Dreamscapes by Andō Hiroshige. Blending the real and the imaginary, the "Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō" series at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts takes us along the legendary route that connected Edo (Tokyo) to the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyōto. The exhibition will be on display until September 8, 2024.



By Laura Vigo


The Montréal Review, July 2024

In the early 1830s the owner of the small-scale publishing house Hōeidō in the Nihonbashi area of Edo (Tokyo), Takenouchi Magohachi, met with Andō Tokutarō -aka Utagawa Hiroshige-, an unconventional amateur artist from the samurai class.

We can only imagine how the two set their plan out for the most formidable series ever printed in Japan: the 53 stations of the Tokaido. In fact, little did they know that with this series, conceived originally as a profitable venture, they would firmly establish landscape as a major genre in Japanese print-making, which till then had focused on portraits of actors and beautiful women. Conflating the real and the imaginary and tapping into earlier travel guides and magazines that circulated in Japan since the late seventeenth century, Takenouchi and Hiroshige went as far as recasting real landscape into dreamscapes, enthralling myriads of people, both near and far, to gaze beyond their horizon and embark on a visionary journey of discovery and consumption.  The current exhibition at the MMFA looks at Hiroshige and his team of talented  fabricators of  dreams  everybody wanted to buy and travel within... till this day.

The editorial choice to concentrate on the 53 stations of the Tokaido for the series capitalized on the popularity of the 490 km-long trail that connected Edo, the shogun’s new center of power, to the old imperial capital of Kyoto, which was only accessible to a few. Known since the 7th century, the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Route) became one of the main arteries of Edo Japan equipped with 53 post-stations under the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1601. The road catered for the more than 260 feudal lords (daimyō) and their thousands of retainers, who complied with the shogun’s policy of alternate attendance. Daimyō were compelled to reside one year in their respective domain and the other year in Edo. It was no small feat to move an entire retinue, family and belongings back and forth. Their endeavour left them no time or resources to entertain even the slightest idea of uprising. Until the 19th century, the only other people allowed on the route would have been self-proclaimed pilgrims, who under the pretense of making a religious visit to the shrines along the way, could get permission to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

With travel so restricted, carefully crafted guidebooks of the route shepherded the wanna-be tourists on a virtual adventure along scenic famous spots (meisho) and regional specialties (meibutsu). Like hundreds of pictorial guides of famous places published at the time, Akisato Ritō’s Tōkaidō Meisho-zue (Illustrated Guide to Famous Places on the Tōkaidō, 1797), a pictorial encyclopedia of the Tōkaidō, was a book about virtual way-finding; its large format was hardly meant for the real traveler. Ritō’s list of notable sites conveyed an idealized vision of prosperity meant to satisfy the hedonistic impulses of Edo’s nascent consumer society. His illustrations conflated topographical descriptions, snippets of legends and history and recommendations for food, souvenirs and other services. Educated readers were teased to identify the historic and literary references embedded in the pictures, an intellectual pastime particularly cherished by the Japanese elite; the budding consumer tourists, on the other hand,  appropriated the famous sites through straightforward monetary/services transactions. This new middle class clientele used these travel books as stimulants to engage in a premodern mode of virtual travel: they enjoyed the vicarious experience of places without the drawbacks of physical travel.

Ritō’s publication fostered the perception that the Tōkaidō was more than a route along the country’s eastern seacoast—it was a destination in and of itself. Hiroshige and his publisher read these accounts too and were equally enticed by the potential day-dreaming that the illustrations offered. This is how their project began.

Legend goes that Hiroshige made the journey along the route in 1832 with a convoy of horses sent by the shōgun to the emperor. Most likely he never did, at least not until the series became a resounding success. Several of his landscape scenes are in fact drawn from illustrations found in the aforementioned Ritō’s travel guide and Jippensha Ikku’s comic novel Tōkaidōchū hizakurige (Shank’s Mare on the Tōkaidō, 1802). Regardless of Hiroshige’s published sources of inspiration and whether he did -or did not- venture along the route, the atmospheric allure with which he infused the compositions earned him the reputation as the master of Japanese landscape prints. He gained further notoriety in Europe in the late 19th century, when collectors and artists swept up in Japonisme particularly appreciated his style.

Hiroshige was not a professional artist when he first began. Born into a samurai family in Edo, he lived on a relatively steady income from his affiliation with the firefighters’ guild, which allowed him to indulge in his artistic pursuits on the side. “Side,” that is, until this iconic series skyrocketed his career. He was not the first artist to focus on this subject, yet his first Tōkaidō far eclipsed all the others in popularity. Some of his illustrations got reprinted more than 15,000 times. Why?

Some of the reasons may be due to the entrepreneurial choices of his publisher, Takenouchi. He was a newcomer to the business and lacked the experience and financial resources of his much more established competitors. To get the series going, at times he partnered with another, more seasoned editor, Tsuruya Kiemon (signed Senkakudō). 

While publishers are often sidelined when discussing the artistic merit of the prints, their role was nevertheless important. While working backstage, Takenouchi assured production, distribution while catering for the fluctuating tastes of the clientele. Even behind the scenes, Takenouchi may have enjoyed the limelight nonetheless. Let’s look for instance at the samurai with a large hat supervising the changing of horses and porters at the stage station in Fujieda (FIG  1). The bag on the horse in the front and the vertical sign on the package at the centre feature the characters for Takenouchi.

1. Fujieda, Changing Porters and Horses
藤枝 人馬継立

It could just be a clever self promotion if it weren't for the fact that the same man reappears later at Goyu (FIG  2). This time without the large hat, he sits inside the inn, tended by a female servant. Behind his shoulders, written in large letters, is the publisher’s name: Takenouchi. In both prints, the presence of Takenouchi’s name suggests more than self-promotion. Could this man -washing his feet and packing his convoy - be our beloved publisher enjoying the journey along the Tōkaidō? How tempting it is to place him on the stage, knowing that he mostly worked behind the scenes!

2. Goyu, Women Stopping Travellers
御油 旅人留女

The print of Goyu is also remarkable for the hanging signs visible on the right, inscribed with the following branding advertisement: “The series of the 53 stations of the Tokaido: engraved by Jirobei, printed by Heibei, illustrated by Ichiryusai (Hiroshige), published by Takenouchi”. Exceptional for 1833, the contributors to the series are revealed at once: besides the designer and the publisher, the engraver and the printer are duly advertised in the process.

As an art director, Takenouchi must have discussed with Hiroshige the initial drawings. The artist sometimes chose to sketch an easy-to-print, nonetheless evocative, snow scenes with few colours and fewer details (FIG  3) perhaps to comply with the publisher’s requirements to make the prints more cost-efficient.  According to the available resources, the scene could be more or less colourful, could include large areas of natural landscapes or minute details of human activities.

3. Kanbara, neige de nuit
蒲原 夜之雪

To boost sales, shading (bokashi) was employed (FIG  4). Heibei, the printer would render the gradient effect by wiping off part of the pigment on the woodblock with a damp cloth – an operation that took twice as much time as a simple print. The more bokashi the printer applied, the more expensive the final image would be sold.
Jirobei, the engraver, on the other end, chiseled the wood to create the original illustration in negative, raising in relief the lines and areas to be coloured. Often, several woodblocks would be required for a single polychrome print. The use and quantity of colour for each illustration was  likely discussed beforehand. The publisher ultimately understood the series as a commercial venture and for that, he had to determine the theme and the quality of the product to please his consumers. 

4. Shinagawa, Sunrise
品川 日之出

Hiroshige’s pivotal role in the success of the series is not discounted here. A talented designer who was abreast of the trends of his time, he made the series more appealing by breaking away from the simple observation of the natural landscape to encompass an astonishing variety of themes, regardless of the topographical accuracy. He conflated novel western elements such as the focal perspective, the horizontal picture format, the synthetic blue pigment and the shading effect, to make the composition more exotic and desirable. He tapped into earlier well known travel guides and magazines to create pictures that teased the readers’ desire of travel, luxury products and fine dining. Some of his most lively scenes exude movement from within, an invitation to the viewer to partake in the unfolding action.

Sometimes we can feel the power of nature that Hiroshige conjured up in his prints, like a gust of wind in this picture-perfect composition of Yokkaichi (FIG  5). The willow gently bows to the outburst of nature. One traveler chases his hat while the other holds his flapping cloak. Hiroshige captures in an instant with an exactitude that feels almost photographic, the shores of the Mie River, the small fisherman village of Yokkaichi and their boats. We can almost hear their sail masts creaking in the distance…

5. Yokkaichi, Mie River
四日市 三重川

This unusual synesthetic modality of visual consumption was important for both Hiroshige and Takenouchi, as they both catered for their readers’ angst for a dynamic and immersive virtual experience.

But who were their readers?

By the 19th century, both goods and ordinary people were moving freely along the Tōkaidō, thus contributing to the growth of Edo’s consumer culture. In fair weather, the journey could take two to three weeks to complete on foot. Each station along the way, between the point of departure in Edo, the Nihonbashi bridge, and the point of arrival in Kyoto, the Sanjōhashi bridge, was approximately 10 km apart. There, travellers could find everything from lodging to specialty foods, sexual services and products of all sorts, including straw sandals.

The series geared towards the merchant townspeople (chōnin), who grew increasingly wealthy during this period, contributing to Edo’s leisure and entertainment industry. They were what we would call “consumer” tourists: keen to embark on a wishful journey of material consumption. With consumption, advertisement grew. The fashion of understated displays of elegance and sophistication (iki), combined with Edo’s rising literacy rates – one of the highest in the world at the time – provided fertile ground for the mass consumption of landscape prints, which could be easily purchased for the mere cost of a bowl of soba noodles. Easily acquired, prints were ubiquitous. Publishers like Takenouchi employed these ephemeral objects as advertising tools to promote trends (and products) that people could follow and desire. Discrete product placements were embedded at the margins of the composition with one tacit message: “be chic, buy our products”.

At first glance this scene (FIG  6) shows a feudal lord leaving a governmental barrier (seki), at dawn. Yet, when looking to the left, through an open curtain, hanging signs promote Senjokō, a white face powder and Bijokō, another cosmetic product.  The owner of Senjokō, Sakamoto, was an important politician at the time and the head of the censor office in Edo. It was him who validated the conformity of each print before publication. Publishers depended on his approval for their livelihood. Even without any monetary transaction, Takenouchi likely offered a sweet deal to the censor by intentionally placing his products in the picture. Sakamoto could have reciprocated by easing the censorship’s approval.

6. Seki, Early Departure of a Daimyō
関 本陣早立

Merchants relations were critical in this business. Takenouchi understood the needs of his clients as well as his suppliers and venture partners. In Totsuka (FIG  7) the Komeya Inn advertises lodging for the night. A traveler on the way to Kamakura dismounts from his horse while his wife unties her hat. An earlier version of this drawing depicted the man riding off, rather than arriving. Having displeased the rice merchant who owned the inn, the composition was promptly modified. Takenouchi’s ability to understand the merchant’s point of view and Hiroshige’s promptness in going back to the drawing board and complying to the requirements likely contributed to the series’ immense success.

7. Totsuka, Motomachi Fork 
戸塚 元町別道

The 53 stations of the Tōkaidō catered for the many needs of the consumer travellers too. The regional specialties (meibutsu) embedded in the series followed the list Ritō concocted in 1797 in his Tōkaidō Meisho Zue. This included all sorts of products. Should you care for something unique and highly praised, you would stop at Mariko’s tea room (FIG  8) to taste their specialties advertised on the tall sign: the tororo jiru, a soup made from grated yam, fish with sake or rice with tea, and the occasional female entertainer. Sexual favours were considered part of the regional products and Mariko was well known for female servants, as the legendary poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) reported with humour in one of his most famous haiku: 

Young leaves of plum
And at the Mariko way station
A broth of grated yams

The success of the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō was due to a confluence of factors that went beyond Hiroshige’s undeniable artistic talent. The timely growth of the mercantile class, the effervescence of Edo’s consumer society with its thirst for escapism, but also, and more importantly, the rise of literacy and the mass consumption of printed material, contributed, together with Takenouchi’s entrepreneurial flair, to give the series its unfading allure. 

8. Mariko, Famous Tea House
鞠子 名物茶屋

With the return of Japanese imperial rule in 1867, the Meiji government started to modernize its infrastructure, leading to the replacement of the old Tōkaidō. Anyone could finally travel between Edo and Kyoto with faster means of transportation, regardless of class or travel permits. Today the bullet train, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, covers in less than 3 hours what once took almost three weeks on foot.

While the old Tōkaidō might have lost its attractions, the famous first series of Hiroshige’s 53 stations has seemingly survived unscathed. His dreamscapes linger on, holding a timeless, undeniable charm that still resounds today. As we look at these images, we still buy into the dream and wonder: can we travel on foot along the Tōkaidō?

Takenouchi would certainly smile back at us with a smirk.


Laura Vigo is Curator of Asian Art and Archaeology at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), where she has recently conceived the exhibition, Tōkaidō -Dreamscapes by Andō Hiroshige. Vigo has an M.A. in Asian Art and Archaeology and a Ph.D in Chinese Archaeology, from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London (UK). She has researched and published extensively on different topics related to Asian arts and museums, ranging from the history of collecting “the Other”, to the cultural entanglements between Asia and Europe as well as the importance of sensorial and digital mediation.

Her passion: unveiling the unexpected tales that things can tell.




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