Travel was a duty for some in Japan's Edo period (1603-1868), when the shoguns ruled from Edo (now Tokyo), their new capital. By law, the daimyo (feudal lords) spent long periods in Edo. For others, travel was connected with trade. And then - toward the end of the period, in the 1800s, traveling became a popular pleasure, even the subject of art.
The 300 miles of the Tokaido, the east-coast highway, linked Kyoto, the old capital, with Edo. The two-week journey was divided into 53 "stations" or stops.
In his introduction to "Prints of the Floating World," a new book on the Japanese woodcuts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, curator Craig Hartley fascinatingly describes the Edo world in which woodcut prints flourished. Prints and paintings were known as Ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") and could be very popular.
This print by Utagawa Hiroshige is one of the 61 finely reproduced color plates in this new book, a volume of quality. Hiroshige's woodcuts were a late flowering of Ukiyo-e. His 55-print series depicting the stations on the Tokaido was a great success. "Mishima - Morning Mist" depicts Station 12. Its increasingly faint background silhouettes, free of inhibiting outlines, and the way it wittily conveys the effort of travel through all weathers, is characteristic of his vision of man and nature. Hartley's note on this print quotes a comic novel of 1802-22 that celebrated travel along the Tokaido. It includes the words: "Truly traveling means cleaning the life of care." Hiroshige, by contrast, seems to suggest that the poetical memory of the journey might be the real pleasure, rather than the experience itself.
* 'Prints of the Floating World' is published by Lund Humphries, London, 25. Its distributor in the United States is Antique Collectors' Club, $50.