Samurai, Scenery and the Sensual
Back in 17th century Japan, ukiyo-e were disposable, simple illustrations painstakingly hand-copied individually and sold by artists to eke out a living. Hishikawa Moronobu revolutionised the medium with wood block printing, producing beautiful reproductions that soon moved from monochrome to colour and captured the popular imagination of everyday people, full of idols from the kabuki theatre, heroes from popular folklore and venerated landscapes.
The 53 Stations of the Tokaido
While the samurai government ruled Japan from Edo, or what is now modern day Tokyo from 1603 until 1867, the capital of Japan remained in Kyoto along with the Imperial Palace. The two are still connected today by the Tokaido, an ancient highway across mountains, rivers and coastline of some 500 kilometres that has been well worn by the footsteps of feudal warriors, merchants, peasants and pilgrims.
The traffic continues today by car, bus and bullet train as businesspeople rush between the economic powerhouses of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, while travellers explore the vast wealth of historical and cultural bounty in between. It has all earned the Tokaido half a slice of Japan’s Golden Route, a stretch of the main island from Tokyo to Hiroshima that takes in the cream of the country’s tourist destinations.
Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige first travelled the Tokaido as part of an official procession from Edo to Kyoto in 1832, and released a series of prints on his journey the following year. Entitled “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido,” it became an all-time bestseller and cemented Hiroshige as one of Ukiyo-e’s greats. With one print included for each of the 53 rest stops and checkpoints along the way, it presents fascinating scenes of ancient life and landscapes in Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as the prefectures of Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie and Shiga.