Tokaido: Stone Path to Train Tracks
The very first high-speed rail line in the world was the Tokaido Shinkansen, built in Japan in 1964. But the route was not new—passengers riding the bullet train on the Tokaido Shinkansen follow the same route that travelers walked on the Tokaido road in the Edo period (1603–1867). This route runs along the southern coast of Honshu, the largest of the four main islands of Japan. The Tokaido was also the most important route of the period, connecting the former capital, Kyoto, with the new capital, Edo (now modern Tokyo).
To focus your trip in Japan on the country’s historic culture—and see some cool places while you’re at it—try traveling the Tokaido by starting in Tokyo and ending in Kyoto, making a few stops on the way. Though you can drive the whole way, using the Tokaido Shinkansen and other trains is faster, more economical, and much more memorable.
For the most meaningful journey from the present to Japan’s past, try starting your trip in Tokyo, the modern capital of Japan and home to the famous Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. If you’re visiting in April, you won’t want to miss seeing the cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen, a large national park and garden originating in the Edo period that has over 1,000 sakura (cherry) trees.
The exact starting point of the Tokaido road was the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo. The original wooden Nihonbashi Bridge (known as Edobashi) was replaced in the Meiji period with a larger stone bridge you can still visit today.
Near the Nihonbashi Bridge is Edo Castle, the military capital of the Edo period and former residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa shogunate at the beginning of the Edo period (also known as the Tokugawa period). The Edo Castle ruins are part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the residence of the current emperor of Japan. You can see these ruins in the beautiful Imperial Palace East Gardens, an area open to the public and free to enter.
After leaving Tokyo on the Shinkansen toward Kyoto, make sure to stop in Hakone, a mountain town in Kanagawa Prefecture famous for its hot springs and views of Mount Fuji.
Though most of the Tokaido is now a national highway, you can hike a portion of the original road in Hakone. The trail takes about two hours to hike and leads you through 400-year-old cedar trees on some of the original road’s cobblestones.
Along the trail, you’ll find Hatajuku Village. This village is home to yosegi-zaiku, a specialized woodcraft in which the creator cuts natural wood into intricate shapes to make a decorative pattern. You can still find stores selling yosegi-zaiku today.
At the end of a steep climb on the trail, you’ll find the Amazake Teahouse. Amazake is a warm, sweet, rice-based drink. This teahouse has been run by the same family with the same menu for 400 years.
Next on your journey is Shizuoka, the capital of Shizuoka Prefecture. The main stop to visit here is the Tokaido Hiroshige Art Museum, built on the site of an Edo-period inn used by nobility as they traveled the Tokaido.
One of the most famous art pieces depicting the Tokaido is The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, a woodblock print series created by Utagawa Hiroshige. These woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, illustrate scenes for each of the 53 traveler’s posts on the Tokaido. In the Tokaido Hiroshige Art Museum, you can see a collection of first-edition prints of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido alongside photographs of modern interpretations of the same scenes. You can also see how ukiyo-e prints are made and even try to make your own ukiyo-e copies of the famous prints.
Before you leave Shizuoka Prefecture, stop at Hamamatsu, the prefecture’s largest city. Hamamatsu was both a castle town in the Edo period and a post station on the Tokaido.
Tokugawa Ieyasu lived in Hamamatsu Castle before he became the shogun (military dictator). Within the castle grounds is a museum with armor and other artifacts of the Tokugawa clan, as well as a model of Hamamatsu during the Edo period.
To the west of Hamamatsu is the Arai Sekisho, a security checkpoint on the Tokaido where travelers had to present their travel permits. As the only surviving original checkpoint structure of the Tokaido, the Arai Sekisho is recognized as a Special National Historic Site.
Finally, you’ll reach Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan and the endpoint of your Tokaido journey. Here you’ll find must-see sites like the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine famous for its path of thousands of red torii gates. If you’re looking for fascinating cultural sites, you’ll want to spend some time in Kyoto—perhaps in a traditional wooden town house called a machiya.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Since you’ve seen the modern imperial palace at one end of the Tokaido, you’ll also want to visit the historical imperial palace at the other end. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is the former residence of the emperors of Japan. The grounds are open to the public, but keep in mind that you cannot enter any of the buildings.
Sanjo Ohashi Bridge
Just as the starting point of the Tokaido was a bridge, so is the ending point. The current Sanjo Ohashi Bridge is a concrete bridge with two driving lanes and sidewalks. Though a simple ending to a grand journey, the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge properly marks the end of your trip on the Tokaido.