The Gokaido: the 5 historical roads of Japan 五街道

On the way on the Five roads of Edo: the 5 major roads of Gokaido.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), there were five major roads in the archipelago called the Gokaido. These roads all had as their starting point the Nihonbashi bridge in Edo (former name of the city of Tokyo): the Tokaido and the Nakasendo to join Kyoto, the Koshu kaidô to reach the province of Kai, the Oshu kaido joining the province of Mutsu and the Nikko kaido to go to Nikko.

In 1604, the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo officially became the starting point of the country's future major land transport routes. The five routes were gradually created during the 17th and 18th centuries: the Tokaidô was completed in 1624, the Nikko Kaidô in 1636, the Oshu Kaidô in 1646, the Nakasendo in 1694, and the Koshu kaido in 1772.

Legislation and strict standards structure these roads then see the light of day. These govern the width of the tracks or even the presence or absence of trees along the route. All these axes are divided into ri, a unit of measurement equivalent to 3.927 km, from Nihonbashi. Each of the ri is indicated to travelers by two small mounds of earth topped with vegetation located face to face on either side of the road, the ichiriri tsuka.

Several hundred kilometers long, the gokaidô are dotted with relay stations or stations called shukuba in which there are inns, checkpoints, and horse relay stations. Note also that the shogunal regulations also provide for the number of horses permanently available in these relays. Cesshukuba is 7 to 10 km apart from each other depending on the route taken.

For more than 250 years, daimyos, merchants, craftsmen, samurai, pilgrims, and travelers of all kinds will thus survey these five routes on foot, on horseback, or in a rickshaw.

Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Map
Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Routes
Gokaido Routes

Good travel conditions

 

Western travelers arriving in Japan in 1858, after two centuries of isolationist policy, unanimously praise the quality of this land communication network.

The Gokaidô are wide and lined with two ditches to evacuate the water. These roads also benefit from exceptional regular maintenance, enabling them to remain in good condition all year round.

The sankin-kotai, a system of alternating residence of daimyos established in 1635 by the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu is certainly no stranger to this state of affairs. Obliged to spend one year out of two in Edo, leaving their families there when they return to their stronghold, the daimyos accompanied by their imposing procession frequently travel these roads of the archipelago. Before their passage, the roads strewn with sand are swept, watered, and cleared of dirt of all kinds.

Many stories from the second half of the 19th century describe in detail the conditions of travel on the Gokaido and in particular on the Tokaido, the busiest roads.

Nikko_kaido_hasui_kawase

On the Nikko Kaido (1930). Print by Kasui Kawase

Wikimedia Commons

Where to find these remains of the Gokaidô?

 

The rapid modernization of the archipelago during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and the galloping urbanization of the 20th century got the better of Gokaido.

While some of today's major roads and railways are largely modeled on these old roads, the fact remains that the gokaidô have almost completely disappeared from the Japanese landscape.

However, some sections have been saved and remain accessible. In these few cases, local authorities and tourist associations are working hard to preserve them.

Kisokaido08_Kumagai

Kumagai. Kisokaido stage. Print by Keisai Eisen. Series of the Sixty-nine Steps of the Kisokaidô

Wikimedia Commons

Latest Articles

Kenzo Tange, the influential Japanese architect who shaped modern architecture

Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三) is widely considered one of the most influential and honored Japanese architects of the 20th century.

Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy in Japanese Buddhism

Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, is one of the most beloved and widely venerated deities in Japanese Buddhism.

Understanding and attending a Japanese funeral

Funerals are an unfortunate but inevitable part of life, and this holds true in Japan as well.