The Tokaido Road formed part of a system inaugurated by Tokugawa Iyeyasu when in 1603 he became, for all practical purposes, the ruler of Japan. Taking the post of Shogun he made Edo (present day Tokyo) the seat of his government. From Nihon-Bashi, the great bridge over the Sumida River, just opposite the palace of the Shogun, roads radiated throughout the principle island of the Japanese Empire, and from this point all distances were measured.
The new constitution of Iyeyasu demanded an annual visit to Edo from all the daimyo; and twice a year, coming and going, the main roads were passed and repassed by their processions, splendid in equipment and in strength according to their degree. In the old days, it is said that the cortège of one of the leading princes numbered as many as 20,000 men, who carried out the journey with almost regal ceremonial.
For such, arrangements were made a month or so in advance. The posting-houses had to be warned and provision made for the accomodation of parties that often exhausted all the resources of the neighbourhood. The advent of a great daimyo was heralded by advance notices, so that the way should be clear and no inferiors should hamper the course of his magnificence. As he approached, all traffic had to give way, and other travellers, if still on the road, were required to prostrate themselves while he passed. Anyone failing in this homage was remorselessly cut down by the swordsmen forming the escort.
Of the five main highways radiating from Edo, the Tokaido was perhaps the chief. By this route came all the great nobles from the western provinces as well as the normal traffic between the two capitals of Kyoto and Edo.
On the highway there were fifty-three recognised halting- places or stages, and these, with the starting point at the Nihon-bashi - the Japan Bridge - at Edo and the finish at Kyoto, make up the fifty-five subjects commonly found in the series of Views of the Tokaido.
The Tokaido Road is 514 kilometres in length and traverses the provinces bordering on the southern coast of the island until, near Yokkaichi, it strikes inland by way of Kameyaa and Otsu, passing the southern end of Lake Biwa, to Kyoto.
Click here for a map of the Tokaido Road.