The Shy Museumgoer


On the road with Hiroshige’s other women

Long ago, adventure was promised to anyone who was spirited enough to walk from Edo (now Tokyo) to the ancient Imperial capital of Kyoto by way of the Tōkaidō Road. Japanese tourists and pilgrims who made the 300-mile trek encountered happy things and melancholy things, surprising things and annoying things, dangerous things and strange things.

Normally I don’t seek out this kind of extreme tourism, but when the guide is Andō Hiroshige, I make an exception. Looking at his 19th-century masterpiece, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, feels like taking a road trip on one of the most famous routes in history.

Volumes have been written about the beauty of Hiroshige’s series of woodblock prints, as well as the shenanigans of the men who pursued the great road’s naughty pleasures. I’m focusing my attention on the women of the Tōkaidō — all of the women, not only the courtesans.

Map of the 55 Tōkaidō Road stations

A little history….and a handy map of the Tōkaidō Road stations

In 1601 the Japanese government set up 53 transportation offices to aid travelers along this coastal route. Soon beer taverns, tea houses, food stalls, and rustic inns sprang up within a stone’s throw of every way station.

At periodic checkpoints, guards turned away anyone who lacked the proper credentials. You won’t be surprised to learn that more women than men suffered the indignities of a physical examination.

Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō begins in Edo, the birthplace of Hiroshige. In his day, whole sections of the city were cordoned off from each other by heavy wooden gates called kido that were closed at night and were not opened until 4 a.m. Only then could you begin the long walk to Kyoto.

"Shinagawa" and "Kanagawa" woodblock prints by Hiroshige, ca.1833-34
Left: Shinagawa (ca. 1834) — Right: Kanagawa (ca. 1833-34)

The series begins in Edo’s busy Nihonbashi district in the wee hours of the morning, and then moves up the road to Shinagawa, where the Tōkaidō first meets the sea and where travelers see the first rays of morning light streak across the horizon.

In this picturesque village, three waitresses in a gaily decorated tea stall wait patiently for a feudal warlord and his sword-bearing samurai to parade by. Government officials rarely stopped in Shinagawa, simply because it’s too soon on their journey to take a break. A man keeps an eye on the procession from the shadow of a doorway.

Further up the road in Kanagawa, two waitresses try to coax travelers into an upscale tea house with an enviable ocean view. A small child stops and stares at the women’s impolite behavior.

"Totsuka: Fork in the Road at Motomachi" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca.1834
Totsuka: Fork in the Road at Motomachi (ca. 1834)

If you left Edo at dawn, you usually looked for overnight lodging in Totsuka, some twenty-five miles from the city.

On this evening, a male guest catches his foot in a stirrup and almost falls into the arms of an elegantly dressed young woman — to the displeasure of his female companion and the amusement of the man on the bridge. (Who among us has not made an undignified entrance?) Boards hanging from the eaves of the inn display the names of each guest, many of whom will gather tonight to share stories and drink cups of warmed saké.

"Hara: Mount Fuji in the Morning" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca.1833-34
Hara: Mount Fuji in the Morning (ca. 1833-34)

The bleak stretch of road near Hara must have been a little frightening for women, most of whom traveled on foot because wheeled carts were almost nonexistent in Japan.

In this print, two women turn to consult their porter. Behind them, Mount Fuji dominates the stark landscape. In the 17th century, this active volcano was venerated as a female deity. Men who climbed Mount Fuji believed they would be reborn — “purified and able to find happiness.” The mountain rises so high, literally and lyrically, it pierces the frame of Hiroshige’s print.

In its heydey, the Tōkaidō was one of the most well-built roads in the world. By order of the shogun, the road was made wide and smooth — laid deep with gravel and covered with sand — with drainage on both sides. In the mountains, steep slopes were paved with stone.

"Fuchū" and "Mariko Tea House" woodblock prints by Hiroshige, ca.1833-34
Left: Fuchū (ca. 1833-34) — Right: Mariko Tea House (ca. 1834)

A few rivers were left without bridges, a strategy designed to slow down enemy troops. To ford the Abe River between Fuchū and Mariko, women hired palanquin-bearing porters or piggybacked on the porters themselves.

After the river crossing, everyone stopped at the Mariko Tea House for an unusual soup made famous by the Japanese poet Basho in this haiku:

Young leaves of plum

and at the Mariko way station

a broth of grated yams

This mountain-yam soup, called tororojiru, is advertised on the tall sign leaning against the Mariko Tea House. A pair of sparrows twitter away on the roof, while a baby naps peacefully on the back of a woman who, I just learned, is the great, great, great grandmother of the current owner of the restaurant.

"Nissaka: Sayo no Nakayama" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca.1834
Nissaka: Sayo no Nakayama (ca. 1834)

About 130 miles west of Edo, the Tōkaidō Road ascends steeply into the Sayo Mountains. In Nissaka, five travelers stop to reflect upon the Night Weeping Stone, the lone witness to a terrible crime. Even the samurai who has gone on ahead stops to look back at the boulder.

The story goes that mountain bandits murdered a pregnant woman on this spot and her blood splattered on the rock. A passing priest heard the stone’s cries for help and ran to deliver the dead woman’s unborn child, who grew up to avenge his mother’s death. They say the stone weeps for mother and child every night.

"Kakegawa" and "Futakawa" woodblock prints by Hiroshige, ca.1832-34
Left: Kakegawa (ca. 1834) — Right: Futakawa (ca. 1832-33)

In Kakegawa, Hiroshige uses an earth-covered bridge to illustrate the feeling of exposure to natural elements. People are buffeted by the wind, which snatches a child’s kite and carries it toward the shrine at Mount Akiba.

In Futakawa, three itinerant musicians climb the hill for a late afternoon cup of tea. Each woman carries a samisen, a three-stringed lute plucked with a bachi. The strange landscape of open scrub and stunted trees is known as The Monkey Plateau. Hiroshige depicts its strangeness by using an almost abstract technique made of ghostly grays and a blue-green wash.

"Akasaka: Scene at an Inn" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca.1834
Akasaka: Scene at an Inn (ca. 1834)

In neighborhing Akasaka the adventure is indoors, at least for men. The man on the left returns from a bath, just in time for dinner. A samurai — with his trademark shaved crown and pigtail — relaxes after a long day. The lady of the house presents him with two identical dinner trays. Is he expecting company?

In another suite, two young courtesans apply thick makeup. The bedding rolls stacked in the cupboard may be part of the evening’s entertainment. In the 1800s the government restricted each inn to no more than two courtesans, to maintain some kind of control over public morals. The woman wore toxic lead makeup to whiten their skin, and it’s my forlorn duty to report that many girls died before reaching the age of twenty.

"Tsuchiyama: Spring Rain" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca.1834-35
Tsuchiyama: Spring Rain (ca. 1834-35)

Eighty miles up the road in Tsuchiyama where the Tōkaidō crosses the Yasu River, travelers in red and green raincoats are getting drenched by a torrential spring rain portrayed with masterly strokes. The artist originally printed the raindrops using white ink, but decided that white lines give the impression of a soft summer shower rather than a heavy downpour.

Hiroshige was one of the first Japanese artists to portray inclement weather. He wants us to feel what it was like to be on the Tōkaidō Road.

"Minakuchi" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca. 1833-36. Also "Ōtsu" woodblock print by Hiroshige, ca. 1840
Left: Minakuchi (ca. 1833-36) — Right: Ōtsu (ca. 1840)

It is autumn in Minakuchi, where one woman slices a calabash gourd while another woman hangs gourd shavings to dry. The shavings, called kanpyō, are boiled to soften and then boiled a second time with soy sauce, sugar, and other ingredients. In sushi rolls, kanpyō pairs well with cucumber.

Each day crowds of tourists flock to Ōtsu, located on Japan’s largest lake, just nine miles east of Kyoto. The woman working at this folk art gallery neatly rolls up an inexpensive souvenir purchased by a samurai. The large painting on display is Oni no Nembutsu (A Demon Praying) — a hugely popular image of a goblin who quiets crying babies.

Across the street, a woman quiets the village idiot.

Crossing the Great Sanjō Bridge

The 300-mile trek comes to a dramatic conclusion when travelers cross the Great Sanjō Bridge and see Kyoto’s palaces and temples.

As a memento of the trip, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō became a phenomenal bestseller and deservedly so. Hiroshige is at his best when portraying a landscape, although he rarely portrays the landscape alone. He populates the scenery with entirely human figures who draw us into the scene without strongly asserting their presence. They are good company, and good company makes a long journey seem shorter.

Postscript . . .

In 1922 an album of Hiroshige’s original Tōkaidō Road prints was presented to Albert Einstein as a gift when he visited Japan on a lecture tour.

Einstein liked Japanese women — actually, he liked the women pretty much everywhere he went — although he was tight-lipped about what he saw in them:

“On the exquisiteness of the Japanese woman, this flower-like creature, I have remained reticent; for here the common mortal must cede the word to the poet,” said the legendary physicist.

Jerry Adler, Smithsonian Magazine, 2018
Albert and Elsa Einstein dining in Japan, 1922
Albert and Elsa Einstein, 1922