Travelling in Japan

The Japanese have a long tradition of travelling and consequently there are many places to spend a night away from home. On the one end of the scale is the inner-city business hotel, where the only way to unpack your suitcase is to put it on the bed, as the room is barely big enough for you to stand in, and where the only way to shut out the sound of the never-sleeping city is to listen to the air conditioner all night. On the other end of the scale is the rural ryokan with traditional tatami rooms where you are served local foods after you have had a relaxing soak in the onsen and where the maid comes to unroll your futon in the evening. Here, nothing seems to have changed for hundreds of years. The descriptions of the inns in the travel diaries of the Dutch, made during their trips from the trading post in Nagasaki to the capital Edo in the 17th and 18th centuries, could be included in modern travel guides without much alterations. Those same Dutch also mention the Japanese travel guides, dōchūki, which they already used to their advantage. Apart from mentioning the local sights and inns, these were especially valued because they explaining the local cuisine. For whatever the variety of reasons to travel, tasting local food was always one of them.

Here are a few extracts from the travel diary of Engelbert Kaempfer, who visited Japan in the late 17th century:

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. I have personally witnessed this on the Tōkaidō, described earlier, apparently the most important of the seven highways, having travelled this road four times. The reason for these crowds is partly the large population of the various provinces and partly that the Japanese travel more than other people. Here I will introduce the most memorable groups of travellers one meets daily on these roads.

After a description of the procession of a territorial Lord, and what will happen if two of these processions happen to meet each other, Kaempfer goes on to describe various types of pilgrims and beggars, including

Pilgrims to Ise,

When on pilgrimage to Ise - which takes place throughout the year but especially in spring - people have to use a stretch of this great road, regardless of what province they come. So it is crowded with such travellers during the said seasons as people of both sexes, old and young, rich and poor, embark on this meritorious journey and act of devotion, attempting to the best of their ability to make their way on foot. [] There are also a number of slippery customers who pretend that they are on this pilgrimage, and as long as they are doing well spend most of the year on the road begging.


Here and there one finds so-called junrei, that is, those who visit the thirty-three most important Kannon temples throughout the country. They drift around in twos or threes and at each house sing a pitiful Kannon tine; occasionally they also play a fiddle or zither not unlike the vagrants in Germany, but they do not approach travellers for alms.

and naked, shorn, Kannon, silent as well as common beggars, besides yamabushi or mountain priests, priests reading prayers and lastly, with a good eye for detail Kaempfer describes the

prostitutes of large and small inns and roadside tea and food stalls in villages and stalls on the large island of Nippon.

Of course, Kaempfer also has much to say about the delicate food he eats in all the different inns he visits.

David van Ooijen

Quotations are taken from:
Kaempfer’s Japan by Engelbert Kaempfer, edited by Beatrice M. Bodart-Baily (Hawai’i Press, 1999).

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