Tokaido Shinkansen near Shin Fuji Station, Japan Rail
Touring Routes have become popular globally to help visitors navigate points of interest at their destination. In Japan, travelling routes have been in vogue for centuries to facilitate the flow of people, goods, and information between major centres. By far the most important of these is Tokaido, meaning literally “Eastern Sea Highway”, which links Tokyo with former capital cities Kyoto and Osaka.
In the late 16th century Shogun Tokugawa established Edo (now called Tokyo) as Japan’s new capital, taking over from Osaka. The Emperor remained in Kyoto however, so Tokaido became important to connect these main centres of political, economic, and spiritual power. Edo rose from humble beginnings in the late 16C to become the world’s largest city at the begining of 19C, with a population equal to London and Paris combined. A mighty highway was necessary to provision such a city:
…the genius of the Japanese race is manifest in its roads. The Tokaido Highway runs from Osaka to Edo – from the empire’s belly to the head, if you will – and knows of no equal, I assert, anywhere on earth, in either modernity or antiquity. The road is a city, fifteen feet in width, but three hundred well-drained, well-maintained, and well-ordered German miles in length, served by fifty-three way stations where travellers can hire porters, change horses, and rest or carouse for the night. And the simplest, most commonsensical joy of all? All traffic proceeds on the left-hand side, so the numerous collisions, seizures, and standoffs that so clog Europe’s arteries are here unknown.
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set in 1800
Fast-forward to Japan’s post-World War 2 rapid economic development period. Leading into the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s first Shinkansen service is inaugurated. It is named Tokaido Shinkansen as it very closely follows the route of the ancient highway.
A large part of both the ancient, and the modern, Tokaido passes along Shizuoka Prefecture’s long, snaky Pacific coastline. 19th century ukiyoe artist Hiroshige painted a scene of each of the 53 nightly inn stops along the ancient Tokaido. 22 of these, almost half, are in Shizuoka.
Numazu, Hiroshige, 19C, Tokaido Station #12
Modern Tokaido adds the seaside hot-spring town of Atami to the route. Atami also acts as gateway town to the beautiful Izu Peninsula, a popular getaway for Tokyo residents and international visitors alike.
Whilst Tokaido links Shizuoka culturally along its east/west axis with Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Shizuoka also displays a unique south/north progression of natural wonder. Suruga Bay is the deepest harbor in Japan, and heading northwards one climbs the slopes of Mt Fuji to the country’s highest peak. A huge diversity of natural habitats associated with rapidly changing altitude can be enjoyed in a short south/north distance. Izu Peninsula, flanking Suruga Bay’s eastern shore, is a geological wonderland rich in natural hot springs and volcanoes.
Horse travel in ancient Japan was a luxury limited to the gentry, so most travellers along Tokaido were on foot, with 22 nightly inn stops along their journey through Shizuoka. Today’s visitors can also take advantage of these Tokaido towns as bases to enjoy surrounding local activities, nature, and cultural experiences. Whilst Tokaido Shinkansen only stops at a few of them, a transfer onto the local JR Tokaido line can bring visitors to the same inn towns Japanese have enjoyed for centuries.
Ancient and modern Tokaido takes a big sweep around the base of Mt Fuji. Today’s visitors continue the tradition of centuries of travelers who enjoy spectacular vistas of this Shizuoka icon whilst moving east and west between the country’s major centres.
So, when visiting Japan, take your time getting between Tokyo and Kyoto and enjoy the Tokaido travel experience, as Japanese have been doing for centuries.