A Tale of Two Roads

Craig Hinshaw

Recently, I became interested in teaching about Japan and its historic Tokaido Road to my students at Lessenger Elementary School in Madison Heights, Michigan. Although I am an elementary art teacher, I practice an interdisciplinary teaching approach. As a recipient of a Keizai Koho Center Fellowship, I toured Japan with twenty four social studies educators last summer. One of my goals was to do the research needed to create an instructional unit that enables fourth grade students to make a parallel study of two roadways--the ancient Tokaido Road in Japan and Interstate 1-75 in Michigan.

My school district's fourth grade curriculum includes the study of Michigan and the study of other countries. I worked with Jack Jarvis, a fourth grade teacher, to align the unit of study with the fourth grade curriculum. I also consulted with Dr. David Harris, social studies education consultant for the county, in order to link the unit to Michigan's core curriculum state benchmarks.

The completed unit of study integrated art, social studies, and language arts. Students studied art by examining the wood-block prints of the Tokaido Road by Ando Hiroshige and then creating their own travel prints. The unit addressed social studies as students learned about the geography and history of the Tokaido Road and questioned whose responsibility it is for building and maintaining roads. Language arts was addressed as pupils composed haiku poems to complement their travel prints.

History of the Tokaido Road

The Tokaido Road connected Edo (present day Tokyo) with Kyoto during the Edo period of Japanese history (1615-1868). Along its 300-mile route, the government established 53 rest stops. These stops provided travelers the opportunity to relax over a cup of hot tea, rent a fresh horse, buy souvenirs, or spend the night. The Tokaido, the most widely traveled road of its day, seemed to become part of the Japanese people's collective consciousness.

In 1832, Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige traveled the Tokaido Road. From his travels, he created beautiful wood-block prints of each of the 53 stations. An impressive narrative quality is depicted in the prints. Nineteenth century travelers are shown engaged in various activities: two travelers supping over a broth of grated jams, a man chasing his hat blown off in a gust of wind, or a group of travelers dashing for cover to escape a sudden downpour. The prints also reveal the beauty and variety of Japan's landscape, including rugged mountains, wide shallow rivers, and grassy lowlands.

Not much is left of the original Tokaido Road today. Like the Oregon Trail or Route 66 in the United States, some of the sites have grown into major cities, while others seem to have vanished completely. While in Japan, I was able to locate seven of the 53 rest stops. I photographed each site, trying to determine the vantage point Hiroshige used to make his sketches. Then I found a shady place to sit, sipped Japanese tea from a can, and sketched the area myself. I tried to envision travel on the Tokaido as it would have been in the 1830s--slower, quieter, more rural.

The Japanese people that I met along the way seemed flattered to learn I was researching a part of their history. They eagerly assisted me in finding points of interest about the Tokaido that I would otherwise have missed. They pointed me to two bronze sculptures of eighteenth century travelers by the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto; remnants of the narrow, original road line with 300 year old cedar trees at Hakone; and Tokyo's fish market, one of the largest in the world, where the Tokaido began.

By contrast, Interstate 1-75 extends from Michigan's southern border to our northern tip at Saute Ste. Marie. Approximately 300 miles long and running through the heart of our school district, it has become part of Michiganders' common consciousness as families drive "up north" to favorite destinations on vacation. Instead of taking a break from the road for a cup of hot tea, twentieth century travelers are more likely to break for a Coke at McDonald's or to visit the convenience stores located inside gasoline stations that permeate the scenery.

A Parallel Study of Two Roads

When school began in late August, I couldn't wait to begin the interdisciplinary unit I had planned for fourth grade students. Below is the four-week series of lessons I taught with Jack Jarvis to his fourth grade class. These lessons functioned as a pilot program that I later presented to the seven other fourth grade classrooms.

Week 1: Mapping. Specific mapping activities provided an introduction to the unit. I wanted each student to have a mental map picture of the locations of Michigan, the United States, North America, Japan, and Asia. It was also important that students compare the various locational aspects of both the Tokaido Road and I-75. Students completed several maps on which they located major cities in both Michigan and Japan. Then they plotted the two respective roads, 1-75 in Michigan and the Tokaido Road in Japan.

Week 2: Comparing and Contrasting Rest Stops. Students compared Hiroshige's print, Mariko: The Famous Tea Shop, with photographs I had taken of rest stops along 1-75. They listed three things that are the same and three things that are different (see Figure 1).

Drawing a Personal Vacation Picture. In the second part of this lesson, we studied how Hiroshige composed his masterpieces. I emphasized three things his prints included: an interesting horizon, a road leading into the picture, and people engaged in activity (see Figure 2). Then students began sketching their own art work depicting a family vacation and incorporating the three compositional elements we had discussed into their pictures.

Week 3: Printmaking. Hiroshige's wood-block prints were mass produced, making them inexpensive enough for many people living in his time to buy them. Rather than cutting blocks of wood, our classroom activity involved using sheets of styrene (commercially-available meat trays) as our printing plates. Students transferred their sketches into the styrene with a pencil. Next, they applied water-based block printing ink to the styrene using a brayer. By laying a piece of white paper over the top and rubbing with the palm of the hand, students transferred the ink to the paper. Removing the paper revealed the print, and the process was then repeated.

Week 4: Haiku Poetry. During Hiroshige's day, a close relationship existed between art and poetry. I told students that traditional haiku is considered a high art form by the Japanese. After we read examples of haiku poetry in class, students learned the syllabic 5-7-5 rules of haiku. They also learned that haiku poems are traditionally composed about themes of nature. Then they composed their own haiku poems to complement their vacation prints (see Figure 3).

Because I believe that student work should be honored and displayed, we looked for a traditional form of display for our completed work. Using large sheets of heavy paper, I constructed a Japanese-style accordion book in which students' prints and poems were glued. This resulted in a class book documenting Michigan travel along Interstate 1-75 in the late twentieth century that we could compare and contrast to Hiroshige's prints depicting the Tokaido Road.


The farewell party for last summer's Keizai Koho Center Fellows in Japan met on the eighteenth floor of a hotel located near the Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. From that vantage point, I watched sleek white bullet trains--appearing to be the size of toy Lionel trains--as they left the station and headed for Kyoto. A journey that would have taken the traveler days during Hiroshige's era now takes only a matter of hours.

I wondered what Hiroshige would have thought if he could have witnessed this sight with me. I doubt he would have watched very long before taking out his sketch book and beginning to record his impressions. While I can't bring Hiroshige back, hopefully I can inspire my students through his exquisite art and his important contributions to recording life along the stations of the Tokaido Road in an earlier era. Perhaps their impressions of travel along a twentieth century highway will become a record for future generations to enjoy. v

About the Author

Craig Hinshaw teaches elementary art in the Lamphere School District in Madison Heights, Michigan. In his quest to visit as many of the Tokaido Road stations as possible, he even climbed Mt. Fuji. He has written about the Tokaido Road several times since his visit to Japan.