Hot Springs Travel in Early Modern Japan


A review of Kinsei kôki ni okeru onsenchi e no tabi to taizai seikatsu ni kansuru kenkyû 近世後期における温泉地への旅と滞在生活に関する研究 (Travel to and long-term stays at hot springs in the late early modern period), by Uchida Aya 内田彩.

Readers of this corner of Dissertation Reviews will be familiar with the emergence in the past few decades of significant studies of the cultural, political, and economic history of travel in early modern Japan. Works such as Constantine Vaporis’s Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1994) have articulated the rich, political history of alternate attendance travel that supported the Tokugawa regime. More recent works, such as Laura Nenzi’s Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), have illuminated a more playful yet no less significant popular culture of travel in the Edo period. Within Japanese-language sources, a subfield of studies of early modern travel infrastructure has been growing since Kodama Kôta’s seminal Kinsei shukueki seido no kenkyû: Nakasendô Oiwake shuku o chûshin to shite 近世宿駅制度の研究―中山道追分宿を中心として(Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan, 1965). These studies, which include analyses of the print culture of early modern travel as well as of its infrastructure and logistics, have sought to uncover the hidden history of organized and commercialized leisure travel — what we might call “tourism” — in early modern Japan (see, for example, Imai Kingo’s Edo no tabi fûzoku: dôchûki o chûshin ni 江戸の旅風俗―道中記を中心に, Tokyo: Ôzorasha, 1997).

Within these studies, the history of leisure travel has been closely linked with that of pilgrimage. And for good reason: pilgrimage was one of only two allowable reasons for commoner travel. During the Edo period, hundreds of thousands of commoners embarked on pilgrimages to shrines and temples, both local and distant. In order to pass through the checkpoints set up by the Shogunate, a shrine, such as Ise, would often serve as the traveler’s official destination. In practice, however, commoners would tour a wide area to and from the designated shrine, visiting local sights along the way. It was from this “just for show” (tatemae) use of pilgrimage that the market and infrastructure for commoner travel emerged.

Yet, as Uchida Aya argues in her powerful “Travel to and long-term stays at hot springs in the late early modern period,” there was another reason that commoners traveled, one which demonstrates clearly the emergence of travel-as-leisure in the Edo period: hot springs. Medicinal travel to hot springs (tôji) was the second and only other acceptable reason for commoner travel. For this reason alone it merits sustained attention. But, as Uchida astutely demonstrates, hot springs travel was also an extraordinarily popular subject of literature and a leisure activity — as Roan Yasumi wrote in 1810, “The hot-spring cure is in full bloom (sakari nari) from royalty up high to commoners down low” (p. 223). Situating her story within the history of tourism, Uchida shows us how hot springs underwent a transformation in the late Edo period from sites of health care to “variety” and amusement destinations. She focuses on “long-stays” (chôki taizai). By the late Edo period, long-stays had become popular and common enough to have their own internal structure, which clearly marked the experience as a time apart from the demands of everyday life. Yet, as she carefully shows, the attraction of long-stays was not limited to the spa cure, as many people used hot springs as a base for travels around the region to other hot springs and to famous sights. This was particularly true in concentrated hot springs areas, such as Hakone. Overall, Uchida charts the path by which hot spring areas went from medicinal zones to leisure resorts, which offered a variety of amusements to those who could undertake a sojourn.

Chapter 1 lays out Uchida’s principal contribution to the literature on hot springs and Edo period travel. A medicinal visit to a hot spring was one of two recognized reasons for commoner travel in the Edo period. While previous studies have treated hot springs travel as simply a tatemae reason to leave home, Uchida argues that hot springs as such were increasingly popular destinations in the Edo period. For this reason, Uchida argues that it is appropriate to analyze hot springs travel as a kind of early modern tourism: hot springs travel was canonized and popularized, furthermore it was increasingly undertaken for amusement rather than health. The remainder of the chapter explores popular representations of hot springs, the most intriguing of which is her reconstruction of the spread of the local song “Arima bushi” to regions throughout Japan. Carried by word of mouth and by representation in popular diary accounts of travel to Arima hot springs, the spread of arima bushi demonstrates the popularization of knowledge about specific hot springs and their association with leisure.

Chapters 2 and 3 paint the big picture of the “leisurization” (yusanka) of Edo period hot springs travel. In Chapter 2, Uchida follows the trail of “hot springs information” (onsen jôhô). Using popular publications such as comedic books (kokkeibon), medical textbooks, and travel diaries, she shows that information about specific hot springs was widely circulating by the Bunka-Bunsei period (1804-1829). Moreover, the appearance of hot springs in comedic books during this period demonstrates that hot springs were seen as leisure sites. These books described in considerable detail a common pattern of “pleasures” (tanoshimi) that could be found in a long-stay hot springs visit such as the renting of shared rooms, cooking for oneself, and bathing in the hot springs.

[If cooking for oneself does not strike you as a “pleasure,” consider that cooking quickly became entangled with drinking, as in this dialogue from the 1827 A Ridiculous Arima Travelogue (Kokkeibon Arima kikô):

A: “Hey. Starting tonight we have to cook for ourselves, you know.”
B: “Huh. Well, if that’s the case, does that mean there’ll be no dinner?”
A: “Well, let’s do it after the sake. If we eat while drinking the sake will taste terrible anyway.” (p. 52)]

If travelogues represented the pleasure to be found in hot springs travel, the patterns and pathways of hot springs travel make even more clear the appeal of hot springs as sites of leisure in the nineteenth century. In Chapter 3, Uchida takes the analysis of the rise of amusement travel a step further by exploring how people traveled to and from hot springs. Reconstructing itineraries from travel diaries, Uchida argues persuasively that, while trips to hot springs for health and medicine were often used as tatemae for travel, hot springs were often only one stop on longer itineraries that included visits to area sights, tours of other hot springs, and visits to shrines and temples. “The going is work and the return is comfort,” as many a travel diarist recorded.

Chapter 4 focuses on the structure of one particularly popular kind of hot springs travel: long stays (chôki taizai). Here Uchida explores what commoners actually did: where did they stay, what did they buy, and how did they use the hot springs themselves? Through travel diaries, she uncovers the lifestyle of the long-stay hot springs, including instructions on how to bathe, floor plans for hotels (travelers often slept 7-8 to a room), and how travelers chose a hotel (usually by meeting a hawker on the way to the hot springs). Long-stay travelers were consumers of goods and services for pleasure (yûkyô). Hot springs areas catered to a wide variety of travelers to support their stays and to encourage their enjoyment of the hot springs areas. Of the travelers themselves, Uchida notes that they were men and women, young and old, the healthy and the infirm. There were also clearly defined “stages of life” at the hot springs. Time was marked by “turns”, or meguri, with one cure equaling three turns. Visitors went from being novices to accustomed bathers who welcomed new arrivals; to savoring the goodbye of one’s “bathing friend” (yuami no tomo) at their going away party; to being the one departing. In this way, while life at the hot springs differed from daily life, it had a recognized “rhythm” of its own.

Chapter 5 explores the touristic movements of long-stay hot springs travelers. Drawing on close readings of travelogues, Uchida identifies patterns in the itineraries and activities of late Edo period hot springs travelers. Uchida first distinguishes between two types of hot springs areas: areas with only one major hot springs (e.g., Arima), and areas where many hot springs are concentrated (e.g., Hakone). The concentrated hot springs areas offered travelers the chance to experience multiple hot springs on a single trip, which she calls “touring hot-spring cures” (meguri tôji). Providing examples from a variety of travelogues from the late Edo period, Uchida shows that travelers partook in two kinds of tours: day trips and lodging trips. Day trips involved traveling from the hot springs where one had been staying for many nights to spend a night or two at neighboring hot springs before returning to the main place of lodging. Travelers following the “lodging trips” pattern took long-stays at several hot springs in sequence. Within these two kinds of travel, Uchida argues that travelers mixed hot-spring cures and entertainment. Uchida uses travelogues to catalog the kinds of entertainment that the travelers pursued in addition to their hot-spring visits. These entertainments included outdoor activities, such as nature walks (shizen sansaku) and temple visits, and indoor activities, such as go and large parties (enkai).

Overall, Uchida argues convincingly that by the early nineteenth century, hot springs travel exhibited strikingly “touristic” characteristics: set patterns of movement, widely available prescriptive information and support infrastructure for long-term travelers, the appeal of a non-everyday experience, and liminality (i.e., relaxed social barriers). In uncovering these patterns, Uchida raises significant questions about the periodization of Japan’s travel history — in particular, she challenges the common assumption that organized and standardized leisure travel (what we generally refer to with the shorthand, “tourism”) began with the Meiji period. Beyond the question of periodization, however, Uchida’s dissertation offers an exciting, multifaceted analysis of the relationship between media culture, mobility, and historic practices of leisure that will be instructive for scholars of early modern and modern travel as well as those interested in the circulation of knowledge more generally. I look forward to the book that will no doubt result from this study and its further explorations of travel in early modern Japan.

Kate McDonald
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Primary Sources

Reprinted hot springs travel diaries, e.g.:
Arima nyûyu nyûyôki 有馬入湯入用記 (1866)
Arima no nikki 有馬日記 (1738)
Kusatsu shiki 草津私記 (1832)
Reprinted general travel guides, e.g.:
Ryokô yôshinshû 旅行用心集 (1810)

Dissertation Information

Rikkyô daigaku 立教大学. 2011. 249 pp. Dissertation originally written in Japanese. Primary advisor: Yasujima Hiroyuki 安島博幸.

Image: Scene of the public bath at the Arima hotsprings, in Settsu meisho zue 摂津名所図会(1796). Personal Collection of Aya Uchida.

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