from After Hiroshige: Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido
(Tokaido Goju-san Tsugi no Uchi)
In 1600, Japan’s new Tokugawa government under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established its capitol in the city of Edo (Tokyo). The Tokaido Road (Eastern Sea Road) linking Edo with Kyoto became a busy thoroughfare as the great daimyos, or local lords, made the 15-day journey to pay homage to the new military leader of Japan. Many of the some 250 daimyo built mansions of their own in Edo and divided their time between the capital and their home province, and so traveled the road several times each year. A single daimyo, if he was of any importance, made the journey with a grand procession of 2,000 to 3,000 servants and retainers.
Drawn to this growing stream of traffic, businessmen, peddlers, religious pilgrims (both Shinto and Buddhist), foreign dignitaries, beggars, criminals, and scores of porters—who made the Tokaido their living and their life—traveled the road. In response to increasing opportunities for mishap and crime along the road, the Tokugawa government established a series of laws to make travel safer and more systematic by creating 53 way stations, each with an office of transportation where privileged parties could obtain horses and porters. At these stations, enterprising businessmen opened restaurants and inns where travelers could rest for the night, and local merchants and children sold goods. In its time, the Tokaido Road was the world’s busiest highway, linking two of the world’s largest cities.
Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858) was the last great master of ukiyo-e, or woodblock printmaking, in the Japanese tradition. In 1832, he joined a daimyo procession traveling from his home in Edo to Kyoto on the Tokaido Road. He was inspired by the experience, and made sketches along the way. Woodblock print series of famous people and places were becoming popular in Japan, and Hiroshige had already made a series of views of Edo. Upon returning home, he set to work on a series of prints to mark his journey, one for each way station, and one each for the beginning and end.
The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido offers an inside look at the lives and feelings of the people who traveled the road. It is widely considered Hiroshige’s greatest achievement as an artist. Moreover, the body of his work is credited with powerfully influencing western artists like Cezanne, van Gogh, and Whistler. With a poet’s eye, Hiroshige captured in his prints the beauty and stillness of the landscape and people of Tokugawa Japan.
— Kurt Caswell
Station One Shinagawa
Early in the day the road meets the sea. Cargo ships ride at anchor and some ride the morning breeze. Even the blue-clad samurai, pillars to discipline glance sideways at the welcoming voices of the tea girls.
Station Ten Hakone
The mountains of Hakone up-thrust beneath your feet as you pass. So much blue reminds you of wind, rain, snow, your all-day toil. Still, the earth’s heart is warm. You find settling relief— a hot spring bath.
Station Thirteen Hara
Impatient women in glorious winter dress goad their bare-legged porter. His load-bearing thoughts drift with noiseless crane-steps in the frozen reeds. Cold. Content. Longevity is a prescription of the mind and Fuji-san, in old-man white, remembers. You walk on.
Station Fifteen Kanbara
White rooftops curve softly in a row. Quiet deep snow. Parting, three faces conceal their concerns. Hats. Umbrella. Night. Later, a raven settling here will find the story in your tracks until winter washes even your memory away.
Station Twenty Mariko
New plum leaves at Mariko, and new life strapped to mother’s back. Two road-worn travelers sip a broth of grated yams. House with two crows tell tidy comforts—Basho’s song of home.
Station Twenty-five Nissaka
Sweet impossible, this mountain path. Trees begin the climb, you must finish it. Foreground boulder, the Night-weeping Stone, witnessed a pregnant woman’s murder. It happened long ago. You pause to listen. The mountain calls you back to the road.
Station Thirty-nine Chiryu
A single tree to the calming sky overspreads the bustle at the horse auction. Tethered in good grass, the horses await new masters. You are master and mastered by your strong heart looking down the path. Two men tempt buyers with good things to eat.
Station Forty-two Kuwana
Between Miya and Kuwana travelers take to the sea. Across open waters, your track leaves no path. Lowered sails mean safer harbor. Faces visible beneath the tarpaulins trust the boatman, while white waves toss your shivering head.
Station Forty-five Shono
Clouds building all day speak rain running sideways in the wind. You may hurry home, but the porters must bear the threat while giant bamboo folds, and the world is beaten flat.
Station Fifty-one Ishibe
Ishibe announces the daimyo. Market house kept clean. Two figures sell delicacies: bean curd coated with bean paste, and rice boiled with leafy vegetables. News travels down the road: a procession will come and go, all the way to Kyoto.
During his time living and teaching in Hokkaido, Japan, Kurt Caswell came to admire the work of Andō Hiroshige. Some years later, he wrote one poem for each of the woodblock prints in Hiroshige’s series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. These ten poems from the series are published here for the first time.