Take a stroll around a Tokaido post town | Japan Highlights Travel, for sightseeing around Tokaido

Odawara Station [Hakone Sekisho and Hakone Sekisho Exhibition Hall]

The Tokaido was a vital link which started in Nihonbashi, Edo and ran all the way to Sanjo Ohashi, Kyoto. The road was about 492 kilometers long, and was originally constructed for military purposes. However, after the turbulent era in which it had its origins ended, the road evolved from being a military and governmental connection to a highway for the common people. All along the road, many remains can still be seen which continue to evoke the atmosphere of ages past and the experiences of travelers of yore. Why not visit them and see for yourself?

Toyohashi Station [Futagawa Shuku Honjin Museum]

Hamamatsu Station [Arai Shuku Hatago "Kinokuniya"]

Toyohashi Station [Futagawa Shuku Honjin Matsuri]

Why was the Tokaido established?

The Tokaido was first established by Ieyasu Tokugawa. After his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1601, Ieyasu issued the decree "Post Town and Post Horse Systems of the Tokaido", with the aim of facilitating contact between Edo (now Tokyo), where his own castle was located, and the region around Kyoto and Osaka, where the Imperial Court, the residential castle of the Toyotomi family and so on were to be found. 53 shukubas (post towns) were established between Nihonbashi in Edo and Sanjo Ohashi, in Kyoto. These were the so-called "Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi", usually rendered into English as either "The 53 Stages of the Tokaido" or "The 53 Stations of the Tokaido". (According to some sources, for example records originally held by certain feudal lords in the west of Japan, the road was further divided at Otsu. These sources therefore describe a Tokaido of "57 Stages" to Osaka.) Establishment of all the shukubas was completed by 1624.

Shukuba-machis: Post towns, and bases along the highway

These shukubas were also called "shukus" or "shukuekis", and were towns designated by the shogunate government as bases along the highway. While they were of course places where travelers could find lodgings and take a rest, they were also used as base towns enabling prompt delivery of government letters and other official items to their intended recipients. At these base towns, the men and horses carrying such items would be switched for fresh sets of legs, so to speak. This was known as the tenma ("post horse") system. In other words, a shukuba-machi was a town that possessed both the functions of accommodation, with lodgings like honjins and waki-honjins (for people of high rank) and hatagos and kichinyados (for commoners), while also serving as a distribution base for the delivery of various official items. A building called a "toiyaba" was the nerve center of this latter function.

  • "Morning Scene at Shinagawa, Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido", by Hiroshige Utagawa (Preserved at the Shizuoka Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art)

  • "Otsu, Sixty-Nine Stages of the Kisokaido", by Hiroshige Utagawa (Preserved at the Shizuoka Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art)

The Sankin Kotai system and the development of the shukubas

During the Edo period, the nation was divided into some 260 feudal domains, each governed by its own lord. The so-called "Sankin Kotai" (roughly "alternating attendance") system began with the issuing of the decree "Bukeshohatto" in 1635. This was a system of service whereby half of all feudal lords would stay in the capital, Edo, for a year (the "Sankin", or attendance part of the system), while the other half of them would remain in their own domains. Then every April, the two halves would switch (the "Kotai", or alternating part). This was a kind of ritual of obedience, and if a lord refused to obey the system, he would be regarded as a traitor.

The preparation for the Sankin Kotai switch would begin more than 6 months before the lords actually moved, since it required the raising of funds, scheduling, and even negotiations about accommodation fees. Feudal lords were accompanied by large numbers of warriors, doctors, masters for the tea ceremony, hawk handlers and many other subordinates, and also carried a great many personal items, including a bathtub for the exclusive use of the feudal lord himself. These entourages were truly sumptuous spectacles, and became known by the term "Daimyo Gyoretsu" (roughly, "Lord's Procession"). It is said that they moved about 30 to 40 kilometers in a day, traveling for 6 to 9 hours on average, all in gorgeous clothes so as to flaunt the dignity of their lord.

  • Odawara Station [Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu]

This Sankin Kotai system encouraged the development and maintenance of kaidos, or highways, all around the country, and contributed to the development of post towns and the spread of culture and information. Among the many kaidos developed for the system, the Tokaido was the most prosperous, and was used by a great many feudal lords from the Tokai and Kinki districts and points further west in their observance of the Sankin Kotai.

An age when common people could enjoy travel

Progress in the maintenance of the kaidos and the development of post towns improved safety on the road, and made it increasingly possible for common people to enjoy traveling. Pilgrimages to Ise Shrine were among the travel routes popular around the middle of the Edo period. A traveler would ask the chief priest of his local temple or a town hall official for permission to make the journey, and would be issued a "tsuko tegata" (travel pass). Without a pass, they wouldn't be able to get through the sekisho (checkpoints) they would encounter on their way.

  • Hamamatsu Station [Arai Sekisho]

By the end of the Edo period, group pilgrimages known as "Ise-mairi" were being enthusiastically undertaken by large numbers of people.

Separate lodgings according to social rank

The lodgings available in post towns were divided according to social rank. In order from highest status to lowest, they were called honjin, waki-honjin, hatago and kichinyado. As Hiroshige depicted in his art, it is said that each inn would have at least one barker whose job was to attract customers, and that competition for trade was intense.
Alas, today most of the old inns no longer remain. Nevertheless, some survived the decline of the post towns to be preserved, restored, and opened to the public as resource centers at which to learn about the highways and their travel culture.


A honjin was a building offering accommodation for persons of high rank, such as feudal loads, members of the imperial family, court nobles, shogunate government officials and high priests. Among such accommodations were establishments of particular refinement and dignity. These would often have a fine gate, an entrance hall, and a shoin, or study hall. The master of the honjin was permitted to use a surname and carry sword, and held the highest rank in his post town. It is said that there were 109 honjins along the Tokaido. Today, you can see repaired and restored honjins such as those at Futagawa Shuku and Kusatsu Shuku.


A waki-honjin was spare accommodation attached to a honjin. The spare accommodation would be used for stays by a lord from a large domain if he was accompanied by more fellow travelers than could be put up in the main honjin, or stays by more than one lord at the same time. Waki-honjins were smaller than the honjins to which they were attached, but offered the same quality accommodation. The master of the waki-honjin was an influential person in the post town, the same as the master of the honjin. Common travelers could also stay in the waki-honjin when it was not being used by a feudal lord. The waki-honjin of Maisaka Shuku is the only one remaining along the Old Tokaido.

Hatagos and Kichinyados

Common travelers would generally stay at a hatago or kichinyado. The word "hatago" originally came from the general term for baskets for "kaiba", or hay to feed horses, and gradually changed in meaning, first coming to denote meals served at post towns, and then the inns which offered these meals, which came to be called hatagoyas, or hatagos for short. Kichinyados were a kind of lodging where guests had to do their own cooking, for which they could buy firewood from the innkeeper. The accommodation fee was typically lower than for a stay at a hatago. Along the Tokaido, Miya Shuku boasts the largest number of hatagos: in its heyday, the town is said to have had some 250 of them. Below are some of the old hatagos which still stand in post towns along the old kaido and are open to the public.


A sekisho was a highway checkpoint set up for strict monitoring of 'incoming guns and outgoing women', in order to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo illicitly, and wives and children of feudal lords living in Edo from returning to their homes without permission. There were two sekishos along the Tokaido: one at Hakone and one at Arai. Arai is the only place in the country where the original structure of a sekisho remains. The sekisho at Hakone has been restored and is also open to public. The sekisho at Kiga on the so-called "Himekaido", a road which branched off from the Tokaido, has also been reconstructed.

Daimyo Gyoretsu depicted in a contemporary fuzoku emaki
("picture scroll of customs")

    1. Odawara Station [Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu]
  • The number of people who were permitted to join in the Daimyo Gyoretsu under the Sankin Kotai system was specified by the shogunate government: fifty to a hundred for minor daimyos, and over 300 for larger clans such as Owari and Kishu, whose processions extended for some kilometers. The largest procession was that of the mighty Kaga clan, whose Gyoretsu included over 4000 people at its peak. There were even marchers whose job was to carry water for their lord's bath.
    Daimyo Gyoretsus are now re-enacted throughout the Tokaido area as local events. Watching a Daimyo Gyoretsu marching along the old Tokaido and through its hot spring towns, its marchers raising the traditional cry of "Shitanii, shitanii", will give you a time-slip feeling you are guaranteed never to forget.

updated on May 22, 2015