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Fascinating story of inns in Japan

TOKYO — The mix of modern and traditional lifestyles in Japan is one of the most remarkable facets in the Japan experience — facets that incorporate some of the most sophisticated facilities and amenities in the world today with a lifestyle that is more than a thousand years old...and remains emotionally, intellectually and spiritually fulfilling to an amazing degree.

There are, in fact, many extraordinary things about Japan that the rest of the world generally knows nothing about. One of the most interesting of these things is the fact that Japan had the world’s first nationwide network of inns for travelers…a network that appeared virtually overnight in the late 1630s.

Furthermore, all of the inns in the network — altogether numbering over 6,000 ordinary inns and over 400 luxury inns — were located specific distances apart on all of the major roads in the country, at “post stations” which in effect were small villages or towns…most of them built around the newly constructed inns to provide a variety of other services for travelers.

This extraordinary phenomenon began in 1635 when the recently established Tokugawa Shogunate government in Edo (Tokyo) decreed that some 250 of the clan lords, whose fiefs were spread around the country, would spend every other year in Edo in attendance at the Shogun’s Court.

This security measure required that the clan lords maintain residences in Edo; that they keep their wives and children in Edo at all times; and that on their semi-annual treks to Edo they would be accompanied by a designated number of samurai warriors and attendants, based on the size and wealth of their domains.

The Maeda lord, the richest of the fief lords, maintained four mansions in Edo with a combined staff of 10,000 people, and on his trips to Edo brought an additional 1,000 warriors and attendants with him.

These extraordinary troops of lords, clan staff, samurai warriors and personal attendants were known as Daimyo Gyoretsu (die-m’yoh g’yoh-rate-sue), or "Processions of the Lords." The dates of their travel to and from Edo, the routes they took and when and where they stopped overnight were all fixed by the Shogunate.

When on the road the colorful, coordinated processions had the right of way. Ordinary people on the roads and in the villages and towns they passed through were required to get off of the road and bow down as the processions passed. Anyone failing to abide by these strict rules could be cut down by the lords’ samurai warriors.

This shogunate mandated system continued for some 240 years (until the1860s), and was a primary factor in the political, social and economic life of the Japanese for all those generations!

Keeping the inns supplied with staff, food, drink and other items to accommodate the lords and their entourages — plus the hundreds of thousands of other regular travelers (businesspeople, salesmen, sumo wrestlers, entertainers and gamblers) who quickly took advantage of the network of inns, and keeping the inns and post stations in repair, was second only to agricultural in the Japanese economy.

On just the Tokaido (toe-kie-doh), or "Eastern Sea Road," between Kyoto and Edo, there were 111 honjin (hoan-jeen), or luxury inns for the lords and other high-ranking guests, 68 waki-honjin (wah-kee-hoan-jeen), or semi-luxury inns for the next level of travelers, and 2,905 hatago (hah-tah-go) inns for ordinary travelers.

A few of these historic inns still exist, and hundreds of others have survived in a succession of reincarnations.

No one can say they have fully experienced Japan until they have spent several days and nights in a traditionally styled Japanese ryokan (rio-kahn), or inn — especially one in an area that is so scenic it is spellbinding.

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Editor's note: Boyé L. De Mente, who first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces, holds a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona. 

He is best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking. 

For a complete list of De Mente's books in print or online as digital editions, please go to Amazon.com. Learn more about the author's fascinating career at http://arts.searchbeat.com/boye.htm, and follow his personal news and reviews at http://boyedemente.blogspot.com.

I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for kindly allowing us to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.