Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Travel books were popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867). During this time common people lived very restricted lives, and one of the few forms of entertainment that allowed freedom was travel. Additionally, all people were expected to make the pilgrimage to Ise at least once in their lifetime, and therefore they had a pious excuse for enjoying the freedom of travel and release from their daily routines. As a consequence, guidebooks were numerous. Such guidebooks commonly provided travelers with directions for travel and also included information on local history. They informed the traveler of local craft products and food specialties at every stop along the way. Unusual local customs were also explained.

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Jippensha Ikku adds to this guidebook format the element of farcical humor. He does this in several ways. In Hizakurige, which has also been translated as Shanks’ Mare, his most common technique is the device of having the supposedly sophisticated Edoites traveling through the countryside, showing they know nothing of the local customs. Never willing to admit their ignorance, they always end up making a mess of things and embarrassing themselves.

An example of this ignorance of local customs is found in the bath scene at Odawara. Seeing the wooden board floating on top of the bath, Yaji supposes this is a lid to keep the water warm. He does not realize he is supposed to stand on it to protect his feet from the hot bottom of the tub. Instead he finds a pair of toilet clogs to wear into the bath. That he would wear such filthy clogs in water people will bathe in is revolting. When Kita, wearing the clogs, breaks the bottom out of the bath, everyone realizes what a disgusting thing he has done, and he ends up having to pay for the ruined bathtub.

Sometimes it is not ignorance that leads them into embarrassing situations but foolishness. At one point, when Yaji is spending the night with a geisha, he is embarrassed by the fact that he is wearing soiled underwear. Not wanting her to see this, he secretly tosses his underwear out the window into the darkness. The next morning as they leave the geisha house, there is his soiled loincloth hanging from a tree in the garden for everyone to see. Not willing to ignore this, the geisha makes the gardener retrieve the item and return it to Yaji.

Some readers used to the more formal traditions of Japanese literature may be surprised at the scatological obsessions Ikku displays in this work, but there is a long and rich tradition of such humor in Japanese folk literature and art. For the reader who tires of the coarse and ribald humor of the situations in which the travelers find themselves, the author also provides a demonstration of his excellent ear and his flair for capturing colloquial language. Yaji and Kita carry on a continuous humorous dialogue laced with puns, word plays, and literary allusions, while the author contrasts their colloquial language, typical of Edo, with that of rustics from the provinces and with that of the people from the west of the country. He includes the spoken language of all classes of people.

The novel is also an encyclopedia of customs, beliefs, lore, and history of the areas visited. The material may be presented humorously and irreverently, but it is nonetheless informative. Readers laugh when Yaji buys a wooden box at Hakone Pass and pays more than it is worth simply because a pretty young woman is selling it, but those boxes of inlaid wood are still the traditional specialty product of that area.

Structurally, Hizakurige is episodic and picaresque. Each episode is essentially independent of the others. There is little attempt to use one encounter to build on another. For its humor, information, and witty banter, however, Hizakurige was an enormously popular work. Between 1802 and 1809 the author wrote the parts dealing with the trip from Edo through Ise to Kyoto and Osaka. At first he took the travelers only as far as Hakone, but readers demanded more so he continued to write about the entire length of the Tokaido highway. In 1810 he took them on a further journey to make a pilgrimage to the island of Shikoku, and in 1811 they traveled to Miyajima. Between 1812 and 1822 they journeyed along the Kisokaido, another major highway that passes through the mountains of central Japan. In 1814 he added an introduction to the whole that provides some background about his heroes.

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