53 Stations of the Tokaido

This picture belongs to the instantly recognizable series of 53 Stations of the Tokaido, published in 1832, which made Hiroshige Ando famous (and, eventually, immortal). These woodcuts are horizontally oriented, dramatic landscapes with brief inscriptions, in the style of Chinese literati landscapes. Hiroshige apparently also made a vertical series, referred to as Upright Tokaido, (published in 1855). The style is the same:

The author of this website has set out to visit, sketch and woodcut all the 55 locations of the series as they appear now. (And to try soba noodles at each location while he is at it). The contrasts between now and then serves well to illustrates the postwar Japanese enthusiasm for reinforced concrete. It is quite sobering.

The website also contains very interesting discussion of each of Hiroshige's paintings (from the horizontal series) showing how Hiroshige intentionally misinterpreted the views in his pictures -- made some angles appear steeper, or some heights higher than they were in reality, in order to add drama to the resulting picture.

Eventually, many different editions of the 53 stations of the Tokaido were created (see all of them here) some by Hiroshige and some by many different authors. The woodcuts assembled at the Gulbenkian exposition in Lisbon (which you can view here), though the introduction ascribes them to Hiroshige, are an entirely different kettle of fish.

Look at this picture:

Name of the Station is given as "Akasaka" (No. 37); the print's title is "The appearance of the goddess of water to the famous biwa player Fujiwara no Moronaga as a sign of appreciation of his genius". This mythical event is supposed to have occurred (under falling maples leaves) to the historical figure of Fujiwara no Moronaga (1138-1192), a musician, poet, and a high ranking imperial official, at location near the Akasaka station.

This series is sometimes referred to in English as "The 53 Parallels for the Tokaido Road" (or just "Pairs") and is reported as being mixed work of Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and Hiroshige and published around 1845 by different printers.

These prints are not landscapes. Instead, they bear resemblance to the modern American knowledge cards (e.g. baseball cards). At the upper right corner of each is the title of the series ("53 stations of the Tokaido"). To the left is the name of the particular stop and the particular local lore represented in the print. Below is an illustration of the story. The lore consists of various stories from mythology, history, and literature as well as information concerning famous local "products" (embroidery, courtesans...) It represents a kind of encyclopedia, or dictionary, arranged not according to the order of the alphabet, but in order of the order of the places along the famous road.

It reminds me of Pausanias who described his travels across Greece in the second century A.D. At each point where he stopped, he tired to report =the ancient lore of the place: there, too, knowledge was organized by geography. (In the now lost, very learned Thebaid of Antimachus of Colophon, full of encyclopedic information, the organizing principle of knowledge was the epic story Seven Against Thebes). The Touring Club's guide to Rome reads somewhat like this (this island mid-course Tiber was formed by the bodies of the dead bodyguards of king Tarquinius fleeing the city; on this corner Cinna was assassinated; in this house the architect Borromini committed suicide by plunging a sword in his gut and took the next 48 hours to die, etc.) Google tries to do something similar with its google maps which include links to websites and pictures; but google isn't literary.

I find the idea that one could read the landscape absolutely fascinating; I am not sure why.


The stories told in Pairs were well known at the time of their publication. Modern Japanese don't seem to know any of them. It somehow seems a loss. Is it?


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