“Hiroshige’s Japan: On the Trail of the Great Woodblock Print Master” by Philippe Delord

Detail of back cover Detail of back cover

The Tokaido is the most famous route in Japan, linking its two major population centers: Kanto (essentially Tokyo and its suburbs) and Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto). Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Daimyo, local rulers of Japan’s regions, were required to spend one year out of every two at the capital (then named Edo), and so had to cross the country on a regular basis. The Tokaido was the main route for those coming from the West, making it the central artery of early modern Japanese travel.

In the 20th century, the first Shinkansen (bullet train) line took roughly the same path as the old road, and kept the name alive. Indeed, for the contemporary tourist or businessperson, the journey along the Tokaido remains as central to navigating Japan as it did in the Tokugawa era. However, where once it took weeks to make the journey, it now speeds past in a couple of hours.


Hiroshige’s Japan: On the Trail of the Great Woodblock Print Master,  Philippe Delord (Tuttle, March 2022)
Hiroshige’s Japan: On the Trail of the Great Woodblock Print Master, Philippe Delord (Tuttle, March 2022)

Between 2014 and 2016, the French artist Philippe Delord used a moped to visit sites along the old Tokugawa-era Tokaido route from Tokyo to Kyoto. In doing so, he was retracing the steps of the great Japanese woodblock print artist, Hiroshige, who published a collection of images from the road’s 53 post towns in 1832-3. Hiroshige’s Japan is the product of these trips: a series of watercolors placed alongside Hiroshige’s own images. The artistic medium was different and many of the sites Delord visited were now backwaters, bypassed by the greater speed of 21st century travel. Nevertheless, like Hiroshige’s collection 190 years earlier, the images form an imaginative journey across Japan, revealing its countryside, people, and buildings.

The 53 stations of Hiroshige’s collection were towns with a hostel of sufficient quality to host one of the Daimyo traveling the road. Around these grew staging posts for messengers to change horses, and a range of lesser inns and entertainments for ordinary travelers. Given the volume of traffic, the Tokugawa-era Tokaido became highly developed and commercialized, with restaurants, bars, shops, and more besides. That said, despite being the most heavily used and indeed, most important part of Tokugawa Japan’s transportation network, as it wound its way through the hills and along the coastline the road was often simple and travel could be difficult. Hiroshige’s pictures show vast bridges such as the 370 meter Okazaki bridge, but they also show steep and snowy mountain passes as well as river fords that required wading waist deep.


Delord’s paintings, of course, demonstrate that much has changed. Tokyo’s rivers have been contained, restricted and even covered over, such that Nihonbashi, the bridge of Japan which once marked the zero point from which all distances in Japan were measured, is now dominated by an overhead expressway. The first stations—Shinagawa, Kawasaki, Kanagawa—which once were the first stops outside the city have now been swallowed up by Tokyo’s development. In some cases, land reclamation means that the location of Hiroshige’s painting is unrecognizable.

Where Delord’s paintings do mirror Hiroshige’s print, the contrasts are striking. Small towns and villages grew rapidly over the 19th and 20th centuries, so even if they now are seeing declining populations, they are built on a larger scale than they were in Hiroshige’s time. Although the profile of Mount Fuji dominates much of the mid-section of both collections, Delord shows how Japan’s infrastructure has changed the landscape. Rail lines and expressways (for example at Yui) carve much more dramatic paths through the country than the original Tokaido, whilst ports and factories are an ever-present feature of the Japanese countryside (eg Ejiri).

In other places, Delord does not seek to recreate a like-for-like image, but rather picks an interesting or revealing site. It is striking that the basic form of many rural Japanese houses retain a sense of the past. While tiles replaced thatch as the key roofing material, and no doubt internal building materials are very different, the proportions of houses, the curves of their roofs, and their latticed walls and windows all strike a note of continuity in rural Japanese towns.

The artists’ choices are clearly significant in shaping the Japan which they show. By picking his subject matter—fields of tea (Nissaka), temples (Hakone), or deliberately-preserved historic buildings (Mariko, Chiryu), Delord is able to demonstrate clear links to the Tokaido that Hiroshige walked. Elsewhere, choosing an underpass (Oiso), a chemical plant (Yokkaichi), or even a boating lake (Fujieda), renders the differences between past and present overwhelming.

As a historian, leafing through Delord’s images makes me think of the decisions Hiroshige made with his framing and his choice of subject. How did these shape the collection that he produced, and what impact does this have on our understanding of the Tokaido of old?

Ian Rapley is a lecturer in modern Japanese history at Cardiff University.