Five roads from Edo

October 17 2012

The Five Routes (五街道Gokaidō) were five roads (kaidō) that started at Nihonbashi (the Japan Bridge over the Nihonbashi River, a tributary of the Sumida River; a river named after a bridge) in Edo, ie Tokyo, during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).

The most important was the Tōkaidō, which linked Edo with Kyoto, the seat of the irrelevant Emperor.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, started the construction of the roads. Post stations (宿場shukuba) were set up so that travellers could rest and buy supplies. Enlarge map (will open in a separate window).


The Ōshū Kaidō had 27 stations, running north to Mutsu Province (now in Fukushima Prefecture, the area affected by the recent earthquake). Ōshū is another name for Mutsu.

The Nikkō Kaidō, Nikko Road, had 21 stations, connecting with Nikkō Tōshō-gū (now in Tochigi Prefecture).

The Kōshū Kaidō had 44 stations, connecting with Kai Province (now Yamanashi Prefecture) and ending at the Shimosuwa-shuku, the 29th stop on the Nakasendō. Kōshū is another name for Kai.

The Nakasendō (or Kisokaidō), Central Mountain Road (or Kiso Road), the longest, had 69 stations and ran through the centre of Honshu to Kyoto.

The Tōkaidō, East Sea Road, the most famous, had 53 stations and ran along the Pacific coast to Kyoto. Hiroshige made a series of prints of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. (He made another of Famous Restaurants of the Eastern Capital.)

That makes 214 organised stops on a feudal Gokaido. The Japanese had no mental barriers to overcome when it came to organising railways and subway systems.

At the beginning of her authentically recorded history, Japan was a unitary empire, and in 1868 she became a unitary empire again. During the seven centuries ending in 1868 [from the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, which lasted from 1185 to 1333, until the Meiji “restoration”] the political map of Japan was a mosaic of local states which had been held together during the latest two and a half of those centuries [Tokugawa shogunate, 1603-1868] under the hegemony of the most powerful of them, but, except for Sakai, these Japanese states had not been city-states. They had been feudal states, each of them ruled from a castle by a baron [daimyo] commanding a war-band of retainers [samurai].


In Japan the Great North-East Road, running up the south-eastern side of the Main Island [Honshu] from the civil capital at Kyoto in the interior to the successive military capitals at Kamakura and Yedo [Kyoto had also been the military capital under the Ashikaga shoguns, from 1337 to 1573], served first to secure the conquests made by the Far Eastern Civilization in Japan at the expense of the Ainu barbarians and afterwards to bring and keep Yamato [the area around Nara in which the Japanese state first emerged] under the domination of the Kwanto [Kantō] – as the new northern marches came to be called, after the name of the road by which they had been opened up. Under the Tokugawa régime, which provided the Far Eastern Society in Japan with its universal state, this trunk road and its branches ministered to the policy of the Shogun’s government at Yedo as an instrument not only for keeping an eye on the impotent Imperial Court at Kyoto, but also for the more formidable task of keeping to heel the feudal lords all over the Empire – especially those “Outside Lords” (Tozama) whose houses had once been rivals of the Tokugawa in the grim struggle for power at the climax of a Japanese Time of Troubles.

These daimyō were required by the Shogun to reside in Yedo, with their principal retainers, for so many months in the year, and to leave their wives and families there as hostages when they themselves were in residence in their fiefs, with the triple object of keeping them under supervision, loosening their personal hold on the fiefs from which they drew their political and military strength, and weakening them financially by putting them under social pressure to live, while in the capital, in a style beyond their means. [Footnote: See Sansom, G. B.: Japan, a Short Cultural History (London 1932, Cresset Press), p. 436; Sadler, A. L.: A Short History of Japan (Sydney 1946, Angus & Robertson), p. 217.] The migration, twice a year, of these feudal lords, with their retinues, between their fiefs in the provinces and their residences in the capital was one of the distinctive features of Japanese life in the Tokugawa Age; and the grand trunk road and its ramifications were the media of communication for their perpetual coming and going. While the Government were interested in seeing the means of communication kept up sufficiently well to serve this police purpose, they were equally interested in seeing to it that they should not be kept up well enough to tempt disaffected feudal forces into planning a convergent march on the capital; and they “deliberately refrained from building bridges and otherwise facilitating communications on the main lines of approach to Yedo”. [Footnote: Sansom, op. cit., p. 437. Perhaps their scholars had reminded them of the unintended and untoward service that the roads built by Ts’in She Hwang-ti had once rendered to the rebels who had overthrown his regime a few years after his death […].]

He says that the Tōkaidō ran from Kyoto to Edo. It would be better to put it the other way round.

He is implying that a road existed between the Kanto and Yamato regions before the seventeenth century. As it must have done.

Tōkaidō, 1865, by Felice Beato

Daimyo residences, Edo, 1865 or ’66, demolished after the Shogunate ended; coloured print after Felice Beato

Hiroshige’s 55th print: the end of the Tōkaidō and arrival at Kyoto (the first shows the beginning of the journey at Nihonbashi)

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970 (first quotation)

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

One Response to “Five roads from Edo”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Contrast Nihonbashi today with Ludgate Hill railway bridge before its demolition in 1990.

    Nihonbashi: river, bridge crosses river, raised expressway above river.

    Ludgate: subterranean river (Fleet), surface road crosses river, raised railway above river.

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