The lodging quarter of Shinagawa is a lively, energetic place that has a party atmosphere almost all the time. Naturally, the innkeepers and shopkeepers encourage this type of upbeat mood, since happy customers tend to spend more money. However, it doesnt take a lot of effort to create a gay atmosphere -- more than half of the people in Shinagawa at any given time are travellers, lodging at one of the many inns, and like vacationers anywhere, they want to enjoy themselves as much as possible.
Of the four juku near Edo , Shinagawa is probably the busiest. Not only is it located on the main highway from Kyoto to Edo; it also is a frequent stop-over for people traveling to the busy towns of Kamakura and Odawara, in Sagami province. The streets and shops crowded with people dressed in bright clothing, coming and going.
Along the sides of the roads, and particularly outside the large inns on the main street, you can see hundreds of empty kago (palaquins / carriages). These carriages are transported from place to place by two or four servants, who carry the kago on their shoulders. The nobility, high-ranking officials in the bakufu (the Shogun's government), rich merchants and even well-to-do farmers and craftsment typically travel by kago, even on short journeys. Merchants on business trips and daimyo returning to their homes in the provinces often ride the entire length of Japan on the shoulders of their servants.
Although people occasionally use wagons drawn by horses or oxen when traveling in town or taking trips to nearby locations in the countryside, they are not suitable for long road journeys because they are too hard to transport across the many rivers and over the steep hills and mountains that are a common feature of Japan's landscape. Therefore, there are really only three ways to travel by highway -- on foot, on horseback or by kago.
There are many different types of kago, which differ in quality and comfort. There are also strict rules on who may ride in what type of kago. The most elaborate carriages are reserved only for high officials and nobles, while lower-ranking members of the upper classes must settle for less comfortable ones. These rules -- like the rules that tell people what sort of kimono men can wear and how many retainers they are allowed to travel with -- serve to emphasize and enforce the class heirarchy in Edo Japan. Strict rules on dress, types of transportation and numbers of retainers ensure that people are never in doubt about where they stand, who is their superior and who is their inferior.
The building over there, with all the high-class kago parked outside the door, is one of the landmarks of Shinagawa. It is the official inn for top government officials -- the honjin. All juku towns have a wide range of different types of inns and hostels, varying in price, quality and service. The largest and most elaborate inns are the honjin and waki-honjin (official lodgings). These are reserved only for nobles and high-ranked Government officials. They are usually designed to accomodate only one party at a time, because important nobles never travel alone. Whenever they make an official journey, they are always accompanies by a large retinue. The party usually consists of the noble or official, a few family members, and anywhere from a dozen to a hundred retainers and guards.
To be sure of finding space at the honjin or waki-honjin, travelers usually send word ahead and reserve accomodations well in advance. It is the custom for the innkeepers to make a large wooden plaque with the family name of the guest painted on it. This is placed over the door of the inn, both to welcome the guest when they arrive, and to inform any nobles who arrive in town unannounced whether they are important enough to stay at the honjin or waki-honjin. If a higher-ranking person arrives in town unannounced, they can "pull rank", and force the scheduled guest to find a room elsewhere. This custom is also very practical for the townspeople, since it lets them know whenever a rich daimyo is coming to stay in town. Local merchants can put all their best products on display to prepare for the arrival of a large party of guests with plenty of money to spend.
Lesser government officials and rich commoners, who can not qualify to stay at the honjin or waki-honjin still have a wide selection of accomodations to choose from. Shinagawa, for example, has about 95 lodging-houses, or hatago, of varying sizes and quality. Most travelers are reasonably well-to-do (people who do not have any money to spare usually do not travel far from home). Therefore, the most common type of lodging is a large, multiple-story structure that offers a room and two meals -- dinner and breakfast -- for a standard price. Since the Japanese word for meal is "meshi", these inns are known as meshi-mori hatago (inns with meals added on).
The more expensive and high-class meshi-mori hatago have also adopted the custom of putting plaques with the guests' names over the door. It makes the visitors feel important, and also works a bit like a "no vacancy" sign. As long as the inn still has rooms available, it will keep a few plaques out front with no name on them. If all the plaques beside the door have names on them, travelers know that the inn has no vacancies.
Most meshi-mori hatago also maintain a staff of "entertainment" women, who supply different forms of "entertainment" for different prices. Since they work at the meshi-mori hatago, they are usually referred to as meshi-mori onna ("onna" means woman in Japanese). The money earned for their services help to keep the inns profitable. Although Shinagawa is not as gaudy as Yoshiwara -- the "entertainment quarter" of Edo -- some of the side streets nevertheless seem a bit like brothel districts. There are lots of young women in the streets trying to attract passers-by, and most of the inns have a full staff of beautiful hostesses to serve their guests dinner, chat with them, and possibly join them upstairs when it comes time to go to bed.
Although these women could be considered prostitutes, the entertainment they offer does not always involve sex. The meshi-mori onna are viewed by most of the people in Edo as entertainers and hostesses. Much of their work involves serving food to guests, or providing entertainment as singers or musicians in the main halls of the inns.
For poorer travelers, there are a number of smaller and cheaper inns that charge only a few copper coins for a night's stay. These inns are called kichin-yado, and typically they offer just a small room, or perhaps even just a mat in a shared room, where the guests can spend the night. These inns do not provide meals, but they do have a large common room where guests can cook the food that they brought with them. Lower-class people who travel by highway usually stay at these inns, and since it would be too heavy to carry all the food you need for a long journey, there is usually a local rice merchant who has a shop next door, or perhaps even in the kichin-yado itself, who will sell the travelers some rice and vegetables for their dinner.
Although the kichin-yado do not provide entertainment, such as you might find at the larger inns, they still tend to be very loud, boisterous places. All of the people staying at the inn sit together cooking their food and eating in the common room with the other travellers. They often sit up late into the night, eating and drinking, telling stories and exchanging the news and gossip from all over Japan. Finally, after partying late into the night, the travellers retire to their beds, refreshing themselves to continue their journey tomorrow morning