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.