference to Hiroshige's Hōeidō edition of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. I really like this book and strongly recommend it for the following reasons:

Complete and excellent images reproduced from original prints, printed on excellent quality paper

The full-color plates in the book are reproduced from an original and complete collection of the Hōeidō edition (see Figures 4 and 5). Besides the Hōeidō edition, for some of the stations, reproductions from original reisho, gyōsho, and jinbutsu editions are also included. Judging from the quality of the plates, the originals from which they were reproduced were in excellent condition. The images in the book are far superior to images of the series that I've seen on the internet.

The images are printed on thick, semi-glossy paper. The dimensions of most plates are approximately 4.25 by 6.5 inches, some larger. For some scenes, a part of the image is blown up and shown separately to illustrate some detail (see Figure 5).

The dimensions of the book are approximately 7.25 by 10.125 inches. It has 92 pages and a sewn binding.

Figure 4: Scanned pages from Muneshige Narazaki's Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. The two upper images are the Hōeidō editions of the Hodogaya and Totsuka stations. The lower image is the reisho edition of the Hodogaya station. Note the different seasons and points of view in the Hodogaya station scenes. Click on the image to enlarge.

Educative image captions

For each plate, Narazaki gives some backround information and a description of the scene depicted by Hiroshige (see Figures 4 and 5). These captions more than double the pleasure of looking at the images because of the insights one gains from the revelations about the scenes. Indeed, the level of detail in the captions is such that, if Narazaki had not pointed them out, I would have missed them completely. However, Narazaki not only gives details, but also points out the overarching mood in most scenes. They are an education in Japanese art, history, and culture, all at the same time. They are also an education in Hiroshige's genius.

Each caption also includes the original title of the print in English.

Figure 5: Scanned pages from Muneshige Narazaki's Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. The image on the right is the Hōeidō edition of the Goyu station. The image on the left is a blown-up detail from the image, showing "waitresses soliciting travelers." Click on the image to enlarge.

Introductory chapter on Hiroshige and the Tōkaidō

The introductory chapter by Narazaki, entitled Hiroshige's Tōkaidō, offers an engaging and well-rounded analysis of Hiroshige's artistic style and of his Tōkaidō series in the context of time, place, and even weather. He describes travel on the Tōkaidō during the Edo period, and mentions other artists before Hiroshige who had produced prints and collections inspired by it, including the great Hokusai thirty years earlier.

He discusses the ukiyo-e art form and compares it with meisho-e, a painting style which predates ukiyo-e, and a term which translates to "pictures of famous places." Narazaki suggests that Hiroshige's depiction of the beauty of the changing seasons in his Tōkaidō series—despite the fact that Hiroshige's first journey was limited to early summer—was reminiscent of the meisho-e style, a style which had close links to poetry, and therefore to depictions of the changing seasons.

Narazaki also points out some of the known variations in the different editions of Hiroshige's Tōkaidō series. This chapter is immediatly followed by Minoru Uchida's comprehensive list of Hiroshige's works on the Tōkaidō, and also a list of subsequent works by other artists.

Narazaki is not shy about gushing with effusive admiration when describing Hiroshige. Besides proclaiming Hiroshige's genius, he also paints him as a compassionate artist, and describes his works as poetry:

"Forgetting himself, he painted what he saw before him—but he painted it with love and with an immanent sense of poetry that made an immediate and direct appeal to his viewers. Hiroshige's poetry, as it is expressed in his supreme work, the first Tōkaidō series, is universal."

A map of the Tōkaidō and the 53 post stations

A two-page map of the Tōkaidō, as it was routed during the Edo period, and its 55 post stations and terminuses, completes this indispensable reference.

The insights gained from reading Narazaki's book, along with the excellent images reproduced from original prints, make the reader's journey along Hiroshige's Tōkaidō a sheer delight. The book is a time machine to a historic road which existed at a most interesting time in Japan's history. No permits are required in this mode of travel, and the fare is an excellent value.


[1] Narazaki, Muneshige. Translated by Gordon Sager. Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō. Tokyo and Palo Alto: Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.
[2] Life of Hiroshige, by Prof. Yone Noguchi.


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