One fact I have never been able to confirm about Japanese history, particularly about the Edo Period, was the prohibition of the use of wheels. In the book Gaijin, James Clavell writes about policies enacted by either Toyotomi Hideyoshi or Tokugawa Ieyasu. Included in the ban of guns and gunpowder, was a ban on people other than samurai from owning swords. What really interested me though was that to stunt progress, one of them (it isn’t clear who because it was a historical fiction novel and the characters were merged) prohibited the use of wheels. It would be really ironic, if it were true, seeing as Japan is now one of the leading automobile manufacturers in the world. Wheels are so important in Japan, from the carts the old ladies push to bicycles people take everywhere. Clavell writes that if any of the country folk wished to travel, they walked.
The walking part is totally true, however, as everyone I’ve asked has agreed, without contest. One of my history buff friends told me about how in the Edo Period, there was a domestic travel boom. Town people all contributed money to a town travel fund. They all paid the same amount of money, and every year 10 or 15 people were chosen to go on the trip. The delegation actually walked to that year’s travel destination. They then noted differences and stuff, reported what they saw to the other town peoples. Japanese people walked all over Japan. They made it from Kanto all the way to Kansai, and back, all on foot.
Even in a popular anime I watched, the Meiji Period characters walked the Tokaido. In those days, it must’ve taken days or even weeks – a trip that now takes a little over 3 hours by Shinkansen (新幹線, the high speed railways). But it really amazes me how, despite the abundance of escalators, elevators, walking escalators, bicycles, and other wheels, Japanese people still walk. Where I come from, people don’t really walk up escalators, we just stand on them.
My boss told me he walked his dogs an average of three hours a day. He walks through the city park, to another park, then half across town then back again. He said he loved walking because it was more beneficial to his health than any other sport. I have to admit that since I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been walking a lot more. Mostly out of necessity, though, since taxi fare is crazy expensive, and buses are hard to catch. I’ve walked through rainstorms and windstorms. I’ve walked all over Tokyo, and sometimes through little towns in the outskirts of Tokyo. Long distance walking is just so much a part of Japanese culture that anyone who lives in or visits Japan has to experience it.