The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次 Tōkaidō Gojūsan-tsugi), in the Hōeidō edition (1833–1834), presented here, is a series of ukiyo-e woodcut prints created by Utagawa Hiroshige after his first travel along the Tōkaidō in 1832.
The Tōkaidō road, linking the shōgun’s capital, Edo, to the imperial one, Kyōto, was the main travel and transport artery of old Japan. It is also the most important of the “Five Roads” (Gokaidō)—the five major roads of Japan created or developed during the Edo era to further strengthen the control of the central shogunate administration over the whole country.
Even though the Hōeidō edition is by far the best known, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō was such a popular subject that it led Hiroshige to create some 30 different series of woodcut prints on it, all very different one from the other by their size (ōban or chuban), their designs or even their number (some series include just a few prints).
The Hōeidō edition of the Tōkaidō is Hiroshige’s best known work, and the best sold ever ukiyo-e Japanese prints. Coming just after Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, it established this new major theme of ukiyo-e, the landscape print, or fūkei-ga, with a special focus on “famous views” (meisho). These landscape prints took full advantage of the new possibilities offered by the Western representation of perspective, that Japanese artists had by now fully assimilated. Hiroshige’s series met with full success, not only in Japan, but later in Western countries.
In 1832, Hiroshige traveled the length of the Tōkaidō from Edo to Kyoto, as part of an official delegation transporting horses that were to be presented to the imperial court.The horses were a symbolic gift from the Shogun, presented annually in recognition of the emperor’s divine status.
The landscapes of the journey made a profound impression on the artist, and he created numerous sketches during the course of the trip, as well as his return to Edo via the same route. After his arrival at home, he immediately began work on the first prints from The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. Eventually, he would produce 55 prints in the whole series: one for each station, plus one apiece for the starting and ending points.
The first of the prints in the series was published jointly by the publishing houses of Hōeidō and Senkakudō, with the former handling all subsequent releases on its own. Woodcuts of this style commonly sold as new for between 12 and 16 copper coins apiece, approximately the same price as a pair of straw sandals or a bowl of soup. The runaway success of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō established Hiroshige as the most prominent and successful printmaker of the Tokugawa era.
Hiroshige followed up on this series with The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō in cooperation with Keisai Eisen, documenting each of the post stations of the Nakasendō (which was alternatively referred to as the Kiso Kaidō).