Monday, June 15, 2009

STI: To Tokyo on the Tokaido

June 13, 2009


To Tokyo on the Tokaido

By Janice Tay

I WAIT, batting the chandeliers out of my mind.

An assignment has brought me to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where a conference will be held over two days. But for now, I'm waiting for someone in the hotel lobby, the kind of place that makes you see chandeliers where there is none.

I watch people come and go. Vast numbers have been flooding in and out of Tokyo for over 300 years, a movement that began in the days when the city was known as Edo.

After a victory in 1600, warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu established an Edo-centred shogunate that was to rule Japan until 1868. But it controlled only a quarter of the country directly; the rest was a patchwork quilt of domains, each led by a daimyo, literally big name. Even at the end of the Tokugawa regime, several dozen domains - han - were still functioning almost like independent states, with their own currencies, armies and laws.

One thing, though, helped set Japan on the road to nationhood: sankin kotai, the system by which the feudal lords travelled to Edo in alternate years to pay homage to the shogun. When they returned home, they left their wives and children behind as hostages. This was meant to discourage the daimyo from rebellion. It also meant that people and goods poured into Edo from all over the country and when the visitors went home, they took ideas and information with them - the seeds of a national culture.

In the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, a group of five strides over the carpet. A junior member scurries behind, her arms full of computer equipment. They must be here for the conference.

The retinue the daimyo took with them to Edo could number a few thousand. American Francis Hall, watching one such procession in the 19th century, said their 'white hats could be seen for two miles in length moving like a great snake with white scales'.

Roads were needed to accommodate the travellers and eventually there were five national highways. Of these, the Tokaido - the coastal route linking Kyoto and Edo - was the most used.

The expressways that have replaced it are among the busiest in Japan and the first bullet train line in the country, the Tokaido Shinkansen, runs parallel to the old road. This was the train that took me from Kyoto to Tokyo.

Then as now, there were business travellers on the Tokaido. There were pilgrims too, and prostitutes.

Some Tokaido travellers might have been drawn by the romance of the road but they would soon have met its harsher realities. Checkpoints peppered the highway and the punishment for crossing barriers illegally included crucifixion. The checkpoints were intended to stop female hostages from sneaking out of Edo and guns from being smuggled in: two signs of a rebellion in the works.

Assuming that a traveller heading east cleared all the barriers, he would eventually have arrived at Nihonbashi - Japan Bridge - the Tokyo terminus of the Tokaido. But Nihonbashi was more than that; it was also the place from which road distances in Japan were measured. Even today, expressway signs stating the number of kilometres to Tokyo are actually giving the distance to Nihonbashi.

The Tokaido traveller of old, once he'd crossed the wide wooden bridge, would have found himself in a city veined with water. Built for defence as well as for transport, Edo's streams, rivers and canals were spanned by over 500 bridges, far outstripping the 200 or so in the 'water city' of Osaka.

Probably the most famous of Edo's bridges was Nihonbashi. Of the woodblock prints that capture it, the most iconic is the one by Utagawa Hiroshige in the 1830s. It shows a samurai entourage beginning its journey on the Tokaido. As the procession crests the top of the bridge, hawkers scuttle aside and two dogs turn their backs - perhaps a sly dig at the retinue and everything it represented.

When I leave Tokyo for Kyoto, it is not from Nihonbashi and the journey doesn't take me 15 days. The bullet train I board at Tokyo Station will take me back to Kyoto in about two hours and 20 minutes - the fastest service on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. But before it was introduced in 1992, there was the question of what to call it.

The speediest Tokaido service up till then was the Hikari, or Light. So what name do you give something that travels faster than light?

My train shoots west into a drizzling area. The raindrops streak not down the train windows but across them.

I couldn't really have left from Nihonbashi, even if I'd been willing to walk. The graceful wooden bridge is gone, replaced in 1911 by a stone bridge. Whatever charm it may have once possessed is now overshadowed by the concrete expressway rumbling overhead. Much of the city's water network has vanished too.

I leave Tokyo, city of stone bridges, concrete bridges, iron bridges, ghost bridges. I go on a fast train, the fastest on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. The name of the train: Nozomi - Hope. Or Wish.

For more by the writer on travelling to Tokyo, see

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