Japan from the inside out

Cover art on the road

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE TOKAIDO, Japan’s busiest transportation corridor, links Tokyo and Yokohama, the country’s two largest cities, to Osaka (#3) via Nagoya (#4) and Kyoto (#7)–every one with more than a million people. Those who want to hit the road have their choice of JR’s Tokaido main railway line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, and the Tomei and Meishin expressways.

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

The Japanese have been hitting this road for a very long time. Records show that government officials used parts of it in the ninth century. But it wasn’t until Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, ordered the construction of 53 post stations along the road in 1601 that it became a key part of the national infrastructure. In those days, the Tokaido (which means East Sea Road) connected Tokyo, then called Edo, where the Shogun held court, with Kyoto, the home of the Imperial Court.

The Shogun also ordered the country’s feudal lords to alternate their residence between their home fiefdoms and Edo once a year, all the better to keep an eye on them. (Those who lived in less accessible places had to show up only once every three years.) In short order, the road became a pageant of Japanese humanity–the pomp and circumstance of daimyo processions with the lords carried in palanquins suspended from poles shouldered by retainers, while everyone else, including monks, samurai, and just plain folks, traveled by horseback and on foot. Small businesses catering to the travelers thrived along the roadside and in the post station towns. And what better scenery for a trip could there be than the views of the sea to the east and Mt. Fuji to the west?

It was inevitable that the Tokaido would grow larger than life in the popular imagination, and it came to be used as the subject of many works of art and literature. Perhaps the most famous of these is Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido dating from 1832.

The road also inspired the creation of a new folk art form in the town of Otsu in what is now Shiga, when artists began producing inexpensive prints in quantity to be sold as souvenirs to the people passing through. Called otsu-e, or Otsu pictures, the form is still used by contemporary artists. Meanwhile, the centuries-old originals, originally meant to be quick one-offs for a quick buck, are exhibited in art museums in Japan and overseas.

With all those travelers doing all that traveling, a cottage industry of travel guides was sure to follow. In a brilliant stroke, Jippensha Ikku combined one such guide describing the sites and scenes along the route with picaresque tales of the adventures and misadventures of two Edo men on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. The collected stories were called Tokaidochu Hizakurige, translated as The Shank’s Mare, and it is still available in English today. Hiroshige contributed some artistic synergy by carving woodblock prints illustrating scenes from the book.

The days of palanquin-borne feudal lords, samurai, and a pair of rascals surreptitiously sliding into the futon of women slumbering in roadside inns are long gone, but fascination with the Tokaido still remains.

manhole covers

Count among the fascinated Tsujino Fumiyo, a 70-year-old resident of a Mie town that was one of the 53 post stations on the Tokaido. Four years ago, Ms. Tsujino started taking art classes in her home town, which seems to have developed her powers of observation in addition to her artistic sensibilities. She noticed that new manhole covers on the neighborhood roads featured a decorative design. She then learned that the 53 municipalities which were once post towns also had manhole cover art depicting scenes of local interest.

That inspired her to take rubbings of all 53 manhole cover varieties. She dragooned her husband into driving her to the sites, after first asking municipal officials where to look for the objets trouvé. It took her about 30 minutes to do each rubbing, including the preliminary washing, and four years to collect them all.

In keeping with the spirit of the famous Miyazawa Kenji poem Ame ni mo Makezu (Undeterred by Rain), she stuck with her mission regardless of the weather. It isn’t hard to picture in the mind’s eye her husband patiently holding an umbrella while she focused on bringing the grimy industrial art of the streets to a wider audience.

Mission accomplished! She colored and mounted all 53 rubbings, and recently displayed them at the Tokaido Manhole Cover Design Exhibit in Kusatsu, Shiga. Admission to the exhibit was free.

The lucky visitors were treated to scenes that included a kimono-clad beauty borne across the Oi river in Shimada, Shizuoka, a mythical dolphin-like creature called the shachihoko from Nagoya, and the Otsu Festival in the aforementioned city of Otsu.

Now I ask you—doesn’t it speak well about a place when it turns the street entrances to its sewers into something that can be hung on a museum wall without a hint of irony?


Do not fail to unfurl this interactive map of the 53 stations of the Tokaido. Clicking on any of the stations brings up the Hiroshige prints of that particular site. The only advantage a real museum has over this virtual one is that you can accidentally on purpose strike up casual conversations with nearby women that strike your fancy.

And don’t overlook this previous post on otsu-e.

3 Responses to “Cover art on the road”

  1. St John said

    I’ve noticed before that manhole covers are works of art even in other regions of Japan. Thanks for the map!

  2. The art is amazing and your story is very educational, I never knew the history.

  3. Tan said

    Great map, anything that helps travel around Japan for the foreigner is a plus, thank you.

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