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A colorful map/illustration of yellow road, seen from above, going over a stream and then past trees and houses.
Detail of a section of the Tokaido bunker-ezu. Geography and Map Division.

The Scenic Route? The Library’s 117-foot Map from 17th-century Japan

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—This is a guest post by Dylan Carpenter, an intern in the Office of Communications this year. It also appears in the July-August issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

Long before the advent of Google Earth and glossy travel books, ancient cartographers used pictographic maps to guide travelers through the world around them. Many of these are held in the Geography and Map Division.

Among the most remarkable of these navigational aids is the Tokaido bunken-ezu, a 17th-century Japanese map charting the route from what is now Tokyo to the then-capital of Kyoto. The map not only provides valuable insights into Japan’s rich cultural heritage but also offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of mapmaking before the age of digital technology.

One thing that makes the Tokaido bunken-ezu truly unique is its massive size. The map, painted on two scrolls, measures about 117 feet in length, dwarfing most other pictorial maps of its time and even more contemporary counterparts.

The Tokaido bunken-ezu, created as an everyday guide for a road trip, today is also recognized as a great cultural artifact: It is considered a masterpiece of Japanese mapmaking.

Cartographer Ochikochi Doin surveyed the 319-mile route from Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Kyoto in 1651, and the well-known artist Hishikawa Moronobu gave form to his findings via this pen-and-ink illustrated map in 1690.

The map renders five main stretches on the Tokaido road, providing a detailed account of the amenities, landmarks and terrain set against images of mountains, rivers and seas.

The map shows the 53 stations, or post towns, that lined the route to provide travelers with lodging and food. Famous landmarks such as Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama are depicted from multiple angles and various stations. Travelers walked the road in groups of various sizes.

“A road of a thousand miles comes from a single step,” a famous Japanese proverb goes.

Centuries ago, adventure awaited those who took that first step on the path leading from Edo. Looking at this great map today, it’s easy to appreciate the travelers who made the journey — and the mapmakers who helped make it possible.

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