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How Japan Invented the Travel Industry

It may be something of a surprise to most people that Japan was the first country in the world to have a nationwide network of roadside inns, and the first country in the world in which great numbers of ordinary people routinely traveled long distances on pleasure trips.

These two remarkable developments occurred because of a policy inaugurated in 1603 by Ieyasu Tokugawa who had emerged as the most powerful fief leader in the country after a series of battles against competing clan lords, and founded the Tokugawa Shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).

This new policy, known as Sankin Kotai (Sahn-keen Koh-tie), or “Alternate Attendance,” required that the leaders of all of the fiefs that had opposed Tokugawa keep their families in Edo at all times as hostages, and that the fief lords themselves spend every other year in Edo in attendance at the Shogun’s Court — a ploy designed to help prevent them from becoming a threat to the new government.

This decree specified how many retainerssamurai warriors, aides and servants — the Daimyo (Dime-yoh) or fief lords were required to bring with them to Edo on their semi-annual trips, based on the income of their fiefs –a strategy designed to cost them as much as 70 percent of their income and keep in them economically and militarily weak.

The trips of the lords and their entourages to and from Edo came to be known as Daimyo Gyoretsu (Dime-yoh G’yoh-rate-sue) or “Processions of the Lords.” The typical entourage ranged from 150 to 350 people. The richest of the lords, Maeda, was required to bring up to a thousand retainers with him.

The Sankin Kotai decree also designated which roads the fief lords would travel from and to their domains, and required that towns and villages along the various routes construct and staff suitable accommodations for the Daimyo and their retainers at intervals of one day’s march. Local residents were also required to maintain the roads in their vicinity and plant trees along them.

In 1637, Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun, dramatically expanded the scope of the Sankin Kotai system to cover over 260 of the some 300 fief lords in the country, making it one of the defining characteristics of the nation’s economy and social life.

The expansion of this extraordinary system of political and economic control required a major construction program that resulted in the already existing network of inns being extended throughout the main islands.

The Shogunate decree mandated three classes of inns:

Honjin (Hone-jeen), which can be translated as “Head Inns.” These inns, richly appointed in the style of the imperial mansions of Kyoto, were reserved for the lords and their personal aides.

Waki Honjin (Wah-kee Hone-jeen) or “Annex Head Inns.” These inns were only slightly less luxurious then the Honjin and were reserved for other ranking guests when the Honjin were full.

Hatago (Hah-tah-go), which were the equivalent of today’s Holiday Inns, and were reserved for the lord’s warriors and lower ranking staff and servants.

On just one road — the Tokaido (Toh-kigh-doh) or East Sea Road — which connected Kyoto to Edo, there were 93 Honjin, 102 Waki Honjin, and 1,812 Hatago inns. There were four other great roads leading to Edo that were also lined with inns.

Not only did the Sankin Kotai system result in the development of a highly sophisticated network of inns nationwide, it was also responsible for the development of the traditions of extraordinary service that are still characteristic of Japanese hotels and inns, and for the spread of a refined level of culture throughout the rural areas of Japan.

These truly remarkable “Processions of the Lords” continued to be a defining characteristic of Japanese life for more than 250 years — not ending until 1862.

Copyright © 2003 by

John Erskine Banta is General Manager & Director of Radisson Miyako Hotel Tokyo

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