Hikyaku: the “flying legs” of early Japanese post delivery


In my May 21 column in The Japan Times, I wrote about hikyaku 飛脚, the “flying legs” couriers who moved letters and packages around Japan until the late 19th century when a modern postal system was created. The photo above, attributed to photographer Felice Beato , shows one of these colorful couriers, who ran on foot between postal stations.

In the article, I explained how to find hikyaku in woodblock prints, by knowing what to look for. Test yourself with this famous print by Hiroshige:


Yup. The loin cloth and box on the end of a pole are the giveaways. Here’s a detail, so you can get a good look at his get up. (This print is of Hiratsuka, from the Hoeido edition of ‘The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road.’)


There’s a pair of hikyaku in this lovely Hokusai print, from the 100 Views of Mount Fuji series. FYI, in 1696, it took 96 hours for a letter to go from Edo to Osaka. Express service took 82 hours, but with the right incentives delivery could be achieved in 56-60 hours.


Finally, here’s a photo of a Sagawa Express truck with corporate mascot Hikyaku-kun, who also got a good mention in my article.


If you’d like to try hefting one of those boxes, you can do so on the third floor of the Tei Park Communications Museum in Tokyo.

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1 Response to Hikyaku: the “flying legs” of early Japanese post delivery

  1. Great article today and thanks for posting these prints. The top one from Hiratsuka shows some history of Shonan. That is the Sagami river, which was very wide before they put in concrete, it shows mostly a land bridge with only a small bridge in the middle. That rounded hill is called Shonan Daira now and the mountains to the right are the start of the Tanzawa mountain range, and that’s Mt. Fuji in the back of course.


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