You met all kinds of people on the roads of old Japan — throngs of them. “An incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japan’s provinces — indeed, at certain times of the year, they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city,” wrote Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716).

Physician, scholar, naturalist, explorer, Kaempfer was in Japan from 1690-92. Fifty years earlier Japan had barred its gates against the menacing outside world — an isolation it would maintain until the mid-19th century. The only foreigners admitted were a handful of Dutch and Chinese traders confined to the little island of Dejima off Nagasaki. Kaempfer, attached to the Dutch East India Company as a physician, writhed under the confinement but twice traveled to Edo (present-day Tokyo) as part the annual delegation that the Company was obliged to send for an audience with the shogun. His “History of Japan,” published posthumously in 1727, was a bestseller — Europe’s first full-length portrait of a remote, mysterious, inaccessible “heathen” land.

“Japanese travel more often than other people,” Kaempfer wrote — not overseas, for leaving the country could be a capital crime, but along the storied network of roads known as the Gokaido (Five Highways) linking Edo, the shogun’s capital, with the outer provinces and Kyoto, the imperial capital. Construction of these began early in the 17th century, symbolizing and reinforcing a national unity forged in battle and still fragile.

Most famous and frequented of the five was the Tokaido (East Sea Road). The appalling European roads of the day, scarcely improved since Roman times, prepared Kaempfer for a pleasant surprise: “The roads are … lined on both sides with a straight and thick row of fir trees to provide shade and enjoyment for the traveler. … The ground is always kept clean and level. … The road is diligently maintained due to certain sharing arrangements between neighboring villages and headmen and, like the floor of a farmhouse, is cleaned and swept daily.”

Recyclers needed no environmental crisis to spur them on: “Headmen have no problems keeping the road clean, since everything that might dirty the road is of use to the farmers living nearby, and one person vies with another to pick it up. …The children of the farmers gather horse manure for the fields the moment it drops, and the excrement and other droppings of the travelers are also collected and used in similar fashion.”

The Japanese as Kaempfer saw them were, unless very rich, very poor: “The farmhouses are so wretched and small that they can be sketched with a few strokes. … There are few household goods, many children, and much poverty, but people live happily off a little rice and a lot of field and mountain roots.”

Who was very rich? The daimyo, represented along the Tokaido by vast processions, en route to obligatory periodic sojourns in Edo, where a perilously insecure shogunate could keep an eye on potential rebels. Most traffic was pedestrian. The lord, attended by up to 1,000 retainers — counselors, bodyguards, a ceremonial escort, servants, porters, quartermasters, scribes, cooks, grooms for the decorative and pack horses — traveled in a palanquin.

Who else would travel in a land where every movement was suspect and under official surveillance? Checkpoints were everywhere — the Tokaido bristled with 53 — and inspection of travel permits rigorous. There was a loophole, however — the pilgrimage. Degrees of religious devotion varied. Prayer at temple or shrine was its own reward, no doubt, but so was the journey itself, the pleasure of the open road, and in the Japanese pilgrimages of early modern times, we see the bud of the massive industry known today as tourism.

Kaempfer took it all in, reveling in the spectacle, finding much to admire. Japan’s peace, order and cleanliness, its cultivation of and respect for beauty, more than made up for its prison-warden approach to government in the eyes of a European whose native Germany had been wracked by decades of religious warfare.

“Our highway is well supplied with inns,” he wrote. “The best ones are found in those post stations that are so well furnished that even the important lords … stop here and occupy rooms.”

Each inn had a bathhouse, “for people in this country are used to bathing daily when traveling; the bath not only removes the sweat but also the tiredness of the limbs.”

Eating houses and roadside food stalls “are somewhat meager and wretched, because they belong to poor people who have to scrounge for food, but there is always something to attract the eye of the traveler. It might be a verdant courtyard with its flowering trees, a small decorative hill, running water, and so on.”

Beggars abounded. “Many (pilgrims) have to beg for their board and food along the way; because there are so many of them, travelers are constantly accosted, and this is a great nuisance for people going to the court, even though they approach with bare head and meek voice and say only once, ‘My dear lord, please give a pilgrim … a coin for his journey.'”

Among the pilgrims were vagrant children: “Yes, even unruly children who are to be punished for their misdeeds often run away from their parents to (the main Shinto shrine at) Ise, and when they return with a letter of indulgence they must be absolved from any punishment.”

What would a child feel, trudging alone in such a crowd, seeking “indulgence”? One imagines children streetwise in ways long lost to us, and yet fearful, too, in ways long lost to us. The ubiquitous prostitutes, each one “calling out to travelers and lovingly offering her warm fare” — for “every public inn on the island of Nippon (Honshu) is at the same time a public brothel” — might not be too disconcerting, but what of the public execution grounds along the roads? “Any transgression,” Kaempfer observes, “invariably results in the death sentence.” He was not altogether disapproving (as we shall see in next month’s column) — but what child could pass by without trembling?

And foxes. Foxes, too, were ubiquitous. They haunted humans, bewitched them. To them, too, we shall return next month.

Michael Hoffman’s book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is currently on sale.

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