Follow in the footsteps of samurai on Japan’s oldest trail
Published September 27, 2022
12 min read
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. The pair traveled along the most important trail of their era, passing through rugged coastlines, over wooded mountains, and across gushing rivers, much like pilgrims.
On route, they sampled local delicacies and took in famous landmarks: temples, shrines, castles, and the symmetrical beauty of Mount Fuji. They also had mishaps: one time they were chased down by a curly-tailed hound.
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 Tokaidochu 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. The Tokaido was the birthplace of many innovations, including food, hospitality, art and literature.
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 roads were vital for trade, communications and pilgrimages, with the latter being the only reason that most Japanese were allowed 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 to provide collateral when these daimyos returned to their respective 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.
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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. These guides were created by Edo-era travelers and are still available in colorful brochures and magazines. They also provide information for modern travelers about what omiyage they can take back to family, friends, and others on their (almost mandatory) souvenir list.
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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 shops and the food have preserved the culture and spirit of this route. Thomas says that the Tokaido is essentially a place where you can stop and eat famous foods as you travel.
“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.”
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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 instance, the Mariko sign depicts two men sitting at a solitary thatched Teashop (the original Chojiya) while a woman with a baby on her shoulder serves them. Although the current Choji-ya is rustic and thatched inside, the former post station Mariko is no more a speck in the countryside. It’s now a quiet, almost rural area in the suburbs Shizuoka, stretching 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 houses have fruit and vegetables that can be purchased on an honor system.
Following what would’ve been the Tokaido route east from Mariko toward Tokyo, you encounter other faces of Japan. Shizuoka, a vibrant regional city, gives way to scenic coastal trails through hillside citron groves and pockets concrete sprawl. Here, the Tokaido train line, and Tokaido expressway drown out any sound of the ocean. Hiroshige has many more viewpoints, including a classic view of Mount Fuji from Satta Pass when the clouds are in a pleasant mood. It’s not like hiking on a normal trail.
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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. The Hakone Hachiri trail that runs through the area is still relatively unknown.
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. Although you won’t see perfect preserved post stations, 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.”
How to hike the Tokaido
The Tokaido once spanned 319 miles, but today, only fragments exist. Many tour companies offer single-day and multiday experiences with English speaking guides. Walk Japan offers an eight-day group tour that takes in the highlights of the route from Tokyo to Kyoto. Explore Hakone offers one-day hiking tours to the Hakone Hachiri, Kanagawa Prefecture. You can also visit parts of the Tokaido in Shizuoka or Hakone as an independent trip from Tokyo. Check out Shizuoka Tokaido Walker for the former and Hakone Japan for the latter.
Rob Goss is a Tokyo-based travel writer. Follow him on Instagram.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.