Today I watched the documentary “Tokaido – A Journey” by Belgian film maker Luc Cuyvers. It’s really a must see: not only the road, inns and 53 post stations are beautifully depicted, varying aspects of Japanese culture and society as well are linked to the journey and clearly described. The educational system, industrialization, car dealers, the aging society, pachinko, health services, fish markets, Shintoism, wabi sabi of bonsai, public transport, many known and well-known sides of Japanese life are dealt with.
Luc Cuyvers started his Japanese adventure in an antique shop. There he bought an ukiyoe 浮世絵 (woodblock print) made by the famous 19th century artist Ando Hiroshige. Intrigued by the beauty and curiosity of the art work, he wanted to know what was depicted and written on it. It appeared to be a painting of the eleventh station, Mishima 三島 of the Tōkaidō.
What is Tōkaidō? Tōkaidō 東海道, or East Sea Road, is one of the five routes leading to Edo (called Tōkyō nowadays). As the name explains, people travelled mainly along the sea-coast. During the Edo period, Japan was united by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and he put a new law into operation to control the power of mighty feudal lords (daimyō 大名). With sankin kōtai (参勤交代), all feudal lords were obliged to move periodically between their own domain and Edo, and must leave their wife and heir as virtual hostages in the capital. Doing so, they lost a great deal of money in maintaining both residences, and traveling back and forth each year. Consequently, there were no financial resources left to wage war.
Along the route, there were 53 official post stations established between Edo and Kyōto. Here travelers could find food and lodging. At some of these stations however, voyagers were subjected to strict control. The government had to make sure that weapons were kept out of the capital, and women in it.
Tōkaidō appears to be much more than a road. Hiroshige did not only draw the stations and the nature surrounding it, he especially put people in the foreground of his paintings. Sometimes drawn in a funny way, sometimes sad or in pain, but Hiroshige never failed to depict his characters as original and unique as possible.
Just like Hiroshige, Luc Cuyvers tells the visual story of Tōkaidō, this time with modern devices like a video camera. And just like Hiroshige, he himself never appears in the picture. Sometimes disappointed by how little there remains from the original painted landscape, Cuyvers follows the road that is now replaced by modern routes. On his way he receives the help of many kind Japanese, who offer a ride, give directions or explain local stories.
There is one constancy in both stories: roads will disappear, surroundings will change, but the people you encounter on your journey will never fail to surprise you.
a road is no more than a road. What makes it interesting is the people who live and travel along it.
Facts for Fun
– See all 53 ukiyoe on Wikipedia
– Today, Tōkaidō is the main line of Japan Railways. It takes no more than 2.5 hours to travel from Tōkyō to Kyōto.