Press "Enter" to skip to content

Lonely Planet in Edo-period Japan: Meisho Zue

The Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan was a time of prolonged peace. Ruling under an isolationist foreign policy (Sakoku) and with no civil wars, the Tokugawa Shogunate government focused on social and political stability, and securing infrastructure. They created and regulated five major roads, boarding houses and transportation systems in order to strengthen central control over the daimyōs (Sankin kōtai — a governmental policy requiring the daimyō to live in their domain for one year and in Edo the alternate year). Currency circulation was also regulated, which brought economic stability and a flourishing of the commoners’ life. Urban citizens who can afford developed their own leisure activities. This phenomenon was called “chō’nin bunka” (townsmen culture). They enjoyed reading, performing arts, seasonal events and festivals, some of which had been privileges of only samurais and aristocrats earlier.

Beginning with the Kyōho period (1716-1736) traveling became a commoners’ popular pleasure reaching a peak during the Bunka-Bunsei periods (1804-1830). Commoners’ traveling was limited to pilgrimage to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The most popular destination was the Ise Shrine in present Mie Prefecture which experienced an explosive growth in popularity. Travelers gradually found ways to take advantage of pilgrimage permissions by adding “on-our-way” destinations to the itinerary. Samples of those “on-our-way” destinations were Osaka and Kyoto both relatively close to Ise Shrine. Hence the Edo period saw the beginning of a commoners’ travel boom aided also by the well-maintained highway system mentioned earlier.

Black and white woodblock print of garden scene with large rocks.
Garden of the Hōjō (Abbot Hall) of the Ryōanji Temple. Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue,Volume 4. 

Edo-period’s highly literate and curious population found their interests fed by the emergence of commercial publishing in major cities.  Nor did publishers miss the opportunity to venture into the thick of the travel craze, publishing travel books full of much needed and much desired information.

The idea of books about places was not new. However, earlier, books on places were mainly travelers’ personal journeys or poetic works related to places rather than books with facts about a place. This new type of books about a place was named meisho zue (Famous places illustrated). Meisho zue offered more accurate and objective descriptions of places with reader-friendly explanations. Sometimes issued in pocket-book size, it also provided information for travelers such as local highlights, historical anecdote and literary associations as well as more practical information like local customs, events and specialties, lodging, restaurants, distance between places and locations of hot spring. Thanks to mid-18th century improvements of printing techniques meisho zue were generously embellished with beautiful, full-page illustrations. Illustrations, often from a bird’s-eye point of view, were a key element for this new genre, meisho zue. The producers of meisho zue used abundant illustrations and easy reading material to attract readers’ attention to the strange places and things covered in the books. Moreover, these books served as entertainment for armchair travelers and as welcome souvenirs for non-travelers. Meisho zue was the “LONELY PLANET” of 19th-century Japan.

Black and white wood block print of Japanese scene featuring busy rice cake shop.
A rice cake shop. Miyako Meisho Zue, Volume 3.

By the mid-19th century many kinds of meisho zue were published. Some, such as Yamato Meisho Zue 大和名所図会 (Famous Places in Nara, 1791), focused on certain geographical locations. Others featured particular subjects as in Nihon Meizan Zue 日本名山図会” (Famous Mountains in Japan, 1812) and Nihon Sankai Meisan Zue 日本山海名産図会” (Famous Local Products in Japan, 1799). Some depicted local events and daily life within a city as in Tōto Sumidagawa Ryōgan Ichiran 東都隅田川両岸一覧” (Views of Sumida River Banks in Edo, 1781). Readers could also enjoy a virtual trip to China via Morokoshi Meishō Zue 唐土名勝図会” (Famous Places in China, 1802).

The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library of the Smithsonian Libraries has two  typical meisho zue in its Rare Book Collection. They are Miyako Meisho Zue 都名所図会” (Famous Places in Kyoto, 1780) and Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue 都林泉名所図会” (Famous Gardens in Kyoto, 1799). The author of both works was Akisato Ritō 秋里籬島 (active 1780-1814), a literary author and haikai poet from Kyoto.

Black and white wood block print of men pulling ornate festival float.
Yamahoko float of the Gion Festival. Miyako Meisho Zue, Volume 2.

Akisato played an important role in the development of meisho zue. He invented the term “meisho zue” and published his first, Miyako Meisho Zue (Famous Places in Kyoto) in 1780. The popularity of his first book promoted the publishing of numerous meisho zue thereafter and contributed to the commoners’ travel boom. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Akisato authored dozens of meisho zue on many sightseeing spots. To assure correct descriptions, he visited each place, taking illustrators with him to help document the information he collected during these visits.

Miyako Meisho Zue (Famous Places in Kyoto, 1780) was published in 6 parts in 11 volumes. The illustrations were done by Takehara Shunchōsai 竹原春朝斎 (-1800). The work covered not only popular spots in the center city but also the suburban areas of Kyoto, including information on local products, festivals, events and seasonal scenes as well as daily life and customs. The illustrations were often accompanied by famous classical poems, waka associated with the place. It became an all-time best seller, having sold four thousand copies, and was still reprinted six years after its initial publication in 1780.

Black and white wood block print of group of people in traditional Japanese dress looking toward mountain.
Daimonji (the Great Bonfire) Festival. Miyako Meisho Zue, Volume 4.

Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue  (Famous Gardens in Kyoto, 1799), in 5 parts in 6 volumes, was illustrated by three artists, Sakuma Sōen 佐久間草偃 (-1814), Nishimura Chūwa 西村中和 (active late 19th century) and Oku Bunmei 奥文鳴 (1773-1813). It introduced well-known gardens many of which are from temples and shrines in Kyoto. The text also included detailed historical information on the temples and shrines and listed religious art and artifacts which they owned. The well-researched textual information and rich illustrations made Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue an important historical source for Kyoto gardens of Edo Japan.

Black and white woodblock print of busy Japanese street scene divided by river with pedestrian walkway.
Summer evening scene of Shijō Riverbank. Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue, Volume 1, Part 2.


Digitized versions can be viewed here:

Miyako Meisho zue: (v. 2-6)

Miyako Rinsen Meisho zue


Recommended Reading:

Plutschow, Herbert E. A Reader in Edo Period Travel (Global Oriental, 2006)

Sandler, Mark H. “The Traveler’s Way: Illustrated Guidebooks of Edo Japan,” Asian Art, vol. 5, no. 2: pp. 31-35 (Spring 1992)

Vaporis, Constantine Nomikos. Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1994)

Detail of boat trip for cherry blossom viewing in Arashiyama. Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue, Volume 5.



One Comment

  1. Ruth Brousseau

    Thank you … very fascinating.
    I have a very specific question: I am interested in Meisho by Hiroshige, specifically the Edo Ehon Miyage series that Hiroshige published in the 1850s. Is there a translation into English or even contemporary Japanese of the text that Hiroshige wrote in these prints?
    Thank you so much for this informative exhibition and forwarding my question to the appropriate person in the museum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *