Running 320 miles along the eastern coast of Japan’s central island, the Tōkaidō Road connected the country’s imperial capital Kyoto to Edo, modern-day Tokyo.
First established in the eighth century, this pedestrian highway became increasingly trafficked in the early 1600s after the shogun began requiring his regional lords to travel to Edo every other year. Fifty-three stations – featuring restaurants, inns and stables – were established along this route to cater to the lords, farmers, merchants, monks and samurai who traversed this road by foot.
It was during this period of increased travel that Utagawa Hiroshige created “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road,” a series of woodcut prints that drew from his own journey on the route. Though it wasn’t the first time a Japanese artist had portrayed the Tōkaidō, Hiroshige’s intimate compositions of travelers and scenery on the highway would become one of the most commercially successful print series of all time, catapulting Hiroshige to fame.
Fourteen of the series’ 55 prints are now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Works on Paper Focus Gallery. Acquired in full by the museum for its permanent collection in 1952, this first-run of the series from 1832-1833 underwent its own journey as a traveling exhibition around the state for years.
Will Neer, the curator of the new exhibit, says Hiroshige’s grasp of detail – such as in his representation of travelers getting caught in the rain in Shōno, the 45th station – speaks to his mastery of the medium.
“It just has this wonderful use of atmospheric effects, which Hiroshige was really known for,” says the former curatorial assistant for East Asian Art and exhibitions, who is now pursuing a graduate degree in museum studies from New York University. “You have the trees in the distance with these different color gradations, bending in the wind, and then the rainstorm itself is designed in hundreds of individual, diagonal carved lines into the woodblock that when it’s printed creates this complete wash of rain across the image.”
Portraying the people and attractions found along the route, “Fifty-three Stations” was released amid a burgeoning travel culture and a booming print industry in Japan, which helped to popularize the series. Often, these works served as keepsakes and souvenirs of the journey.
Hiroshige’s impact was felt outside of Japan as well. Just as he was influenced by Western aesthetics of perspective and shading, Hiroshige’s work inspired impressionists like Claude Monet and postimpressionists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh, the latter of whom copied two Hiroshige prints in oil. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was an avid collector, staging the first ever Hiroshige retrospective in 1906 and calling his work some of “the most valuable contributions ever made to the art of the world.”
Hiroshige has his modern admirers as well, with his representation of a snowy scene at Kanbara, the 15th station of the Tōkaidō, serving as the cover art for Weezer’s 1996 album “Pinkerton.”
Today, the Tōkaidō still exists, but in a different capacity.
“Rather than made up of these sort of mountain passes and so forth, it’s now dotted with high-speed railways and major highways,” Neer says. “It’s still, to this day, one of the busiest travel corridors in modern Japan, going from Tokyo to Kyoto.”
In a pandemic that’s curtailed many a travel plan, Neer says this series offers a bit of escapism, which has always been its role.
“These prints, which are so much concerned with travel and landscapes, are perhaps particularly resonant in a year when a lot of us have been bound to our homes,” he says. “These prints were fairly affordable [in their time], so whether you were a person who could actually travel the Tōkaidō Road yourself, or maybe just purchased a print and were wondering what it was like, these prints have always had this purpose of offering vicarious travel to the viewer.”
“The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road: Japanese Landscape Prints by Hiroshige” will be shown through May 31 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. For information, visit vmfa.museum or call 804-340-1400.