During the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), travel in Japan was closely regulated. Feudal lords and their retinue travelled regularly between Edo (present day Tokyo) and their domains. Merchants travelled to source goods to trade. Commoners could only travel for religious purposes. No one travelled without permits, which were inspected at regular intervals on the major routes established and maintained by the Tokugawa government.
The best known of those routes was the Tokaido (East Ocean Road) that followed the coast between Edo and Kyoto. So well known was this route that in modern times it has given its name to both the earliest train line and the first Shinkansen line between those two cities.
The Tokaido of the Tokugawa Period was exalted in contemporary art and literature, thus ensuring its fame and reputation (and its place in history). Among the most famous art works featuring the Tokaido are the mid-19th century woodblock prints of Utagawa Hiroshige, which examined the features of the 53 post stations along the route. In literature, the two heroes of Jippensha Ikku’s rollicking novel, "Hizakurige" (the English translation is entitled “Shank’s Mare”), have various [mis]adventures traveling the Tokaido.
Post stations, or juku, were basically way stops where travelers could find meals, accommodation and travel assistance (ie, porters and horses). There were 53 government-authorized post stations, the number being selected as a metaphor for the travels of Sudhana, an acolyte of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy (known in Japan as Kannon), whose journey of enlightenment took him to 53 Buddhist saints.
Mariko-juku, in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, was the 20th post station from Nihonbashi, the bridge in Edo from which all journeys on the Tokaido are said to begin or end. It was also always the smallest. In 1843, it had a population of 795, with 211 houses and 24 inns.
Modern Mariko is still a small, close knit, predominately agrarian community where visitors can find a surprising number of reminders of its role as a Tokaido post town.
As religious institutions, Chogenji temple and Okiki Tenmangu shrine are centers of the community. Chogenji, founded in 1741, is home to the Mariko Kannon and hundreds of adorable Jizo statues. One of Jizo’s roles in the Buddhist pantheon is guarding over travelers, apt for a temple along the Tokaido. In fact, these Jizo have been placed here by grieving parents who have lost babies. The temple also has a pretty little garden and hosts local festivals a couple times a year. On the rise at the back of the temple grounds, sits Okiki Tenmangu, a shrine dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, a Heian period scholar whose spirit became the god of learning. Aspiring students flock to Tenmangu shrines across the country, including this one, to pray for success on their exams. Michizane’s favorite flower was the plum blossom, which is coincidentally blooming in the winter months when students are taking entrance exams. The shrine is much older than the temple; there is even a legend that Japan’s first shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo, stopped here to admire the plum blossoms in 1195.
Follow the right branch of the forking road just outside the temple’s entrance. This narrow road is actually the route of the historic Tokaido, now lined with houses, gardens and small agri-businesses. You’re walking in the direction of Edo.
About 300 meters down the road you’ll spot a moss-covered water wheel on the right. This is Mariko Kocha. Mariko is one of the first places in Japan to produce “black tea”, beginning in 1881. In the 1870s, a Chiba native named Motokichi Tada, on orders of the last Tokugawa shogun, travelled to China and India to learn various tea processing methods. On his return to Japan, Tada chose Mariko as his base because of its proximity to Shizuoka’s prime tea growing region (there is a tea field right behind Mariko Kocha). Perhaps you noticed a gray stone monument to Tada back at Chogenji temple.
For the most part, green and black teas are both made with the leaves of the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The difference between the two is the processing of the leaves after they are harvested. Black tea is fermented, a process in which the freshly picked leaves are allowed to dry a bit, causing oxidation. The oxidation is stopped by either steaming or pan frying the leaves. The longer oxidation goes on, the darker the tea.
Mariko Kocha’s proprietor, Muramatsu Niroku, is an 11th generation Mariko-ite who started producing black tea about 30 years ago, partly out of concern that this piece of Mariko’s identity should not be allowed to die out. When I dropped by to say hello, he was processing leaves picked that morning. They would be dried overnight and steamed the next day, to produce Oolong tea, a medium-fermented tea.
About another kilometer down the Tokaido (with a dogleg to the left and then another to the right), the route becomes a bit more scenic, as it runs along the bank of the Mariko River. In an interesting parallel to Mariko’s roots as a post town, there are several love hotels in this area, some so gaudy they’re attractive in their own special way. But don’t get distracted—continue on. The road bends to the right, revealing more signs of an agrarian community: a lumberyard, well-tended flowers and vegetable gardens and even greenhouses. Keep an eye out for tea fields on the hillsides, too.
On the left just before the Mariko Bridge, look out for several sign boards, replicas of the sort of public edicts regularly displayed in Tokaido post towns, the Tokugawa government’s way of notifying people of everything from new laws to which outlaws were on the wanted list.
According to an early dochuki (traveller's guide to the Tokaido), there has been a bridge on this spot since as early as 1659. Ahead, across the bridge, is Chojiya, a local restaurant with a thatched roof and a long Tokaido history. Chojiya has been in continuous operation since 1596.
Chojiya is famous for its tororojiru, grated yam. The yam is grated and made into a sticky soup by adding miso and fish stock. This is then poured over rice and topped with a bit of chopped green onions. When stirred together, the result is both soothing and hearty. Apparently it is also energizing, hence its popularity with travellers for, quite literally, centuries. Shank's Mare contains an amusing little tale of the two heroes stopping here for a lunch of its famous "potato stew", only to have the proprietor and his wife get into an argument that spoils the broth. Jippensha, Utagawa Hiroshige, and poet Matsuo Basho are all said to have dined here.
The current 14th generation proprietor of Chojiya is Shibayama Hiroyuki, who is carrying on the family tradition while embracing modern practices, such as a fine website and crowd-sourcing to finance re-thatching last year. Hiroyuki’s father was an avid collector of original 19th century woodblock prints of the Tokaido and other related memorabilia, which are now proudly on display throughout the restaurant, as well as in a small dedicated gallery. Pointing to the woman with a baby on her back serving customers in Hiroshige's 1833 print of Mariko-juku, which prominently features Chojiya, Hiroyuki jokes “That’s probably my great-great-great grandmother.”
Chojiya remains a popular spot with both locals and travellers. It offers set meals of various sizes and even has a local sake featuring Hiroshige's print on the label. According to Hiroyuki, they were serving as many as 900 meals a day during Golden Week. (Note the unusual opening hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Continuing along the Tokaido, which now follows the left bank of the river, the first shop on the right is Shofukuen, a tea shop featuring Shizuoka’s finest green teas. The staff were blending and packaging when I visited and soon offered me a sample cup of tea. Countryside hospitality!
If the 1855 Hiroshige print of Mariko-juku is anything to go by, this stretch of the Tokaido was central Mariko-juku back in the day. Nothing remains to convey the Tokugawa period feel these days, but there are two historical markers on the left hand side that tell a bit of the story. The first, just over 100 meters from Shofukuen, marks the place where the Emperor Meiji once stopped to rest as he travelled the Tokaido. He made this trip a few times and it is unclear when he stopped here. A few dozen meters on is another stone marker indicating the site of Mariko-juku’s Honjin, the officially-designated inn for feudal lords and nobles when they travelled the Tokaido. Perhaps it’s just as well that these buildings no longer exist. According to a 17th century dochuki, the beds of Mariko’s inns weren’t very comfortable. So it’s time to finish with Mariko and head home. Turn left at the lane about 175 meters beyond the Honjin marker and follow it to Highway 1. The Shin-Mariko bus stop is up the road to the right.
Catch the Shizutetsu bus bound for Fujieda Station at the No. 7 bus stop at Shizuoka station. Get off at Akamegaya, about 35 minutes from Shizuoka. Fare is 380 yen. From Akamegaya to Chogenji is about a 5-minute walk.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today