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Teaching the Tōkaidō Road: The Visual Arts, Geography, and History

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Editor’s Note: The Tōkaidō Road is finally getting the pedagogical attention it deserves. In addition to this issue’s useful and practical art-focused article, readers will get an in-depth treatment of the 2022 Franklin R. Buchanan Prize winning curriculum on the Tōkaidō road in our next issue.


photograph of the Tokaido road, with several people walking both directions of the road.
1865 photo of the Tōkaidō road by Felice Beato. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road1 is an online curriculum developed by the Ohio State University’s East Asian Studies Center with support from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. This comprehensive collection of resources includes a series of sixteen lesson plans designed by K-12 teachers providing a wide range of opportunities for educators to bring the adventures of the Tōkaidō to life in their classrooms using primary source materials. This curriculum showcases visual resources and cultural snapshots to teach historical thinking skills, allowing students to investigate change over time by comparing the Tōkaidō Road at three time periods. Students start their journey along the Tōkaidō Road in the 1830s through Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige’s famous fifty-three woodblock prints, then move to the 1920s to see the road through the work of a group of early manga artists. Finally, students will explore the route through a twenty-first-century photo adventure using interactive maps. With curriculum connections to social studies, visual arts, language arts, and Japanese language classes, the scope of activities and options presented in this online curriculum give students the ability through both choice and voice to make this journey along the Tōkaidō an adventure of their own.

map of the road with several markers of the various cities and towns it travels through, from Tokyo to Nagoya to Kyoto.
Tōkaidō Road map. Source: Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road website at
two painted portraits of men wearing straw hats.
The Two Heroes: Yajirobē and Kitahachi by Tamenobu Fujikawa.
Source: Hope College website at

The Tōkaidō Road developed as a route between Edo and Kyoto during the peace and prosperity of the Edo Period (1603–1867), when commercial trade and tourism blossomed in Japan. The arts played a significant role in the growth of wealth along the Tōkaidō, with popular books describing the adventures and woodblock prints and postcards advertising its beauty. Travel books with simple black and white sketches documented the sites on the route, while panoramic folding maps helped guide travelers along the way. Other pictorial representations accompanied by humorous stories, including the misadventures of the comic duo Yajirobē and Kitahachi in Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (Shank’s Mare on the Tōkaidō, 1802–1822), entertained Japan’s growing population of readers. Significant visual representations of the Tōkaidō that functioned like sugoroku board games (similar to Backgammon or Snakes and Ladders in the West) attracted young and old alike to take their own real-life adventure along the route.

board game map, which looks similar to the map of Japan.
Japanese “Sugoroku” board game of Train. Source: Wikimedia Commons at
painted portrait of a man in robes, with a poem written above his head.
1858 memorial portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858 )
by Utagawa Kunisada. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Probably the best known of any of these artistic representations and guidebooks, however, was Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige’s The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a series of ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. These ukiyo-e became enormously popular during the Edo period as the merchant class grew, and their popularity continues today as these images are still being reprinted on countless posters, postcards, calendars, and t-shirts. This colorful series depicts each of the fifty-three “halting places” or stations along the route, including the hustle and bustle at the starting point at Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge) and the finishing spot in Kyōto, for a total of fifty-five scenes in all. Capturing various times of day along with detailed changes in the landscape along the route, including the famous Mount Fuji and other mountain passes, these ukiyo-e tell a wide range of stories about the people who lived, worked, and traveled during the Edo Period. The Journey Along
the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road curriculum combines the use of interactive maps with an extensive database of these and other ukiyo-e, providing the possibility for students to compare several different versions of woodblock prints along with manga scrolls and modern-day photographs to develop a deeper understanding of the people, geography, and culture of Japan.2

Art of the Tōkaidō

the left side is a painting of the nihonbashi bridge, while the right side is a photograph of the bridge in 1911.
(Left) Station 1. Nihonbashi Bridge, Tokyo Morning Scene by Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1834. Source: All of the Hiroshige station woodblock print images used in this article can be found on the Great Tōkaidō series page
at (Right) 1911 Nihonbashi Bridge as seen in the Old Tōkaidō–Day 1 video.
Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 1 at

This online curriculum includes background information on the history and art of ukiyo-e in addition to providing access to several catalogs featuring this wide variety of woodblock prints. The featured ukiyo-e collection of Utagawa Hiroshige, the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, brings to life the fifty-three stations along this 514-kilometer (approx. 319 miles) route from the starting point of the Nihonbashi in Edo (present-day Tokyo) the site of the Shogun’s government to the road’s end in Kyōto. These fifty-five scenes all comprise the route that can be roughly translated as the “eastern sea route.” However, this collection is only one of many sets of illustrations made by the artist for over twenty years. Journey Along the Tōkaidō shares a database of a dozen more sets of Tōkaidō prints, allowing students to easily make comparisons between stations along the route and across time. Other catalogs included in this resource exhibit Hiroshige’s famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, his Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō, and his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.3

This vast collection of ukiyo-e is presented as part of a variety of other works with historical, literary, and theatrical themes along with many different landscapes, nature prints, book illustrations,
paintings, diptychs, triptychs, and more, providing students with even more opportunities for choosing how they decided to personalize their venture along this route.

ink paintings. on the left is an image of a child being spoken to by an adult figure, and on the right is an image of a trug with a flag driving over a bridge.
First four stations of the Tōkaidō Manga Scroll, First Half (1-27), with translations. Note that the scroll reads
from right to left. Source: Combined screen captures from the video on the Institute for Japanese Studies at The Ohio State University YouTube page at (Left) 4th Station: Kanagawa. Artist: Okamoto Ippei. Caption: Close to Yokohama, home to a large foreign community, a picture of a beloved Western child. (Right) 3rd Station: Kawasaki. Artist: Shimokawa Hekoten. Artists with their red flag crossing by open-air automobile the Tama River over the Rokokubashi.

The popularity of ukiyo-e may have been one of the reasons why eighteen members of the Tokyo Manga Association chose to take a road trip along the old route in 1921. This automobile excursion
resulted in the creation of an artistic work produced partly to help increase the social standing of manga artists of the day. While “manga” is often translated as comics or cartoons, the series of ink drawings produced by this group of professional artists more accurately reflects the idea of “spontaneous
drawings” or the literal meaning of the Sino-Japanese word for “random drawings.”4

on the left is a painting of a town that overlooks a harbor, and on the right is a photograph of the outside of shinagawa station.
(Left) Station 2. Shinagawa: Sunrise. (Right) Shinagawa Station. Source: Screen capture from
The Old Tōkaidō –Day 1 at

Cartoonish, spontaneous, or random, students can be the ones to judge the artistic merits of these century-old works as they explore the list of artists and choose between the video resources and
library discussions to explore this avant-garde work.

Students can focus their study of the Tōkaidō using the product of these artists, Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi manga emaki (The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Manga Scroll, which will be referred to
as the “Tōkaidō Manga Scroll”),5 as yet another primary source in the curriculum.

ink painting. on the left is a painting of a bridge with two small figures, while the right has buildings and a market visible with several figures.
(Left) 2nd Station: Shinagawa. Artist: Arita Shigeru. Caption: Two travelers stare out at a gun battery constructed in the Shinagawa Bay, a battery still waiting after some seventy years to defend against the black ships of Commodore Matthew Perry. (Right) 1st station: Nihonbashi. Artist: Okamoto Ippei. Caption: The setting off point for the artists’ journey along the Tōkaidō. At this point, Nihonbashi is becoming a modern business district.

Almost a century after the original production of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints, these eighteen members of the Tokyo Manga Association created this work during their trip which approximated the route of the old Tōkaidō. With bold, modern brushstrokes, the artists depicted scenes of Japanese culture, history, economics, daily life, transportation, architecture, and industry. Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road provides multiple ways for students to explore this work and the general history, development, and art of manga. The Tōkaidō Manga Scroll itself is part of the extensive manga collection at The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum which “houses the world’s largest collection of materials related to cartoons and comics.”6 Among this vast collection is “one of the world’s largest collections of manga and manga-related materials outside of Japan,” featuring more than 30,000 pieces.7

on the left is a painting of a road on the side of a cliff, overlooking water and a distant mt. fuji. on the right is a photograph of the road with cars, with the same bay and mountain visible.
(Left) Station 17. Yui. Satta Peak. (Right) Overlooking Suruga Bay, with Mt. Fuji in the background.
Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 6 at

As part of the Journey Along the Tōkaidō curriculum resources, the Tōkaidō Manga Scroll (also titled as “Manga Journey Along the Tōkaidō”) is featured in YouTube videos on the website (see the
bulleted list under “Tōkaidō Manga Scroll (1920s).”8. There are two links each for videos displaying stations 1–27 and 28–55 (four total). The first video for each set displays the stations with English translations of the Japanese on each station. The second link for each set only displays the station name and artist without any translation of the stations (no audio is present in any of the videos). Watching this “Manga Journey Along the Tōkaidō,” students see the scroll and the original storage case. The translated version of this video exploration outlines the station number, location, and some basic information about the site, including the name of the artist who created the scene or some historical context that helps students better understand what is being shown. For Japanese language learners, a version without translation and an accompanying vocabulary list of less familiar terms are available for study.

on the left is a painting of a tea shop, while the right has a photograph of the same tea shop.
(Left) Station 21. Mariko. Famous Tea Shop. (Right) In the video, Mariko is numbered as station 20.
Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 7 at

These two primary sources, Hiroshige’s nineteenth-century ukiyo-e, and the Tokyo Manga Association’s twentieth-century scroll, form the core of this online module which includes labeled links to each of the woodblock prints and a video translation of the manga scroll. The curriculum also moves into the twenty-first century by linking photos along the route with other historical, geographical, and biographical material, providing students with even more options for exploration. They can travel the Tōkaidō using an interactive map with contemporary photographs (viewable by clicking each numbered entry along the red line)9 and links to current city or area websites for all stations along the route.10 They may also choose to watch the “The Old Tōkaidō,” broken down into daily adventures.11 These resources can be further enhanced through Google Earth, allowing students to “fly” to Japan and land anywhere along the route for an even deeper exploration. Many students enjoy exploring the route and finding locations similar to where they live while others like to discover features so unique to Japan that they feel as if they are traveling somewhere new.

on the left is a painting of horses grazing, while the right is a photograph of a statue of a horse among homes.
(Left) Station 40. Chiryū. Early Summer Horse Fair. (Right) Horse statue in Chiryū. Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 14 at

Curriculum Content

While most middle school social studies classes explore the Silk Road, few venture to Japan to consider the contributions made by those traveling the Tōkaidō. The wide-reaching series of lesson plans that accompany these primary sources, which were developed by The Ohio State University’s East Asian Studies Center, feature a variety of ways to creatively incorporate these resources into K-12 classroom curriculum. With activities ranging from exploring transportation to investigations with photography, these lessons find new and interactive ways of teaching historical thinking skills to elementary, middle, and high school students. These students benefit from making regional comparisons, examining migration studies, and delving into the exploration of and interactions between cultures. The scenes depicted along this route represent more than just time and space—they personalize the subject matter in a way that makes it both educational and entertaining for students. From discussing the roles of the men walking through the morning mist in Hiroshige’s print of Station 12 in Mishima to investigating the comical depiction of the woman tea picker who makes fun of the manga artists passing by in their car between the 20th and 21st stations to finding photos that reveal what these places look like today, this curriculum provides countless choices and opportunities for adventure.

The lessons developed as part of this series are divided into various content areas and identified for specific grade levels; however, teachers can quickly adapt the activities for multiple ages and
content areas. Exploring themes from economics to environmental issues, one of the critical investigations to make along this route between Tokyo and Kyoto is change over time. Through an exploration of these visual resources, first graders are given the opportunity to explore various modes of transportation, from trains and planes to horse-drawn carts, while second graders solve the mystery of the disappearing cart and third graders decode graphics in order to better understand differences between various types of transportation and architecture. These are just a few examples of how a series of woodblock prints, a manga scroll, and some photographs can facilitate various activities that bring this centuries-old route to life. By exploring the landscape and history of Japan over several centuries, students can gain a deeper understanding of other cultures while discovering some similarities between themselves and others.

on the left is a painting of a road meeting a river. on the right is photograph of the same river, with telephone poles visible in the distance.
(Left) Station 44. Yokkaichi. Mie River. (Right) In the video, Yokkaichi is numbered as station 43. Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 15 at

The elementary, middle, and high school lessons featured in this curriculum provide opportunities to explore the Tōkaidō Road at various times throughout history and include several resources
that allow students to compare Japan’s eastern sea route with the US National Road, Route 40, and Route 66. Opportunities such as these provide classes with the chance to view perspectives on two levels: the visual level through close-looking activities that engage students with various art forms and the metaphorical where students are challenged to learn and reconsider viewpoints from other times and places. Teachers can easily bring these routes into their classrooms using several maps and creative lesson ideas to make various cross-cultural connections. No matter which route one chooses to take, a Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road is one trip definitely worth taking with students.

on the left is a painting of a bridge with a mountain range visible behind it. on the right is a photograph of the modern version of the bridge, with tall buildings visible behind it.
(Left) Station 55. Kyōto. The Great Bridge at Sanjō. (Right) Modern Bridge at Sanjō.
Source: Screen capture from The Old Tōkaidō –Day 18 at

I sincerely thank Janet Smith, Assistant Director of Outreach, East Asian Studies Center, The Ohio State University, for introducing me to the digital lessons and her assistance in editing this essay. Janet has worked for over twenty years at The Ohio State University where she specializes in creating and leading a variety of teacher training programs and curriculum development projects in conjunction with the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia.


Taking The Road Less Traveled: Journey Along the Tōkaidō Teaching Applications

In the classroom, students can easily be provided multiple avenues for exploring The Ohio State University’s Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road online curriculum materials. As a 7–12 studio art and art history teacher who formerly taught middle school social studies, these are the types of resources that I find most beneficial for my students for multiple reasons. First, Journey Along the Tōkaidō provides me with the background content necessary to help establish a solid foundation of knowledge from which my students can learn and grow. Secondly, this curriculum provides a multitude of options which allows me to take the lead in differentiating activities while also giving students the opportunity for hands-on discovery during which they become both responsible and accountable for their growth in knowledge. Finally, there is something in this adventure for everyone; whether students are interested in historical sites or modern day cars, kids seem to find something that makes them excited to learn more about themselves and others. In the process, my students often find that they have more in common with
their peers on the other side of the globe than they originally thought, whether it be farm fields with railroad tracks winding between rural areas or 7-Eleven stores with teenagers hanging out en masse.


In my eighth grade studio art class, I typically start this unit with a close-looking activity of one of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints using a See-Think-Wonder activity based on one of Harvard University’s Project Zero Thinking Routines ( Following this examination of one specific work, I delve into several of the suggested middle school lesson activities where students begin to make connections between this work and the National Road which they learned about in their social studies classes. We talk about road trips and how landscapes have changed over time. To continue our cross-cultural comparisons, I then show my students the video of the Tōkaidō Manga Scroll so that they can see how this route across Japan has changed
over a century and learn about the artists who created this work. Our class will discuss what they know about manga before being given the opportunity to explore the scroll independently. The quick brushwork and simplification of lines used by these early twentieth century artists encourages students when we begin to experiment with bamboo brushes and sumi ink on paper. We work on drawing a variety of lines and developing a wide range of values using these traditional materials before trying to copy one of the scenes they have selected from the manga scroll.

We then return to Hiroshige’s work to dissect a series of the woodblock prints by digging into some art terminology by identifying horizon lines, vanishing points, and the artist’s use of scale and atmospheric perspective. By breaking down the composition into these key sections, students are better able to begin creating their own works using the modern day photographs included in the online resources.

Google the Tōkaidō

Recently I have also given students the opportunity to use Google Earth to travel the route, encouraging students to try and find some of the stations and to explore those areas using newer technologies. I have found that what began as a thirty-minute introductory activity into the geography of Japan has now become a one to two-day student-led investigation and conversations about the similarities and differences between the environments of Japan and our own. I even had one student find the US military base where his mom served for a year!

Brush, Ink and Scroll

We wrap up our exploration of the Tōkaidō with a landscape painting project where kids select a scene (either from the woodblock prints, the manga scroll, the modern-day photographs or their own screenshot using Google Earth) to recreate using the brush and ink on scroll paper. I then assemble the works for display in a fashion much like the manga scroll and finish with an open critique that allows for student feedback on the process and project while enjoying some Japanese candy and other treats. This is one of the most in-depth units that I complete with my eighth graders during our semester-long introductory studio art course, but it is also one of the most memorable as students are able to learn from a variety of hands-on activities and engaging explorations while bringing Japan to life in the past and present as we journey the Tōkaidō together.

1. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,
2. “The Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Hiroshige: The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road,”, accessed May 20, 2022,
3. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, “Ukiyo-e (1830’s),” Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,;;
4. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, “Tōkaidō Manga Scroll Background,” Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,
5. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, “Tōkaidō Manga Scroll (1920s),” Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,
6. The Ohio State University, “About Us,” Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum: The Ohio State University Libraries, accessed May 20, 2022,
7. “Manga: Japanese Comics/Manga Studies Resource Guide,” Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum: The Ohio State University Libraries, accessed May 20, 2022,
8. Institute for Japanese Studies at The Ohio State University, “Tōkaidō Manga Scroll, First Half, With Translations,” YouTube, educational video, 6:10, accessed May 20, 2022,
9. “Tōkaidō Make-Over,”, accessed May 20, 2022,
10. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, “Tōkaidō Station Summary,” Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,
11. The Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center, “The Old Tōkaidō,” Journey Along the Tōkaidō: Exploring Japan’s National Road, accessed May 20, 2022,