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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!!!!

Why is Nihonbashi called Nihonbashi?

In Japanese History on April 22, 2013 at 12:49 am

Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge, more at “The Bridge to Japan”)

A Classic View of Edo... from Nihonbashi.

A Classic View of Edo… from Nihonbashi.

This one is going to be a bit of a monumental task. Not because the etymology of the place is name is difficult, but because the area is so steeped in history is will be forever linked to Edo and Tokyo.

Is there a bridge called Nihonbashi?

This is Nihonbashi today. (That street is the bridge, that “thing” that looks like a bridge is the highway that crosses over the bridge. Looks like shit, right? More about that later…)

I wrote a long ass blog about Nihonbashi. Loooong. After I wrote, found pictures and had everything ready to publish I realized I had made a horrific mistake. I had confused Edobashi and Nihonbashi. I found pictures and paintings which included two bridges, Nihonbashi and Edobashi. And yet somewhere I remembered learning that In the Edo Period the bridge was called Edobashi and in the Meiji Period it was called Nihonbashi. I consulted old maps and new maps, both of which had the places marked as distinct locations – albeit in the same vicinity. I found Edo Period paintings using the term Nihonbashi.

I even consulted the English Wikipedia entry, which said:

The Nihonbashi bridge first became famous during the 17th century, when it was the eastern terminus of the Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads which ran between Edo and Kyoto. During this time, it was known as Edobashi, or “Edo Bridge.” 

I had so much conflicting information that I killed the entry on Nihonbashi and just put it on the back burner.

Since that time, I’ve read up a little more. Looked at more pictures and maps and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I was told (and what is written in Wikipedia) is wrong.

Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.

Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.

Edobashi and Nihonbashi are two totally different bridges, crossing the same river, running parallel. The Nihonbashi area was the starting point of the 五街道 Go-kaidō the 5 Great Highways connecting Edo and the provinces. If you crossed the bridge, proceeded towards Kyōbashi, you were following the Tōkaidō to Kyōto and Ōsaka (today this street is 中央通 Chūō Dōri Center Street/Main Street. If you walked a little east on the river, you’d come to second bridge, Edobashi. If you crossed Edobashi, you’d follow a road along a channel to another bridge called 白魚橋 Shiraōbashi “Whitefish Bridge” (today the river is gone and, if my understanding is correct, that road was incorporated into 昭和通 Shōwa Dōri Shōwa Street, which was built as part of the revitalization of Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923).

Obviously, the history of the two bridges is closely linked, but they have always been two separate bridges connecting 2 separate roads.

Anyways, I’m not a scholar of Japanese History. This is just my hobby that I use to waste my valuable free time. But that said, I don’t want to waste yours and I don’t want to spread misinformation.

What's up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????

What’s up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????

A Little Background

1590 – Toyotomi Hideoyoshi sends Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ass to Edo. He wants to uproot him from his base in Mikawa and use him to fight the Hōjō in Kantō. Essentially this keeps Ieyasu out of Hideyoshi’s hair and far enough away from Kyōto and Ōsaka to make any problems (or so he thinks). Ieyasu begins rehabilitation of Chiyoda Castle (soon to be Edo Castle) and Edo begins to prosper under the auspices of the Tokugawa.

1600 – Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu wins. Except for a few pockets of resistance in Ōsaka, Ieyasu is the de facto ruler of Japan.

1603 – Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun (shōgun) by the Emperor. As the master of Edo and the master of all Japan, Ieyasu continues building up the city of Edo, but now with a renewed vigor to make the city a worthy capital – one that rivals Kyōto, but also expresses his vision of a final and lasting Tokugawa hegemony. It is in the year that Nihonbashi is built.

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Edobashi.  (big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo's procession)

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Nihonbashi.
(big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo’s procession)

So What Does the Name Mean?

Any foreigner who visits Japan learns a few basic Japanese words right off the bat. The first word is usually 日本 Nihon Japan. If you stick around long enough, you’ll figure out that 橋 hashi is bridge. There ya have it. Nihonbashi means “Japan Bridge.”

But as I briefly mentioned above, the bridge was seen as the starting point for the major roads into and out of Edo. From the beginning the Tōkaidō road linked the city directly with Ōsaka (and therefore with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s court and the nearby imperial court in Kyōto). When the bridge was built in 1603, it literally connected Edo, a small castle town, to the rest of Japan. As Edo flourished, especially with the presence of daimyō coming and going for alternate attendance duty in Edo, the bridge became a symbol of Edo’s power as a capital that unified Japan.

What does Nihonbashi mean in Japanese?

This was the “zero kilometer” marker for the 5 roads placed there by the Meiji Government. It has since been moved as a memorial thingy so you can take pictures of it without getting run over by a car.

Enter Edomachi

The area between Kyōbashi and Nihonbashi was a little island surrounded by channels to bring goods in and out. It was a commercial district, not an elite area. This area was called 江戸町 Edomachi – the town of Edo. Today this area makes up parts of Kyobashi, Edobashi, Nihonbashi and Yaesu. Because most of the channels are gone, it directly borders Marunouchi and Hachobori.

I suppose this name, Edomachi, set it apart from the samurai part of town surrounding the castle. I’m just speculating here, but the area was typified by living in close quarters with many merchant families packed into cramped spaces, so it’s being surrounded by water might have been an effort to contain fires. If the merchant area burnt down it was OK, losing the elite samurai class would have sucked balls — in the eyes of the shōgunate.

Ieyasu’s first concerns were in building up his castle and its fortifications. His second concern was surrounding the castle with the residences of his vassals, the damiyō built “modest” residences spiraling out from the castle as a secondary fortification. But the castle and the daimyō had needs, which sent business from all classes and walks of life to Edomachi.  In the beginning, Edomachi was as safely removed from the castle area and conveniently located on the major route into and out of the city. As Edo spread and became a metropolis, things changed.  but for all of the Edo Period Edomachi was the commercial heart of Edo and therefore the commercial heart of Japan.


Nihonbashi Edobashi Edomachi

Nihonbashi in the Meiji Era. Note the white warehouse can still be seen along the river. The bridge’s white stone is new and clean. Nice.

So What Happened After Edo Became Tōkyō?

1911 – A new stone bridge, in the European Style, is built across the river. It still stands today.

1923-1928 – In efforts to rebuild Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake, the canals on the east and west sides of Edomachi were filled in, thus blending the old commercial center with the surrounding areas.

1963 – In preparation for the Tōkyō Olympics, they built a freaking highway over the river. This highway killed the classical view of Mt. Fuji and made the area pretty ugly.

Present – Nihonbashi is famous as a financial and business center. The Tōkyō Stock Exchange is there, as are many large companies and banks. Some of the shitamachi flavor persists even to this day if you spend enough time walking around the area. You can find small izakaya and restaurants that have a decidedly 江戸っ子 Edokko style.

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