Six volumes of Record of Famous Sights of the Tōkaidō Road, and their box

This set of albums is a travel guide depicting sights along the Tōkaidō Road – the main highway linking Japan’s capital Edo with Kyoto, where the Emperor lived. Each volume contains busy scenes of station towns along the route, followed by written descriptions. Shown here are Edo, with the shogun’s castle in the background (right) and the mountain town of Hakone (left).

The artist was an anonymous town painter working in the Tosa style. The gold cloud patterns framing the paintings are a traditional decorative device, focusing attention on the images between them. The central gold bands separate the foreground scenes of bustling activity from the more distant background.

Details

  • Catalogue text

    In Edo period Japan, travel between cities became both safer and more efficient under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Reasons to undertake a trip were appealing to all levels of society and included the prospect of employment, trade, religious pilgrimage and official duty. Travel guides which included practical information as to distances, where to stay and what sights to see along the main roads were produced in great numbers from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, and were a staggering commercial success. Rare was the traveller for whom time was not a factor, so having all the facts as well as the important sites to hit at hand was of key importance. The earliest of such guides to be produced were those chronicling the Tōkaidō road that led from Edo to Kyoto and included not only useful information but famous poems about each area. The Ashmolean’s set conforms to these early editions and comprises six brocade-covered albums in their own box. Each volume contains from five to twelve scenes of double-page illustrations in miniature that are bustling with human activity. After each scene is a textual description of that station town.

    The initial volume opens with a preface detailing where horses, guides and even a porter to carry your bags can be found. The famous dishes or sake of the area, as well as tea houses, are all described for the first-time visitor. The language of this preface [Asai Ryōi, Tōkaidō meisho no ki, Tōyō bunko 346 (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1979), 3-4], as well as the volume divisions, conforms closely to that of Asai Ryōi’s Tōkaidō meishoki, first printed in 1657-61.

    The first image is that of the capital of Edo framed by a band of gold-dust clouds above and below. Above is a distant view of Edo castle, and while the castle is not rendered in complete factual detail, certain elements of its appearance are unmistakable. The main tower of the castle, or donjon, is painted with five levels, as it stood before the fateful fire of Meireki 3 (1657). The artist may well have been using a model of before 1657 or painting from memory. The appearance of the castle does not necessarily indicate that the volumes were produced before the fire, however, considering the desire for accuracy, the likelihood is that the album dates close to this time. Below the castle, we are given a view of one street in Edo centring on the Nihonbashi bridge over the Edo river. Commoners as well as samurai on horseback can be seen moving through the densely populated area. The minute figures are rendered very distinctively with claw-like hands extending out in the direction they are moving. Their toes are painted with a series of formulaic parallel lines and, often, their clothing is outlined in gold.

    The earliest dōchūki (travel guides) probably date to the Meireki era (1655-7), and detail the Tōkaidō from Edo and ‘going up’ (nobori) to Kyoto. Versions describing the return journey (kudari, ‘going down’), as well as guides to other roads such as the Kisō highway, seem to date from the Manji era (1658-60). Already, by the seventeenth century, certain poetic and legendary associations were entrenched firmly in the spirit of a specific location. Edo period travel guides included many of these legends to inform the reader along his journey, and the Ashmolean’s set is no exception. Many guides dating to the earliest period took the form of paintings on screens or sliding doors, so it should be noted that not all were practical to take on a journey, it seems unlikely that the Ashmolean’s volumes, due to the precious materials used, were meant for the average traveller, if they were taken on a trip at all.

    Stylistically, the Ashmolean set conforms to other seventeenth-century examples done by anonymous town painters in the Tosa style. A set of fifty anonymous meisho-e (pictures of famous places) of scenes in and around Kyoto of c. 1670-92 shows figures drawn in the same poses with similar gold outlines [Anne Farrer, A Garden Bequest: Plants from Japan: Portrayed in Books, Paintings and Decorative Art of 300 Years (London: Japan Society, 2001) 21-24]. A pair of screens of the Hie Shrine and the Sannō Shrine Festival in the British Museum of [Hirayama Ikuo and Kobayashi Tadashi, eds., Daiei hakubutsuken, Hizō nihon bijutsu taikan vol. 1, plates 16-17] c. 1624-44 have figures, though painted larger than those in the Ashmolean’s albums, that share the emphatic noses and large drooping eyes. In addition, the depiction of horses is particularly close in the Ashmolean albums and the British Museum screens.

    According to a copy of the original receipt, Christie-Miller purchased these albums from S. Nomura in Kyoto in 1906.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Glossary of terms

lacquer

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 51 on pp. 174-176, pp. 13 & 153, illus. pp. 174-177 & 176-177

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