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Go-kaidō – The 5 Highways of Old Japan

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 23, 2013 at 12:41 am

Go-kaidō (the Five Great Roads)

Tokugawa Roads, awwwwww yeah!

This is a beautiful example of a classic Edo Era Japanese road (taken in the early Meiji Period).

Today we’re talking about the long roads that united Japan in the Edo Period. They still unite Japan today, actually.

First let’s get the etymology out of the way.

五 go is five. 街道 kaidō is usually translated as “highway,” but you could call it a road, a major artery or whatever. The word itself is made up of two characters; 街 kai/gai has multiple readings and meanings, but usually refers to a road or city/area. 道 dō literally means “road” or “way.” A 街道 kaidō sounds much more important than the 道 dō/michi or 通り dōri, both of which mean “street” in the local sense. This is illustrated by the Japanese idiom 街道を歩む kaidō wo ayumu  “to move up the ranks” – the literal meaning is taking the highroad instead of some crappy side street.

There were many “great roads” in old Japan. The 5 we’re talking about today terminated/started in Edo. So the predominance of these routes is a legacy of the Edo Period. If you look at earlier eras in Japanese History, you’ll find other highways of importance, most of which led to Kyōto/Nara.

Another great example of a well maintained Tokugawa Era road in the early Meiji Period.

Another great example of a well maintained Edo Era road in the early Meiji Period.

The 5 Great Roads are as follows:


The great highways of Japan were a little different from the first great highways of Europe built by the Romans.  But there are some similarities. The shōgunate mandated a fixed width of about 11m (36 feet) for the 5 Great Roads. (The size of Roman roads was strictly regulated for military purposes ranging from 3m to 15m depending on conditions). The 5 major routes of Japan were at the very least covered by 3cm of gravel and sand and local villages were required to maintain the road to ensure no pot holes landed a samurai in the mud. Important sections of the roads and dangerous sections of the roads were paved with large stones – similar to Roman roads. A final nicety was added. The roads were intentionally flanked by tall trees which ensured cool, natural protection from the scorching summer sun.

Nakasendo Highway in Edo Period

Here’s a paved section of the Nikko highway as it looked in the Meiji Period. Note the large stones on the main portion and smaller stones on the sides. Also, note the large trees planted along the road. (I’ve never seen those hammocky-looking things before, not sure what’s up wit’ dat)

Today some roads, like the Tōkaidō which united Edo and Kyōto, are major train routes. Originally there were (and still are) local trains, but now there are 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains connecting Tōkyō and Ōsaka/Kyōto. But in the old days people walked on these routes – some high ranking samurai went on horse, of course. And some history/hiking nerds get in their mind these days to walk the original roads. For example, you can, literally walk from Nihonbashi to Kyōto. You can’t do it in a day (the train takes about 2.5 hours), but sure, you can walk it. And a lot of people still do. Some people walk just sections of the old roads, some crazy fucks actually walk the whole thing non-stop.

The Tokugawa insisted that post towns were established along the roads. In Japanese, these are called 宿 shuku. They were basically rest towns where you could eat, sleep, and – if you were lucky – go drinking & whoring.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

Why Were These Roads So Important?

Here’s the weird things to us westerners; the Roman roads and subsequent European roads were pretty much open to anyone. Edo Period Japanese roads were open to local people. No problem. But crossing domain borders and walking across the country was strictly regulated. There were post stations with domainal or shōgunal representatives who would ask the Edo Period equivalent of “Your papers, please?

The reason for this can be summarized by a certain axiom 入鉄砲出女 iriteppō deonna. 入鉄砲 iriteppō means “bringing in guns.” 出女 deonna means “fleeing women.” The general idea was don’t import weapons, especially gunny weapons, into the domains via these official roads and for fuck’s sake, don’t let your womens get out. If the bitches get out, all hell will break loose.

We’ve seen this time and time again.  Ungrateful deonna. Go back to whence you come!*

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It's not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it's getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It’s not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it’s getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

But I digress.

Since the point of my series on Tōkyō places names is talking about place names, let’s go back to the etymology and then wrap things up.

東海道 Tōkaidō東海 tōkai means eastern sea.  Add 道 dō and the whole thing means “the eastern sea route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto by a coastal route that still exists today by high speed train. This route is still walked by people who like… walking. Its Tōkyō post stations (shuku) are Nihonbashi and Shinagawa. The old Shinagawa Tōkaidō route is a famous place in Tōkyō and home to something like 30 festivals year round. I go there often. You should too.

中山道 Nakasendō – literally means “the central mountain route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto through an alternate route. Its Tōkyō stations were Nihonbashi and Itabashi, where Kondō Isami was executed and his grave still exists. (Also, don’t confuse the word 中山道  Nakasendō with 中出し nakadashi in polite company).

甲州街道 Kōshū-kaidō甲州 refers to the capital of 甲斐国 Kai no kuni. My apartment is built on the remains of the upper residence of this province. Imagine that this is the road that connects Tōkyō to Mt. Fuji.  In Tōkyō, it passed through such towns as Nihonbashi, Shinjuku, Suginami, and Chōfu (birthplace of Kondō Isami).

奥州街道 Ōshū-kaidō – Basically, this connected Edo with the Tōhoku region (Ōshū is an area in Iwate, if I’m not mistaken). Its Tōkyō stations are Nihonbashi and Senju-shuku. Today there are neighborhoods called 北千住 Kita Senju North Senju and 南千住 Minami Senju South Senju. Minami Senju hosted one of the shōgunate’s 3 main execution grounds (another story in and of itself). This area also was post station for the Nikkō highway.

日光街道 Nikkō-kaidō – This was a direct route from Edo to Nikkō, the final resting spot of Ieyasu and Iemitsu (the first and third shōguns). Just as serving the shōgun in Edo was a duty expected of daimyō, service at Ieyasu’s funerary temple was also expected. There are local 東照宮 Tōshō-gū “Temples of the Eastern Prince” (ie; Ieyasu) all over the place, including several in Edo itself. This was designed to reduce the cost of an official visit to the main temple.  Its stations within modern Tōkyō are Nihonbashi and Senju.

A map of the Go-kaido.

A map of the Go-kaido. Sorry, Japanese only.



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* By the way, 入鉄砲出女 t-shirts coming soon!
UPDATE: t-shirts are here!!!!

  1. Would a 入鉄砲出女 t-shirt help me meet girls in Japan?

  2. […] Go-kaidō –Five Great Highways of Edo […]

  3. […] appeared in all kinds of places online. I wonder how that happened… [iii] And, yes, I have an article about the Gokaidō. [iv] What’s the Kanda Aqueduct? I’m glad you asked! [v] The priest whom I asked if it was OK […]

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