An Artist’s Portal to Old Japan

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In August 1832, the remarkable ukiyoe artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) set off on a journey on the Tökaidö Road that would change his life forever. Through family connections, Hiroshige joined a select entourage of Tokugawa officials accompanying the shogun’s annual tribute of horses to the emperor in Kyöto.

Relatively unknown at the time, the 35-year-old Hiroshige was just another struggling resident within the demi-world of painters, actors and writers in Edo striving to capture the iridescence of life in the new eastern capital.

The professional crevice that Hiroshige inhabited was narrow, overcrowded and consumed with artists illustrating beautiful prostitutes, risqué bestsellers and a new type of theater called kabuki which grew wildly popular in Edo. Snubbed by the guardians of the Japanese art establishment, Hiroshige and his contemporaries were seen as mere technicians and craftsmen rather than the artists they aspired to be.

The few weeks that Hiroshige spent on the Tökaidö, however, would prove to be an inspiration. And upon his return home, he devoted the next year developing the rough sketches he had made traveling through the hidden towns and hamlets on the route. Utilizing the delicate process of mokuhanga (wood-block printing) favored by ukiyoe artists, Hiroshige created images of such timeless beauty; he would reshape the very foundations of Japanese art.

Illustrations of the Tökaidö had been done earlier; even the great Katsushika Hokusai creating several renditions of the journey. However, the public found Hiroshige’s Tökaidö to be refreshingly original and irresistible.

Heavily influenced by the norms of traditional Chinese art, Japanese painters were trapped in their studios creating fictional landscapes that only existed in their imaginations. Predating the great tradition of Western impressionists and post impressionists such as Monet and Van Gogh, Hiroshige would escape into the open air and paint only what he saw. His audience was also enchanted by his warm humor and sly wit which often focused on ribald street scenes, common laborers and the daily rituals of life on the road.

“Nihonbashi, Leaving Edo” by Utagawa Hiroshige. This print depicts the starting point of the Tökaidö route. (Photos courtesy

In 1832, the Tökaidö was the main artery that connected Kyöto, the ancient home of the emperor, to Edo, the blustering, sprawling lair of the shogun. Approximately 300 miles in length, the road was home to poets, pilgrims, warriors and thieves many of whom were searching for opportunities to escape their past and rewrite their future.

The Tökaidö’s importance grew over time after the shogun had commanded all daimyö (feudal lords) to reside every other year in Edo. While the great lords traveled back and forth on the highway to maintain their fiefdoms, their families were constrained in Edo as hostages to keep potential rivals in line in the Tokugawas’ sankin-kötai system of power and control.

This was the Tökaidö that Hiroshige encountered, and it had remained remarkably unchanged over 300 years. Protected by a cotillion of fragrant cryptomeria trees that provided shade to the sunburned traveler and a defensive barrier in case of rebellion, each section of the journey was meticulously maintained by the people of the prefecture through which it passed. Boasting a hard-packed surface of fine sand and gravel, wagon ruts had to be smoothed over and the path swept clean of detritus on a daily basis. To serve the ever-flowing river of travelers that passed by, an entire gauntlet of inns, drinking houses, brothels and medicinal shops arose along the way hoping to profit from the needs of the weary. Anchoring the entire passage were the 53 official checkpoints whose charge was to monitor traffic and prevent saboteurs, spies and subversives from entering or escaping Edo.

A master at depicting rain, snow, mist and moonlight, Hiroshige captured the extraordinary beauty of the journey in a wide variety of seasons and perspectives, giving his work a range and diversity that never failed to surprise and refresh. The painter was also not above embellishing his scenes with imaginary trees, mountains and foothills in order to create compositional balance and tension that did not exist in real life. Above all there was a subtle undercurrent of fleeting melancholy in much of the artist’s work that enriched his illustrations with a deeper emotional power that was unforgettable and inimitable. So while Hiroshige’s Tökaidö was a record of a passing era in Japan’s tumultuous history, it was also a creative work of artistic flight that soared far above mere documentation.

Hiroshige’s “The Fifty-Three Stations of Tökaidö” would be an immediate success upon its publication. The simplicity of his line, the rich colors of his palette, and the genuine affection he felt for the common people he painted would bring the artist widespread celebrity. In an era when most Japanese did not venture beyond the boundaries of their villages, Hiroshige had created a portal that transported his audience into a world that they would never see in person. He produced 40 more versions of the Tökaidö but most critics would agree that it was his first attempt that best captured the artist as a young man with all of his prodigious powers still on the rise.

Others would try to imitate Hiroshige’s success including the venerable Hokusai who clearly understood that his position atop the ukiyoe art world was under siege but none could match the younger painter’s vision of the Tökaidö.

“Shiratsuka, 32nd Station of Tökaidö,” by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Ensnared by the tentacles of his popularity, Hiroshige would spend the next 26 years of his life surrendering to the siren call of his public who demanded he repeat his early success. Despite the immense financial windfall he would bring to his publishers, Hiroshige would die penniless, dependent on the understanding and generosity of friends and relatives. He would end his career, however, creating three glorious triptychs that heralded a breaking away from the familiarity of his Tökaidö series into artistic new ground.

After a lifetime of satisfying the unabated appetite of his broad audience, he finally reached a point where he painted for God’s eyes only. In 1858, a cholera epidemic would sweep through Edo and claim Hiroshige as one of its victims, and 10 years later, the importance of his beloved Tökaidö would come to an end only to be replaced by the mechanical lockstep of the Meiji Restoration.

The world that Hiroshige had captured in his exquisite prints has disappeared into the mist of the past, but the extraordinary vision of what he created in his art will never be forgotten.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.


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