In his series of woodblock prints entitled “Fifty-Three Stages of the Tōkaidō,” Hiroshige captures the myths and realities of the travel boom in 19th-century Japan. At this time, the notion of traveling caught hold of the popular imagination, and thousands of men, women, and children set out to sightsee and make pilgrimages, often combining both activities. Most travelers walked, but those who could afford it journeyed by horse or palanquin.
The Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Route) was the most heavily traveled highway in Japan. The government regulated the road through a system of post stations and inspection barriers. Designed as the main artery between the great cities of Edo (modern Tokyo) and Kyoto, the Tōkaidō traversed many towns and sites of historic interest, scenic beauty, and religious importance. It is assumed that Hiroshige designed these prints after having himself toured the route in 1832-33 as a member of an official procession from Edo to Kyoto.
This series of scenes along the Tōkaidō was extremely popular both for its subject and for the artist’s innovative style. By combining diverse landscape images with visual narratives of ordinary human activities, often humorously and always with compassionate understanding, the artist gives each station a distinct character and creates a sense of space, movement, and atmosphere that captivates and draws his audience into the images. Walk with Hiroshige’s travelers through this unique vision of the Tōkaidō and experience what its travelers encountered along the way.