A Nation of Travelers
Japan was an object of fascination to Europeans as early as the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo returned from the Far East bearing tales of the “golden island of Zipangu.” But to reach this small island country at the very edge of the map was no easy feat given the navigational capabilities of the time. Later, when the journey became more manageable, Japan remained cloaked in mystery because the Tokugawa shogunate had closed it to the outside world. Under the seclusion policy, which lasted from 1639 to 1854, most foreigners were prohibited from entering the country, and the Japanese were forbidden to leave. To be sure, a small window to the outside world remained in the form of tightly controlled trade with Holland and China, but even the Dutch and Chinese merchants were confined to the tiny island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. As a consequence, there were very few opportunities for a foreigner to become acquainted with Japan as a whole.
There was, however, one way for a foreigner to travel widely in Japan. Once a year the director, or opperhoofd, of the Dutch factory on Dejima was required to pay his respects to the shôgun in Edo. In those days, the journey from Nagasaki to Edo took approximately one month. The route and itinerary were rigidly fixed, and since the opperhoofd was accompanied by an “escort” assigned to monitor his movements, he could not depart from that route for sightseeing purposes. He did, however, have plenty of time to observe the scenery on either side of the highway, the people living in the towns and villages along the way, and the traffic on the roads and waterways. In 169192, Englebert Kaempfer, a German physician in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, accompanied the director on his trip to Edo and wrote an extensive account of those travels, a portion of which has been published in English under the title Kaempfers Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed.
For Kaempfera tireless observer who had rejoiced in the opportunity to visit the “golden island of Zipangu”the journey to Edo consisted of one amazing discovery after another. Often these are features of everyday life that the Japanese of the period never bothered writing down because they took them for granted. Kaempfer, viewing them all from a foreigners perspective, saw each custom and artifact as remarkable and recorded everything in minute detail. He left behind an invaluable record of travel in Edo-period Japan.
One observation Kaempfer made was that the highway was remarkably cleansomething on which no Japanese ever bothered to remark. The Tôkaidô highway linking Kyoto and Edo, on which Kaempfer traveled for part of his journey from Nagasaki to Edo and back, was dotted with “stations,” or post towns, where travelers would stop and spend the night, and each of these kept around 100 horses, which went back and forth between stations bearing travelers, baggage, and freight. These horses naturally dropped manure as they went, and the travelers themselves discarded things like worn-out straw sandals along the side of the road. Furthermore, the highway was lined with pines that shed needles and pine cones. With all of this going on, one would expect the highway to be strewn with rubbish and debris. However, to Kaempfers surprise, it was quite clean.
According to his account, people living nearby gathered the manure and straw sandals for use as fertilizer in the rice fields and took the pine needles and pine cones home to use as fuel. Both fertilizer and fuel were necessities, and since this was an easy way to acquire them, the residents of the area scrambled to pick them up off the road. In fact, Kaempfer observed children following behind the horses and quickly scooping up the manure while it was still warm and moist to carry to the fields. Thus the highway stayed clean. For the Japanese, this was a wholly unremarkable scene, but Kaempfer, with his boundless curiosity, faithfully recorded it, leaving posterity with fascinating information not only on the state of the highways in the Edo period but also on recycling practices at that time.
But the thing that most astonished Kaempfer was the number of people traveling Japans highways. “An incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japans provinces,” he observed, “indeed, at certain times of the year they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city.” The reasons, he suggested, were “partly the large population of the various provinces and partly that the Japanese travel more often than other people.”(1)
WANDERLUST OF THE COMMON FOLK
One class of people known for their frequent journeys was the daimyô, or feudal lords. Under the sankin kôtai system they were required to spend alternate years in attendance at the court of the shôgun in Edo, meaning that they had to travel the route between their own domain seat and the shôguns on a yearly basis. There were between 260 and 270 daimyô in Japan, and each traveled with a retinue of retainers (the number depending on the wealth and rank of the daimyô) that turned each of these trips into a procession. Since the length of the procession bespoke the power and wealth of the daimyô, some even padded their retinues with “extras” to make a stronger impression. The largest number of sankin kôtai journeys took place around April, whereas farmers would generally travel in the winter and early spring, before planting. In addition, samurai would frequently travel on errands or missions for their lords, and merchants could be seen hurrying back and forth on business at any time of the year. Another large block of travelers consisted of pilgrims to famous shrines or temples, especially Ise Grand Shrine. As Kaempfer observed, “The journey [to Ise] is undertaken throughout the year, but especially during the first three months because of the good weather, and is made by young and old, rich and poor, men and women . . .”(2) The Ise pilgrims were particularly conspicuous because they tended to travel in groups.
For the landowners of the ruling warrior class, the wanderlust of the common folk was something to be discouraged. Since they almost always journeyed on foot, they spent a good deal of time on the road, parting with considerable sums of money along the way. The lords, who often suffered from fiscal hardship, saw money draining out of their domains and suffered a decline in tax revenues due to the loss of productivity while the travelers were away. Some people were unable to repay the money they had borrowed for their trip and went bankrupt. Others never returned home. Perhaps they died along the way, or perhaps their glimpse of urban life made them dissatisfied with the harsh lot of the farmer, and they had resolved to abandon their homes and make a life for themselves in the city. In either case, it was bad news for the lords because when the population of the domain fell, so did tax revenues.
Even so, it was not possible for the rulers of the time simply to ban travel outright. In an age when the least extravagance in food, clothing, or shelter was prohibited among the common people, travel offered a rare opportunity to escape the austere and humdrum routine of daily existence. For this reason official permits for travel, including trips of long duration, were given out for a number of purposes: pilgrimages, treatment for illness at a spa, visits to see sick relatives or attend a funeral, and so forth. It was only to be expected that the common folk would take advantage of these loopholes. The reason so many people made pilgrimages to famous shrines and temples was not that they were particularly religious but that it provided an excellent excuse for travel.
A SACRED AND PROFANE MECCA
By far the most famous and most frequent destination for pilgrims was Ise Shrine. Dedicated to Amaterasu, the divine progenetrix of the imperial family, Ise enjoyed the de facto status of “top shrine” in the country. Amaterasu was also the goddess of the harvest and was believed capable of conferring every type of good fortune on worshippers. The authorities could hardly forbid a trip made with the ostensible purpose of praying for a good harvest and their lords military success. Pilgrimages to Ise were given an additional boost by low-ranking Shintô priests who traveled about propagating the cult of veneration for Ise and urging believers to offer up the first ears of the rice harvest to the divinities of the shrine. They also let it be known that they could serve as guides to Ise, arrange for lodgings along the way, perform devotions not only for the pilgrims themselves but also for their families and their lords, and guide visitors to famous tourist spots in the area.
To be sure, one source of Ises appeal was the mystery and beauty of the place itself, with its tall trees and bare cedar gates and buildings. But there were doubtless other attractions as well. For one thing, the priests residences, where visitors lodged, were as elegant as the finest inns and famous for their damask bedding and gourmet meals. For people forced to renounce any outward extravagance in their lives, this rare taste of luxury was an attraction not to be denied. Then there was the town of Ise, brimming with street performers, small theaters, and a pleasure quarter where splendidly dressed courtesans danced the traditional Ise ondo. The shrine precincts were enveloped in a solemn atmosphere, but one step outside the mood turned festive. Ise was not only a destination for the faithful but also an entertainment mecca where every sort of amusement could be found concentrated within a fairly small area. And as it was not far from such popular tourist destinations as Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka, it had great pulling power. People of limited means were urged to put aside a little money and a little rice each day until they had enough to make the pilgrimage, and many of these people in fact made the trip, frequently in groups.
Of course, some pilgrims were actually motivated by religious sentiment as well. After paying their respects at Ise, the devout would often proceed to Seigantoji (in what is now Wakayama Prefecture), the first stop on a pilgrimage to 33 sacred sites devoted to the bodhisattva Kannon. This pilgrimage took the faithful through 10 provinces, culminating with Kegonji, a temple in present-day Gifu Prefecture, and it entailed about 40 days of walking, including some fairly strenuous uphill hiking. Most of those who headed straight for Nara, Osaka, or Kyoto from Ise instead of continuing on the Kannon pilgrimage were using religion as a pretext for leisurely travel and sightseeing, not traveling out of religious devotion.
PENNILESS TRAVELERS AND CHILDREN
It was no simple matter, however, for ordinary people to realize their dreams of travel. In rural villages in particular, a farmers presence was required for much of the year, for even though much of the labor was carried out cooperatively, one could scarcely wander off while the rest of the village was hard at work. For this reason one would imagine that most of the travelers Kaempfer saw clogging the highway on his way to Edo were either samurai traveling on official business or merchants engaged in commerce. Yet a relatively small portion of his account is devoted to these classes. What interested Kaempfer were the common folk begging for alms as they journeyed toward Ise. He reports that many of these travelers approached him for a coin or two to cover traveling expenses. Apparently they had no qualms about addressing the first foreigner they had ever seen in their lives. It seems that Kaempfer was not the only traveler fascinated by the novel sights and sounds of the road; Japanese people of limited means, undertaking what could well prove to be the only such journey of their lives, likewise savored every aspect of the experience.
The practice of journeying to Ise with nothing but what one could beg along the way was called nukemairibasically, an unauthorized pilgrimage. Village youngsters, merchants assistants, and tradesmens apprentices would sometimes venture forth on such a journey without the permission of their parents or the lord of the manor. In most cases, this also meant that they had not accumulated enough money for the trip. It cannot have been easy for these unauthorized pilgrims to get by just on what they could beg. Nonetheless, they usually continued on their leisurely way until they reached their destination. How did they manage?
Their secret was a certain object that they carried with them. A small ladle served as identification for people on a nukemairi to Ise. If a traveler stood at the gate of one of the homes bordering the highway, ladle in hand, the inhabitants would provide him with small change or with some rice that could either be eaten or sold to someone else for cash. Such generosity probably stemmed partly from genuine sympathy for the impoverished and partly from a kind of pietythat is, the belief that a good deed of this nature would be rewarded in the afterlife. Whatever the motive, it seems that in those days most Japanese gave handouts to people poorer than themselves as a matter of course. Because of this, it was possible to travel to Ise and back on an empty purse. According to accounts written by people who made just such a journey, it was a fairly simple matter in a full days walking to accumulate enough money for that days food and lodging.
Notable among the nukemairi travelers that could be seen on Japans highways were groups of boys, including some less than 10 years of age. After finishing their pilgrimage to Ise, these boys might casually continue on to Zenkôji in Shinshû (present-day Nagano Prefecture), some 350 kilometers away as the crow flies. Some travelers accounts mention encountering groups of boys walking through the snow clad only in light summer clothes. After slipping away in midsummer, the lads doubtless tarried here and there until the seasons changed and they found themselves in weather for which they were unprepared. This suggests that they had been roaming the countryside for two or three months.
Apparently such behavior was not a source of concern or surprise in those days. Today the aphorism “If you cherish your child, send him traveling” is most often used figuratively, but in those days it was widely believed that travel was an excellent way to get an education and that an arduous journey was the best thing for building character and strength in a youth. Traveling was not just a lark. It meant walking in rain and snow, and at times the young man might have to go to sleep on an empty stomach, under a strangers eaves. He would have to find the strength to climb steep mountain roads. But in overcoming these difficulties, he would learn perseverance, and in receiving help and sustenance from strangers he would learn charity toward others. It was therefore an accepted practice for boys to learn about the world and mature through such an experience.
In fact, there were many parts of the country where one was not considered a man until one had completed the pilgrimage to Ise or some other long journey. In such regions, it was considered perfectly natural for a group of boys to leave the village without a word and head for Ise. When the adults got wind of the fact that their children were planning such an “escape,” they would surreptitiously slip them some spending money and clothes to wear on their journey. Since nukemairi was technically prohibited, the families would go through the motions of running after their sons to bring them back home, but rarely did they make a serious effort to catch them. Instead, the family would set out a helping of food at their place at mealtimes and pray for their safe return.
In truth, even legitimate travelers who had prepared for the expense of their journey might fall ill or injure themselves along the way and find themselves overwhelmed by the cost of lodging and medicine. It was also easy to fall victim to banditsknown as goma no haiwho lurked here and there waiting to prey on the vulnerable wayfarer, or to unscrupulous palanquin carriers who extorted money from travelers, attacking them in gangs if they refused to cooperate. Gambling and women could also wipe out the inexperienced wanderer. But as long as there were people willing to provide handouts, one could continue ones travels indefinitely.
CONVENIENCE AND SAFETY
Kaempfer encountered a sign stating that “nearby in the fenced-in area was a dead body of a person who had hanged himself returning from a pilgrimage to Ise. Anyone who knew him or had lost him could find him there.”(3) Pilgrims also died occasionally of disease, injury, or foul play. However, in the vast majority of cases, they reached home safely. This was owing in part to various statutes and regulations designed to protect the traveler.
On most highways, one encountered a post town every four kilometers or so. There one would invariably find palanquin carriers waiting in a row and a toiya, or forwarder, whose job was to oversee the transport of baggage and freight, in addition to keeping order in the town. There were rules governing every kind of commercial activity at the post town. Porters and others could not charge travelers more than the established rates. If a traveler left something behind, someone was required to go after him and return it. Ferries had to keep running even in the rain. Those who worked in the post town were prohibited from gambling and even from arguing. Anyone who broke the rules was subject to a fine, and official notices frequently appeared admonishing everyone to follow them more carefully. This attention to law and order gave people some sense of security as they traveled.
On the other hand, the frequency with which warning notices were posted suggests that the regulations were not religiously observed. In fact, while the shôgun and his direct retainers paid nothing for horses and palanquins, and while lower-ranking samurai paid the official rate, commoners were typically charged twice the fixed rate to use these services. Porters who were meek to samurai would cheekily demand tips from commoners. Post town workers gambled and argued regularly, and solitary travelers were frequently denied lodgings on the spurious claim that there were no vacancies. In short, it would be a mistake to suppose that travelers in the Edo period were guaranteed perfect comfort and safety. Nonetheless, a fairly effective apparatus did exist to protect them. There was even a system for transporting sick and penniless travelers by palanquin from village to village until they arrived back home.
Judging from ukiyo-e prints depicting travelers on the highways, the common folk traveled with remarkably little baggage given the length of their journey. Farmers carried everything on their backs wrapped in a furoshiki, or large kerchief. One also encounters images of merry-looking matrons traveling with no baggage at all. In all likelihood, they had left their baggage with the toiya to forward to the post town where they intended to stop next. In this way it was possible to travel without the burden of heavy bags. In fact, among travelers who could afford it, it was common to forward souvenirs or extra clothes all the way to their hometown.
Even for travelers of limited means, it was possible to go off sightseeing with nothing but a small piece of hand baggage. The inns in those days were remarkably cheap by todays standards, and innkeepers had a hard time turning a profit unless they were able to attract a large number of lodgers. In an effort to fill their rooms, they sent people out to drum up business. Because many pilgrims went on to Kyoto or Osaka after visiting Ise, the inns of Kyoto and Osaka would send their pitchmen not only to Ise but even as far as Matsuzaka and Kuwana to secure customers. One way they persuaded potential lodgers was by offering to carry their extra luggage to the inn. Of course, there was a small charge for this, but the service was convenient and reliable. In this way, tourists could take in the sights of Nara unburdened by heavy baggage, and innkeepers could guarantee themselves customers.
Letters could be sent home via courier, but this service was not cheap. The alternative way to send mail home was to find someone who was heading there. People regularly relied on complete strangers to go out of their way to deliver their letters. It might take as long as six months, but eventually the letter would arrive at its destination. The bearer neither expected nor received monetary compensation for this act of kindness; the idea, it seems, was that some day the shoe might be on the other foot.
Even farmers sometimes wrote letters home to let friends and family know they were well. By no means all farmers could write, but apparently a fairly high percentage could. Some travelers wrote not merely letters but detailed journals. There are extant examples of such travel diaries sprinkled with original haiku or waka verse, attesting to a remarkably literate and cultured populace.
Even if one had large sums of money with which to travel, carrying it over a long distance was impractical, not only because of the danger but also because of the weight; there was no paper currency in those days, only metal coins. For this reason, it was common for people to “deposit” their cash with a money changer before leaving home. Using their receipt and the seal with which they had stamped it, they could then “withdraw” the money from an associated money changer when they arrived at their destination.
From todays perspective, it is difficult to know what to make of a society in which children traveled about the country without money and strangers went out of their way to deliver others letters. In the Edo period, the key element supporting the culture of travel was clearly trust.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.
(1) Kaempfers Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed, edited, translated, and annotated by Beatrice M. Bodart-Baily (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), p. 271.
(2) Ibid., p. 118.
(3) Ibid., p. 339.
© 2004 Japan Echo Inc.