Sunday, February 16, 2020

Traveling the Tokaido . . . in Miniature

-- Susan, every Other Sunday

The Tōkaidō, or "East Sea Road" was one of the five great highways that linked the major political and commercial centers of Japan. Although the route itself was officially named and established during the early 17th century, many of the travel roads that later became the Tōkaidō had existed, and been used by travelers, for centuries.

One of the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)

A journey from the starting point of the Tōkaidō  (at Nihonbashi, in Edo) to its southern terminus in Kyoto would have taken 2-3 weeks during the heyday of the route (and in good weather). 53 official post towns lined the route--places where weary travelers could stop for tea, a meal, or a place to spend the night. Fresh horses and porters were also available for rent.

The Tōkaidō has inspired a variety of art--from famous prints by artists like Hiroshige and Kunisada to music and short stories. But one of the most interesting tributes to the famous travel road lies far to the south, in Kumamoto City on the island of Kyushu.

Suizenji Jojuen - the Tōkaidō in miniature

In the early 17th century, not long after the formal creation of the travel road, Hosokawa Tadatoshi, the Daimyō (feudal lord) of Kumamoto constructed a massive traditional garden designed to pay homage to the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō.

Nihonbashi, in Edo - the official starting point of the Tōkaidō (Print by Utagawa Hiroshige)

Jojuen's version of the Nihonbashi

The garden was originally designed as a private garden and retreat. Later, other members of the Hosokawa family constructed Izumi Shrine, a Shinto shrine on the garden grounds that pays homage to the Hosokawa clan.

Izumi Shrine

Today, the garden is open to the public and has been designated a National Historic Site of Scenic Beauty.

The stations of the Tōkaidō remain recognizable - particularly the "coastline" (created by a man-made lake)

The Japanese coast in miniature

... and a miniature Fuji that bears a striking resemblance to its famous full-sized counterpart.


Fuji from the Tōkaidō (Hiroshige Print)

The garden is also home to a grove of lovely Ume (plum / Japanese apricot) trees, whose brilliant, fluffy blossoms herald the approach of spring . . .

The Ume say spring is coming...

. . . and some exceedingly friendly (and well-fed) pigeons, who are happy to make you acquaintance if you purchase pigeon food (or fish food - they're not picky) from one of the vendors along the path.

Pardon me . . . Do you have any Gray Poupon?

The park is a beautiful example of Japanese garden architecture, as well as a unique way to experience the Tōkaidō. Much of the original travel road now lies beneath the concrete and steel of the Shinkansen or Japanese Highway 1, making Suizen-ji Jojuen one of the few places where Japan's most famous travel road remains alive and well . . . if somewhat smaller in scale than it was before.


  1. Another wonderful place you've taken us to, Susan. Thank you. It seems one could spend a lifetime in Japan and experience only a small part of the culture and natural beauty.

  2. My brother spent a considerable amount of time in Japan in the 1980s, and was always wild about it. Thanks, Susan, for bringing me back in touch with his spirit through your posts.

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