The Tama river forms the southwestern geographical boundary of Musashi -- the prefecture where Edo is located. It is not a particularly large river, flowing down into Edo Bay from the mountains just to the west of the city. But here, near the coast, where the Tokaido crosses the river, it is far too wide and deep to cross on foot or on horseback. All of the people and goods passing up and down the great highway have to cross the river by ferry boat. Just ahead of us is the ferry landing at Rokugo-no-Watashi. As usual, there are dozens of ferry boats out on the river, carrying travelers and goods back and forth on their way to and from Edo.
The Tokaido is probably the busiest highway in the world. It is certainly a more important thouroughfare than any of the roads in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. This is confirmed by reports from Europeans who have visited Japan. For example, here is a comment from the Dutchman Engelbert Kampferer, who traveled along the Tokaido on his way to Edo, during an official trade visit in 1691:
"(In addition to) the great barons passing to and from Yedo, and escorted by trains of hundreds or even thousands of men . . . . the roads are always thronged by ordinary citizens on business or on pilgrimage at certain seasons to one of their numerous holy sites. . . It is scarce credible that even here (in the countryside), it is on most days more crowded than a public street in any of the most populous towns of Europe."
The Tokaido is one of three main roads that leads from Edo (the military and political capital of the country) to Kyoto (the religious and cultural center, where the Emperor lives). The other two highways -- the Kiso Kaido and the Nakasendo -- lead through the mountains, and are not as suitable for heavy traffic. Most of the traffic on the Kiso Kaido and the Nakasendo is by foot, though riders on horseback can manage to cover all but a few of the steepest mountain passes. By contrast, the traffic on the Tokaido is very heavy, with many riders on horseback, large groups of soldiers marching in columns, small groups of pilgrims on foot, and groups of wealthy samurai or merchants being carried in carriages.
Although there are not many steep mountain ranges to cross, one major barrier does interfere with traffic on the Tokaido -- the many broad rivers that flow down from the mountains and into the Pacific Ocean. Japan is a very mountainous country, and although the Tokaido runs along a flat plain near the coast, there are many rivers running down from the hills that need to be crossed. Since the rivers have their source in the steep mountain valleys, they are subject to frequent floods, especially during the rainy season (from early May to late June). Some of these rivers are shallow enough to cross on foot. At such river crossings, there are usually large settlements of porters, whose job is to transport people and goods from shore to shore. The people and their belongings are loaded onto platforms, and groups ranging from four to several dozen men carry the loads across to the opposite shore. The fare charged for transport across the river is fairly cheap -- just one or two small copper coins. However, the porters get a great deal of business, because there are so many people and goods that need to be carried across the rivers. Although the job of a river porter can be backbreaking and exhausing work, the pay is pretty good, and the porters usually need to form local kumi-ai (unions) to prevent competition.
While many of the rivers along the Tokaido can be forded on foot, a few, such as the Tama river, are too deep. Where the rivers are too deep or too swift to be crossed on foot, there are usually ferry boats to handle the traffic. Rokugo-no-Watashi is one of the busiest of these crossings, and the ferry boats do a brisk business carrying travelers and goods to and from the southern suburbs of Edo. There is a constant stream of travelers across the river, and the area has become a bustling center of activity. Small clusters of shops have sprung up on both river banks to serve the people waiting to cross. In addition to the large shops and inns along the road, food-sellers pass through the crowd or set up small stalls near the river, trying to sell refreshments and drinks.
On each shore is a boat landing, surrounded by a cluster of huts where the ferry workers and their families live. Most of the ferrymen are big, brawny men. Their arms and back muscles are large and tightly knotted from years of work carrying passengers to and fro across the river. They grasp the rudders in both hands and sweep them from side to side with great, powerful strokes. The ferrymen are organized into a kumi-ai. These business associations are very similar to the "Guilds" of midieval Europe. Members of the kumi-ai cooperate to maintain stable prices, preserve the market and prevent newcomers from entering the business. The association is also responsible for collecting a fixed portion of the tolls paid by passengers, which is paid as taxes to the Shogun. Similar types of business associations exist in nearly all industries, even among farmers who specialize in a certain type of produce.
Out on the river, the boat traffic is lively and continuous. There are many different types of boats in all shapes and sizes. The smaller boats which carry passengers from shore to shore are called watashi-bune -- these flat-bottomed boats are propelled by an oarsman in the stern using a broad rudder, or a long pole made of bamboo (depending on how deep the river is). These boats usually carry about a dozen people, along with their belongings.
There are also much larger boats that carry goods and livestock. These are known as takase-bune. Although they are quite a bit larger than the watashi-bune, they have a very shallow draft, which allows them to carry their cargo far up-river. The takase-bune also have sails, which can be used whenever the river is broad enough and the wind strong enough to make oars unnecessary. These ships can not only transport cargo from shore to shore; they can also carry the goods downriver into Edo Bay and along the coast to other ports.
Up ahead crowd of people of all ages and occupations are waiting in line for their turn to cross. There are samurai and monks, artisans and nobles, geisha and housewives, farmers and beggars. All of them except the official messengers of the shogun have to pay the same fare to ride across the river. Fortunately, the fares are not very expensive. In fact, the cost for all of the river crossings between Edo and Kyoto is only about as much money as an adult worker makes in a month. The low cost is one reason why many people, even from the lower classes, usually take a long trip to one of the important pilgrimage sites at leaast onece or twice in their lives.
It is our turn to get on board, so pay the ferry boat pilot and let's get going!
The ferry boat pilot takes a few copper coins as fare, then pushes off, and the boat moves swiftly towards the opposite shore. The river is deep and sluggish here, near the coast. In fact, at high tide the water barely moves at all. We are getting close to shore now. The opposite river bank is low and grassy, lined by willows and other large trees.There is an even bigger crowd of people waiting on this shore than there was back on the opposite shore. The town here is quite a bit larger, and the boat landing is busy and bustling with activity, because Edo -- the largest city in the world -- is only a few hours journey away!