Japanese Gilt Bronze Shoes

Japanese Gilt Bronze Shoes

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Ancient World History

The people were a clan-, or kinship- (uji), based society, where religion played an important part in controlling their lives, but during the Kofun period (the name given to the large key-shaped burial mounds of the time) powerful clan leaders and their families started to emerge as the stratifi cation of communities evolved within the late Yayoi culture. Small kingdoms were established, each ruled by a different clan.

The rulers at this time were mainly religious figureheads using the people’s faith to govern them. One of the most powerful was the Yamato clan, and after continual warfare among the different kingdoms a union of states developed—the Yamato state, under the rule of the Yamato clan.

In the fourth century c.e. the Yamato were situated in the rich agricultural region around the modern city of Kyoto. In the fifth century, when the Yamato court reached its peak, there was a shift in the power base to the provinces of Kawachi and Izumi (modern Osaka).

The emergence of such powerful clans is evidenced by the increased elaboration of their burial mounds in comparison with the Yayoi period. Burial sites in the Kofun period illustrated a segregating of the workers and elite of the community.

The burial mounds took on a new shape, a "keyhole" design, were larger in size, and were surrounded by moats. By the fifth century it was evident that the power of the Yamato clan had increased. These huge tombs represented the power of the Yamato aristocracy, holding swords, arrowheads, tools, armor, and all the signs of military might.

The burial mounds took on a new shape, a "keyhole" design

Only religious and ceremonial items had been placed in earlier burial mounds. As Yamato had increased the contact with mainland Asia, the items in the burial tombs reflected their power and influence. Besides the military items, there were such things as gilt bronze shoes and gold and silver ornaments.

The Yamato clan and its strongest allies formed the aristocracy of the Yamato state, occupying the most important positions in the court. A hereditary ruler headed the Yamato court, and because intermarriage within clans produced a large family network, there were constant struggles for power.

Believing that they were descendants of the sun goddess, the Yamato clan developed the notion of kingship and thus began the imperial dynasty. An emperor, based on the Chinese system, represented it. The first legendary emperor of Japan was Jimmu. The emperor, the supreme religious symbol of the state, had no real political power. The power base lay with the clan leaders, headed by a prime ministerstyle official.

These officials had very close ties with the ruler, showing the importance that was placed on the harmony between religion and the governing of the people. There was also economic and military support from the occupational groups within the court known as be.

Heavy military of Yamato clans

These groups consisted of rice farmers, weavers, potters, artisans, military armorers, and specialists in religious ceremonies. They were subordinate to the ruling families. One group of be were especially important to the ruling family as they consisted of highly skilled immigrants from mainland Asia, who specialized in iron working and raising horses.

The Yamato court became the unifying force in Japan. They began to limit the power of the lesser clan leaders and started to acquire agricultural lands to be controlled by a central body.

A bureaucratic ranking system was developed when the separate kingdoms were incorporated into the Yamato court, and the stronger clan leaders were given titles to reflect their status as regional chiefs. The two titles bestowed on the chiefs were muraji and omi.

The greatest of the chiefs lived at the court and as a collective ruled over the productive lands and hence the farming communities. This also gave them access to large resources of manpower to be used in such activities as burial mound building and also as conscripted troops for the military forays into the Korean Peninsula.

By the fourth century the Yamato court was developed enough to send envoys to mainland Asia, sometimes military, but mostly to gain knowledge of the political and cultural aspects of the far more advanced Chinese and Korean civilizations. They also procured supplies of iron resources said to be plentiful in the south of Korea.

By the end of the fourth and in the beginning of the fifth centuries the military were involved in the expansion of Yamato power throughout the Korean peninsula. At the same time Korea was going through cultural and political changes, with warring between the three kingdoms, Koguryo (north), Paekche (east), and Silla (west).

Alliances were made with the Paekche, against the Silla, with Yamato gaining some power in the region. However, in the sixth century Silla became more powerful militarily, causing Yamato to face power reversals in the region and forcing them to withdraw from the peninsula.

Paekche began to exchange knowledge and resources with the Yamato scribes, sword smiths, horsemen, and horses were introduced to the court. The Yamato court had a large number of mainland scholars brought over for their advanced knowledge and skills.

The Paekche court also sent a Confucian scholar, a Buddhist scholar, Buddhist scriptures, and an image of the Buddha. These scholars dramatically altered the fast-developing Japanese culture.

Scholars were sent to China to learn about their political and cultural ideals, and in the sixth or seventh century they were brought back to the Yamato court to establish a written system based on Chinese characters and the grounding for the establishment of a parliamentary system. Based on Chinese models of government, the Yamato court developed a central administrative and imperial court.

The sixth century saw the Soga clan’s rise to power. The Soga clan, which did not claim to be descended from the gods, had entrenched themselves in the Yamato court by establishing marital connections with the imperial family. As well as having administrative and fiscal skills, this allowed them considerable influence within the court structure.

They introduced fiscal policies based on Chinese systems and established the first treasury. They collected, stored, and paid for goods produced by employees. The Soga introduced to the court the idea that the Korean peninsula could be used as a trade route rather than for military conquest.

The powerful Soga clan was in favor of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, but in the beginning the Soga found opposition from other clans, such as the Nakatomi, who performed the Shinto rituals at the court, and the Mononabe, who wanted the military aspect of the court to be maintained and elevated in importance.

Conflicts arose between the clans, with Soga vowing to build a temple and encourage the spread of Buddhism as the main instrument of worship if successful in battle. They were successful, and there were several Buddhist temples built, and Buddhism became a strong religion in Japan. The Soga believed that the teachings of Buddhism would lead to a more peaceful and safe society.

The intermarriage of the Soga with the imperial family paved the way for Soga Umako (Soga Chieftain) to install his nephew as emperor, later assassinate him, and replace him with Empress Suiko. Unfortunately, Empress Suiko, was a puppet for Soga Umako and Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi. A system of 12 ranks was established, making it possible to elevate the status of officials based on merit rather than birth right.

Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi

Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi was a devout Buddhist and a scholar of Confucian principles. Under his instigation Confucian models of rank and etiquette were introduced, and he introduced the Chinese calendar. He built numerous Buddhist temples, had court chronicles written, and established diplomatic links with China.

However, with the deaths of Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi, Soga Umako, and Empress Suiko, there was a coup to gain succession to the imperial throne. The coup was led by Prince Naka and Nakatomi Kamatari, who introduced the Taika (Great Change) Reforms, which established the system of social, fiscal, and administrative codes based on the ritsuryo system of China.

The reforms were aimed at strengthening the emperor’s power over his subjects and not leaving the fi nal decisions to his cabinet. These reforms ushered in the decline of the Yamato court by lessening the control of the court clans over the agricultural lands and the occupational groups.

The reforms abolished the hereditary titles for the clan leaders and instead of them advising the emperor there would be ministries. The new order wanted to have control over all of Japan and make the people subjects of the throne. There were taxes placed on the harvests, and the country was divided into provinces headed by court-appointed governors.

List of National Treasures of Japan (archaeological materials)

The term "National Treasure" has been used in Japan to denote cultural properties since 1897. [1] The definition and the criteria have changed since the introduction of the term. These archaeological materials adhere to the current definition, and have been designated national treasures since the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties came into effect on June 9, 1951. The items are selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology based on their "especially high historical or artistic value". [2] [3] The list presents 48 materials or sets of materials from ancient to feudal Japan, spanning a period from about 4,500 BC to 1361 AD. The actual number of items is more than 48 because groups of related objects have been combined into single entries. Most of the items have been excavated from tombs, kofun, sutra mounds or other archaeological sites. The materials are housed in museums (30), temples (9), shrines (8) and a university (1) in 27 cities of Japan. The Tokyo National Museum houses the greatest number of archaeological national treasures, with 7 of the 48. [3]

The Japanese Paleolithic marks the beginning of human habitation in Japan. [4] It is generally accepted that human settlement did not occur before 38,000 BC, although some sources suggest the date to be as early as 50,000 BC. [5] Archaeological artifacts from the paleolithic era consist of stone tools of various types, indicative of a hunter-gatherer society. [4] [5] [6] [7] From about 14,000 to 8,000 BC, the society gradually transformed to one characterized by the creation of pottery used for storage, cooking, bone burial and possibly ceremonial purposes. [8] [9] [10] People continued to subsist on hunting, fishing and gathering, but evidence points to a gradual decrease in the nomadic lifestyle. [5] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] Potsherds of unornamented pottery from the oldest archaeological sites constitute some of the world's oldest pottery. [8] These are followed by linear-relief, punctated and nail-impressed pottery types. The first cord-marked pottery dates to 8,000 BC. [16] Cord-marked pottery required a technique of pressing twisted cords into the clay, or by rolling cord-wrapped sticks across the clay. The Japanese definition for the period of prehistory characterized by the use of pottery is Jōmon ( 縄文 , lit. cord-patterned) and refers to the entire period (c. 10,500 to 300 BC). [17] Pottery techniques reached their apogee during the Middle Jōmon period with the emergence of fire-flame pottery created by sculpting and carving coils of clay applied to vessel rims, resulting in a rugged appearance. [8] [10] [18] [19] A set of 57 items of fire-flame pottery, dating to around 4,500 BC, has been designated as the oldest National Treasure. Archaeologists consider that such pottery may have had a symbolic meaning or was used ceremonially. [18] Dogū—small clay figurines depicting humans and animals—can be dated to the earliest Jōmon period but their prevalence increased dramatically in the middle Jōmon. [20] Many of these depict women with exaggerated breasts and enlarged buttocks, considered to be a fertility symbol. [21] [22] [23] Five dogū from 3000 to 1000 BC have been designated as National Treasures.

The ensuing Yayoi period is characterized by great technological advances such as wet-rice agriculture or bronze and iron casting, which were introduced from the mainland. [8] [24] [25] Iron knives and axes, followed by bronze swords, spears and mirrors, were brought to Japan from Korea and China. [25] [26] Later all of these were produced locally. [27] The primary artistic artifacts, with the exception of Yayoi pottery, are bronze weapons, such as swords, halberds and dōtaku, ritual bells. [24] The bells were often discovered in groups on a hillside buried with the weapons. [28] They are 0.2 to 1.2 m (7.9 in to 3 ft 11.2 in) tall and often decorated with geometric designs such as horizontal bands, flowing water patterns or spirals. [24] [28] A few bells feature the earliest Japanese depiction of people and animals. [24] [29] In addition ornamental jewels were found. The weapons that have been excavated are flat and thin, suggesting a symbolic use. [24] Due to rusting, few iron objects have survived from this period. [26] Burial mounds in square, and later round, enclosures were common in the Yayoi period. The starting date of the Kofun period (c. 250–300 AD) is defined by the appearance of large-scale keyhole-shaped kofun mound tombs, thought to mark imperial burials. [27] [30] Typical burial goods include mirrors, beads, Sue ware, weapons and later horse gear. [30] One of the most well-known tombs, whose content of warrior-related items has been designated as National Treasure, is the late 6th century Fujinoki Tomb. [30] Mirrors, swords and curved jewels, which constitute the Imperial Regalia of Japan, appear as early as the middle Yayoi period, and are abundant in Kofun period tombs. [30] Characteristic of most kofun are haniwa clay terra cotta figures whose origin and purpose is unknown. [30] A haniwa of an armoured man has been designated as National Treasure and a 1st-century gold seal, designated a National Treasure, shows one of the earliest mentions of Japan or Wa. [31] [32]

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the mid–6th century Asuka period, and was officially adopted in the wake of the Battle of Shigisan in 587, after which Buddhist temples began to be constructed. [33] The new religion and customs fundamentally transformed Japanese society and the arts. [34] Funerary traditions such as cremation and the practice of placing epitaphs in graves were imported from China and Korea. Following the treatment of Buddhist relics, the cremated remains in a glass container were wrapped in a cloth and placed in an outer container. [35] Epitaphs, which recorded the lives of the deceased on silver or bronze rectangular strips, were particularly popular from the latter half of the 7th to the end of the 8th century (late Asuka and Nara period). Four epitaphs and a number of cinerary urns and reliquaries containing bones have been designated as National Treasures. [36] Other archaeological National Treasures from the Buddhist era include ritual items buried in the temple foundations of the Golden Halls of Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji in Nara. [37] According to an ancient Buddhist prophecy, the world would enter a dark period in 1051 consequently in the late Heian period the belief in the saving powers of Maitreya or Miroku, the Buddha to be, became widespread. Believers buried scriptures and images to gain merit and to prepare for the coming Buddha. [38] [39] This practice, which continued into the Kamakura period, required the transcription of sutras according to strict ritual protocols, their placement in protective reliquary containers and burial in the earth of sacred mountains, shrines or temples to await the future Buddha. [39] [40] The oldest known sutra mound is that of Fujiwara no Michinaga from 1007 on Mount Kinpu, who buried one lotus sutra and five other sutras that he had written in 998. [39] Its sutra container has been designated as National Treasure.

The first legendary emperor of Japan

The Yamato clan and its strongest allies formed the aristocracy of the Yamato state, occupying the most important positions in the court. A hereditary ruler headed the Yamato court, and because intermarriage within clans produced a large family network, there were constant struggles for power. Believing that they were descendants of the sun goddess, the Yamato clan developed the notion of kingship and thus began the imperial dynasty. An emperor, based on the Chinese system,
represented it. The first legendary emperor of Japan was Jimmu. The emperor, the supreme religious symbol of the state, had no real political power. The power base lay with the clan leaders, headed by a prime minister– style official. These officials had very close ties with the ruler, showing the importance that was placed on the harmony between religion and the governing of the people. There was also economic and military support from the occupational groups within the court known
as be. These groups consisted of rice farmers, weavers, potters, artisans, military armorers, and specialists in religious ceremonies. They were subordinate to the ruling families. One group of be were especially important to the ruling family as they consisted of highly skilled immigrants from mainland Asia, who specialized in iron working and raising horses.

Japanese Gilt Bronze Shoes - History

The Hidden Buddha of Zenkōji Temple
Zenkōji (Zenkoji) Temple 善光寺 in Nagano Prefecture

The central images at Zenkōji Temple 善光寺 are reportedly the first Buddhist images ever brought to Japan. They came from the 6th-century Korean Kingdom of Kudara (百済, aka Paekche, Paekje, Paikche, Baekje), and became secret images in +654 (not shown to the public). The occasion on which the Maedachi Honzon 前立本尊, a duplicate of the original main image, is taken out of the treasure house and displayed to the public in the Main Hall once every seven years is called the Gokaichō (Gokaicho) 御開帳. This temple has not belonged to any Buddhist sect and has been widely popular among all walks of people. It has been particularly famous for having accepted female pilgrims since old times. <Source: This Site>

Amida Triad, +552, 善光寺の阿弥陀三尊
Ikkō Sanzon Amida 一光三尊阿弥陀, Guilt Bronze

This Amida Triad is the main devotional object at Zenkōji Temple 善光寺 in Nagano Prefecture. It reportedly was made in India, then traveled to China, and was brought to Japan by Hata no Kosedayuu 秦巨勢大夫 in +552. The central Amida Nyorai statue is flanked by Kannon Bosatsu (who personifies compassion) and Seishi Bosatsu (who personifies wisdom).

Photo From This Web Site. Donald F. McCallum, Professor of Art History, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Avenue, 100 Dodd Hall, Los Angeles CA 90025-1417. This photo is the dust jacket to Zenkōji and Its Icon: A Study in Medieval Japanese Religious Art by Donald F. McCallum.

Says the Washington Post: People come to pass through the pitch-black hallway that houses the famous golden triad, which is known as the Ikkō (Ikko) Sanzon Amida Nyorai 一光三尊阿弥陀三尊 and is considered the first Buddhist image ever to enter Japan (it arrived from Korea in +552). The image is never shown to the public instead, visitors are requested to remove their shoes and descend a staircase into total darkness, then make their way down a twisted hallway with only the touch of their fingertips on the rough walls as a guide. The tunnel is beneath the altar that holds the triad, and there is a sense of near-total sensory deprivation as visitors make their way through blackness, hoping that their fingertips will brush the lock that graces the wall directly beneath the image. Those who touch the lock are said to be guaranteed a place in paradise. <end quote from Washington Post>

Says JAANUS: Zenkōji-shiki Amida Sanzonzō 善光寺式阿弥陀三尊像. Images of the Amida Triad 阿弥陀三尊 made in the style of the Amida trinity at Zenkōji (Zenkoji) Temple 善光寺 in Nagano prefecture. This triad is the principal devotional image at Zenkōji and is said to have originated in India. It then traveled to China, and was brought to Japan by Hata no Kosedayu (Kosedayū) 秦巨勢大夫 in +552. It is a triad of Amida Buddha with the attendants Kannon 観音 and Seishi Bosatsu 勢至菩薩 rendered in gilt bronze. The main figure and the two attendants are placed against the same nimbus (see Ikkō Sanzon 一光三尊 below). The standing Amida image is shown with the right hand raised and the left hand lowered in the position known as Token-in (Tōken-in) 刀剣印 or To-in (Tō-in) 刀印, where only the forefinger and middle finger are extended. The attendant figures wear ornamental crowns and have their hands folded across their chest. In the Fujiwara and Kamakura periods, Pure Land Buddhism, Jodokyo (Jōdokyō) 浄土教, spread in Japan and faith in the Amida Buddha became very widespread. A large number of imitations of the Zenkōji-jishiki Amida Sanzon were made, initially in the Kanto (Kantō) 関東 and Tohoku (Tōhoku) 東北 areas and later throughout the country. Many of these statues were made of bronze, and some were gold plated. There are also rare examples of wooden or iron statues. Although the size of the images varied, the central figure was most frequently around 30-cm in height. The Zenkōjishiki Amida Sanzon at Zenkōji Temple in Yamanashi Prefecture is the oldest signed example in Japan, bearing the date +1196 (Kenkyū 建久 7). <end JAANUS quote>

Ikkō (Ikko) Sanzon 一光三尊. Text courtesy JAANUS. A triad of Buddhist statues arranged in front of a large nimbus (Kōhai 光背), that framed all three statues from head to toe (Kyoshinkō 挙身光). The nimbus is usually in the shape of a lotus petal, and each attendant often also has its own head-halo (Zukō 頭光). This iconic type originated in China. The Shaka Triad, Shaka Sansonzō 釈迦三尊像 at Hōryūji Temple 法隆寺 is a typical Japanese example dating from the Asuka period. Amida Triads in the Zenkoji style (Zenkōjishiki Amida Sanzonzō 善光寺式阿弥陀三尊像) followed this form in later periods. <end JAANUS quote>

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The Way of the Shogun

Looking for the soul of modern Japan on an ancient road once traveled by poets and samurai

The forest trail I was hiking into the Kiso Mountains of Japan had the dreamlike beauty of an anime fantasy. Curtains of gentle rain, the tail-end of a typhoon in the South China Sea, were drifting across worn cobblestones that had been laid four centuries ago, swelling the river rushing below and waterfalls that burbled in dense bamboo groves. And yet, every hundred yards or so, a brass bell was hung with an alarming sign: “Ring Hard Against Bears.” Only a few hours earlier, I had been in Tokyo among futuristic skyscrapers bathed in pulsing neon. Now I had to worry about encounters with carnivorous beasts? It seemed wildly unlikely, but, then again, travelers have for centuries stayed on their toes in this fairytale landscape. A Japanese guidebook I was carrying, written in 1810, included dire warnings about supernatural threats: Solitary wayfarers met on remote trails might really be ghosts, or magical animals in human form. Beautiful women walking alone were particularly dangerous, it was thought, as they could be white foxes who would lure the unwary into disaster.

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A feudal procession sets out from the Nihonbashi in Edo in this 1833-34 woodblock print from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road” by Utagawa Hiroshige. (Public Domain)

Modern Japan seemed even more distant when I emerged from the woods into the hamlet of Otsumago. Not a soul could be seen in the only laneway. The carved wooden balconies of antique houses leaned protectively above, each one garlanded with chrysanthemums, persimmons and mandarin trees, and adorned with glowing lanterns. I identified my lodgings, the Maruya Inn, from a lacquered sign. It had first opened its doors in 1789, the year Europe was plunging into the French Revolution, harbinger of decades of chaos in the West. At the same time here in rural Japan—feudal, hermetic, entirely unique—an era of peace and prosperity was underway in a society as intricate as a mechanical clock, and this remote mountain hostelry was welcoming a daily parade of traveling samurai, scholars, poets and sightseers.

Early morning on an old stretch of the Kiso Road, part of the 340-mile Nakasendo highway, which connected Edo and Kyoto and has been in use since the 700s. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

There was no answer when I called in the door, so, taking off my shoes, I followed a corridor of lacquered wood to an open hearth, where a blackened iron kettle hung. At the top of creaking stairs were three simple guest rooms, each with springy woven mats underfoot, sliding paper-screen doors and futons. My 1810 guidebook offered travelers advice on settling in to lodging: After checking in, the author suggests, locate the bathroom, secure your bedroom door, then identify the exits in case of fire.

The only sign of the 21st century was the vending machine by the front doorway, its soft electric glow silhouetting cans of iced coffee, luridly colored fruit sodas and origami kits. And the antique aura was hardly broken when the owners, a young couple with a toddler and a puppy, emerged with a pot of green tea. Their elderly parents were the inn’s cooks, and soon we all gathered for a traditional country dinner of lake fish and wild mushrooms over soba (buckwheat noodles). Looking out through the shutters later that night, I saw the clouds part briefly to reveal a cascade of brilliant stars. It was the same timeless view seen by one of Japan’s many travel-loving poets, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), who had also hiked this route, known as the Nakasendo Road, and was inspired to compose a haiku:

The Hoshinoya Hotel in Tokyo is designed as a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, with tatami mats, rice-paper screens and hot spring baths. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

From 1600 to 1868, a secretive period under the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns, or military overlords, Japan would largely cut itself off from the rest of the world. Foreign traders were isolated like plague-bearers by law, a few uncouth, louse-ridden Dutch “barbarians” and Jesuits were permitted in the port of Nagasaki, but none was allowed beyond the town walls. Any Japanese who tried to leave was executed. A rich aura of mystery has hung over the era, with distorted visions filtering to the outside world that have endured until recently. “There used to be an image of Japan as an entirely rigid country, with the people locked in poverty under an oppressive military system,” says Andrew Gordon of Harvard University, author of A Modern History of Japan: from Tokugawa Times to the Present. But the 270-year-long time capsule is now regarded as more fluid and rich, he says. “A lot of the harshest feudal laws were not enforced. It was very lively socially and culturally, with a great deal of freedom and movement within the system.”

(Map by Steve Stankiewicz)

It was the Eastern version of the Pax Romana. The new era had begun dramatically in 1600, when centuries of civil wars between Japan’s 250-odd warlords came to an end with a cataclysmic battle on the mist-shrouded plains of Sekigahara. The visionary, icily cool general Tokugawa Ieyasu—a man described in James Clavell’s fictionalized account Shogun as being “as clever as a Machiavelli and as ruthless as Attila the Hun”—formally became shogun in 1603 and moved the seat of government from Kyoto, where the emperor resided as a figurehead, to Edo (now Toyko), thus giving the era its most common name, “the Edo period.” (Tokugawa is about to receive a renewed burst of fame next year on FX with a new adaptation of Clavell’s novel.) He immediately set about wiping out all bandits from the countryside and building a new communication system for his domain. From a bridge in front of his palace in Edo, the five highways (called the Tokaido, Nakasendo, Nikko Kaido, Oshu Kaido and Koshu Kaido) spread in a web across crescent-shaped Honshu, largest of Japan’s four main islands.

Expanding in many areas on ancient foot trails, the arteries were first constructed to secure Tokugawa’s power, allowing easy transit for officials and a way to monitor the populace. Although beautifully engineered and referred to as “highways,” the tree-lined paths, which were mostly of stone, were all designed for foot traffic, since wheeled transport was banned and only top-ranking samurai, the elite warrior class, were legally permitted to travel on horseback. An elaborate infrastructure was created along the routes, with carved road markers placed every ri, 2.44 miles, and 248 “post stations” constructed every five or six miles, each with a luxurious inn and a relay center for fresh porters. Travelers were forbidden to stray from the set routes and were issued wooden passports that would be examined at regular security checkpoints, kneeling in the sand before local magistrates while their luggage was searched for firearms.

First built in 1617, the elaborate Toshogu Shrine complex in Nikko includes the mausoleum believed to contain the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Edo period’s first shogun. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

Among the first beneficiaries of the highway system were the daimyo, feudal lords, who were required by the shogun to spend every second year with their entourages in Edo, creating regular spasms of traffic around the provinces. But the side effect was to usher in one of history’s golden ages of tourism. “The shoguns were not trying to promote leisure travel,” says Laura Nenzi, professor of history at the University of Tennessee and author of Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan. “But as a means of social control, the highway system backfired. It was so efficient that everyone could take advantage of it. By the late 1700s, Japan had a whole travel industry in place.” Japan was by then teeming with 30 million people, many of them highly cultured—the era also consolidated such quintessential arts as kabuki theater, jujutsu, haiku poetry and bonsai trees—and taking advantage of the economic good times, it became fashionable to hit the road. “Now is the time to visit all the celebrated places in the country,” the author Jippensha Ikku declared in 1802, “and fill our heads with what we have seen, so that when we become old and bald we will have something to talk about over the teacups.” Like the sophisticated British aristocrats on grand tours of Europe, these Japanese sightseers traveled first as a form of education, seeking out renowned historical sites, beloved shrines and scenery. They visited volcanic hot baths for their health. And they went on culinary tours, savoring specialties like yuba, tofu skin prepared by monks a dozen different ways in Nikko. “Every strata of society was on the road,” explains the scholar William Scott Wilson, who translated much of the poetry from the period now available in English. “Samurai, priests, prostitutes, kids out for a lark, and people who just wanted to get the hell out of town.”

The coastal highway from Kyoto to Edo, known as the Tokaido, could be comfortably traveled in 15 days and saw a constant stream of traffic. And on all five highways, the infrastructure expanded to cater to the travel craze, with the post stations attracting armies of souvenir vendors, fast-food cooks and professional guides, and sprouting inns that catered to every budget. While most were decent, some of the one-star lodgings were noisy and squalid, as described by one haiku:

Japan’s thriving publishing industry catered to the trend with the likes of my 1810 volume, Ryoko Yojinshu, roughly, Travel Tips (and published in a translation by Wilson as Afoot in Japan). Written by a little-known figure named Yasumi Roan, the guide offers 61 pieces of advice, plus “Instructional Poems” for beginners on the Japanese road, covering everything from etiquette to how to treat sore feet.

An open-hearth fireplace at a former honjin, an inn for elite government officials, in the post town of Ouchi-Juku. The entire village has been preserved to appear as it did in the Edo period. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

There were best-selling collections of haikus by celebrated poets who caught the travel bug, pioneered by Matsuo Basho (1644-94), who was wont to disappear for months at a time “roughing it,” begging and scribbling as he went. His shoestring classics include Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones and The Knapsack Notebook, both titles that Jack Kerouac might have chosen. Even famous artists hit the road, capturing postcard-like scenes of daily life at every stop—travelers enjoying hot baths, or being ferried across rivers by near-naked oarsmen—then binding them into souvenir volumes of polychrome woodblock prints with tourist-friendly titles like The Sixty Nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road or One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Many later filtered to Europe and the United States. The works of the master Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) were so highly regarded that they were copied by the young Vincent van Gogh and collected by Frank Lloyd Wright. For travelers, following the remains of the shogun age provides a tantalizing doorway into a world rarely seen by outsiders. The five ancient highways still exist. Like the pagan roads of Europe, most have been paved over, but a few isolated sections have survived, weaving through remote rural landscapes that have remained unchanged for centuries. They promise an immersion into a distant era that remains laden with romance—and a surprising key to understanding modern Japan.

My journey began as it did centuries ago, in Tokyo, a famously overwhelming megalopolis of 24-hour light and surging crowds. I felt as disoriented as a shipwrecked 18th-century European sailor as I rode speeding subways through the alien cityscape. “Japan is still very isolated from the rest of the world,” noted Pico Iyer, a resident for over 30 years and the author, most recently, of A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations, adding that it ranks 29th out of 30 countries in Asia for proficiency in English, below North Korea, Indonesia and Cambodia. “To me, it still seems more like another planet.” It was some comfort to recall that travelers have often felt lost in Edo, which by the 18th century was the world’s largest city, packed with theaters, markets and teeming red-light districts.

Luckily, the Japanese have a passion for history, with their television full of splendid period dramas and anime depictions of ancient stories, complete with passionate love affairs, betrayals, murder plots and seppuku, ritual suicides. To facilitate my own transition to the past, I checked into the Hoshinoya Hotel, a 17-story skyscraper sheathed in leaf-shaped latticework, creating a contemporary update of a traditional inn in the heart of the city. The automatic entrance doors were crafted from raw, knotted wood, and opened onto a lobby of polished cedar. Staff swapped my street shoes for cool slippers and secured them in bamboo lockers, then suggested I change into a kimono. The rooms were decorated with the classic mat floors, futons and paper screens to diffuse the city’s neon glow, and there was even a communal, open-air bathhouse on the skyscraper’s rooftop that uses thermal waters pumped from deep under Tokyo.

Stepping outside the doors, I navigated the ancient capital with an app called Oedo Konjaku Monogatari, “Tales From Edo Times Past.” It takes the street map of wherever the user is standing in Tokyo and shows how it looked in the 1800s, 1700s, then 1600s. Clutching my iPhone, I wove past the moat-lined Imperial Palace to the official starting point of the five Tokugawa-era highways, the Nihonbashi, “Japan Bridge.” First built in 1603, it was a favorite subject for artists, who loved the colorful throngs of travelers, merchants and fishmongers. The elegant wooden span was replaced in 1911 by a stolid granite bridge, and is now overshadowed by a very unpicturesque concrete expressway, although its “zero milestone” plaque is still used for all road measurements in Japan. To reimagine the original travel experience, I dashed to the cavernous Edo-Tokyo Museum, where the northern half of the original bridge has been recreated in 1:1 scale. Standing on the polished wooden crest, jostled by Japanese schoolkids, I recalled my guidebook’s 210-year-old advice: “On the first day of a journey, step out firmly but calmly, making sure that your footwear has adapted itself to your feet.” Straw sandals were the norm, so podiatry was a serious matter: The book includes a diagram on how to alleviate foot pain, and suggests a folk remedy, a mash of earthworms and mud, be applied to aching arches.

Of the five highways, the Nikko Kaido—road to Nikko—had special historical status. The serene mountain aerie 90 miles north of Edo was renowned for its scenery and ornate Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. One of the shrines, Toshogu, is traditionally held to house the remains of the all-conquering shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the dynasty. This balance of nature, history and art was so idyllic that a Japanese saying went, “Never say the word ‘beautiful’ until you have seen Nikko.” Later shoguns would travel there to venerate their ancestors in processions that dwarfed the Elizabethan progresses of Tudor England. Their samurai entourages could number in the thosands, the front of their heads shaven and carrying two swords on their left hip, one long, one short. These parades were a powerful martial spectacle, a river of colorful banners and uniforms, glittering spears and halberds, their numbers clogging up mountain passes for days and providing an economic bonanza for farmers along the route. They were led by heralds who would shout, “Down! Down!,” a warning for commoners to prostrate themselves and avert their eyes, lest samurai test the sharpness of their swords on their necks.

A carving of the Three Wise Monkeys on the sacred stable at the Nikko Toshogu Shrine complex. It is thought to be the first representation of the pictorial maxim. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

Today, travelers generally reach Nikko on the Tobu train, although it still has its storybook charm. At the station before boarding, I picked up a bento box lunch called “golden treasure,” inspired by an ancient legend of gold buried by a samurai family near the route. It included a tiny shovel to dig up “bullion”—flecks of boiled egg yolk hidden beneath layers of rice and vegetables. In Nikko itself, the shogun’s enomous temple complex still had military echoes: It had been taken over by a kendo tournament, where dozens of black-robed combatants were dueling with bamboo sticks while emitting blood-curdling shrieks. Their gladiatorial cries followed me around Japan’s most lavish shrine, now part of a Unesco World Heritage site, whose every inch has been carved and decorated. The most famous panel, located beneath eaves dripping with gilt, depicts the Three Wise Monkeys, the original of the maxim “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.”

As for the ancient highway, there were tantalizing glimpses. A 23-mile stretch to the west of Nikko is lined by 12,000 towering cryptomeria trees, or sugi, that were planted after the death of the first Tokugawa shogun, each nearly 400-year-old elder lovingly numbered and maintained by townsfolk. It’s the longest avenue of trees in the world, but only a short, serene stretch is kept free of cars. Another miraculous survivor is the restored post station of Ouchi-Juku, north of Nikko. Its unpaved main street is lined with whitewashed, thatch-roof strutures, some of which now contain teahouses where soba noodles are eaten with hook-shaped pieces of leek instead of spoons. Its most evocative structure is a honjin (now a museum), one of the luxurious ancient inns built for VIPs: Behind its ornate ceremonial entrance, travelers could luxuriate with private baths, soft bedding and skilled chefs preparing delicacies like steamed eel and fermented octopus in vinegar.

These were vivid connections to the past, but the shogun-era highway itself, I discovered, was gone. To follow one on foot, I would have to travel to more remote locales.

During the height of the travel boom, from the 1780s to the 1850s, discerning sightseers followed the advice of Confucius: “The man of humanity takes pleasure in the mountains.” And so did I, heading into the spine of Japan to find the last traces of the Nakasendo highway (“central mountain route”). Winding 340 miles from Edo to Kyoto, the trail was long and often rugged, with 69 post stations. Travelers had to brave high passes along trails that would coil in hairpin bends nicknamed dako, “snake crawl,” and cross rickety suspension bridges made of planks tied together by vines. But it was worth every effort for the magical scenery of its core stretch, the Kiso Valley, where 11 post stations were nestled among succulent forests, gorges and soaring peaks—all immortalized by the era’s intrepid poets, who identified, for example, the most sublime spots to watch the rising moon.

The historic village of Magome, the 43rd of 69 stations on the Nakasendo Road. (Getty Images)

Today, travelers can be thankful for the alpine terrain: Bypassed by train lines, two stretches of the Nakasendo Trail were left to quietly decay until the 1960s, when they were salvaged and restored to look much as they did in shogun days. They are hardly a secret but remain relatively little visited, due to the eccentric logistics. And so I set out to hike both sections over three days, hoping to engage with rural Japan in a manner that the haiku master Basho himself once advised: “Do not simply follow in the footsteps of the ancients,” he wrote to his fellow history-lovers “seek what they sought.”

It took two trains and a bus to get from Tokyo to the former post station of Magome, the southern gateway to the Kiso Valley. Edo-era travelers found it a seedy stopover: Sounding like cranky TripAdvisor reviewers today, one dismissed it as “miserable,” another as “provincial and loutish,” filled with cheap flophouses where the serving girls doubled as prostitutes. In modern Magome, framed by verdant peaks, sleepy streets have a few teahouses and souvenir stores that have been selling the same items for generations: lacquerware boxes, dried fish, mountain herbs and sake from local distilleries. My guidebook advised: “Do not drink too much. / Yet just a little from time to time / is good medicine.” Still, I ordered the ancient energy food for hikers, gohei, rice balls on skewers grilled in sweet chestnut sauce, and then I set off into a forest that was dripping from a summer downpour.

Fashion designer Jun Obara, at his shop in the post town of Tsumago, finds inspiration for his mod apparel in traditional Japanese designs and embroidery techniques. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

Once again, I had heeded the Ryoko Yojinshu’s advice for beginners: Pack light. (“You may think that you need to bring a lot of things, but in fact, they will only become troublesome.”) In Edo Japan, this did not mean stinting on art: The author’s list of essentials includes ink and brush for drawing and a journal for poems. For the refined sightseers, one of travel’s great pleasures was to compose their own haikus, inspired by the glimpse of a deer or the sight of falling autumn leaves, often in homage to long-dead poets they admired. Over the generations, the layers of literature became a tangible part of the landscape as locals engraved the most beloved verse on trailside rocks.

Some remain today, such as a haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902):

A modern sign I passed was almost as poetic: “When it sees trash, the mountain cries.” Wooden plaques identified sites with enigmatic names like The Male Waterfall and The Female Waterfall, or advised that I had reached a “lucky point” in numerology, 777 meters above sea level—“a powerful spot of the happiness.” Another identified a “baby bearing” tree: A newborn was once found there, and women travelers still boil the bark as a fertility tea.

But their impact paled beside the urgent yellow placards warning about bear attacks, accompanied by the brass bells that were placed every hundred yards or so. Far-fetched as it seemed, locals took the threat seriously: A store in Magome had displayed a map covered with red crosses to mark recent bear sightings, and every Japanese hiker I met wore a tinkling “bear bell” on their pack strap. It was some consolation to recall that wild animals were far more of a concern for hikers in the Edo period. My caution-filled guidebook warned that travelers should be on the lookout for wolves, wild pigs and poisonous snakes called mamushi, pit vipers. The author recommends striking the path with a bamboo staff to scare them off, or smearing the soles of your sandals with cow manure.

A half-hour later, a bamboo grove began to part near the trail ahead. I froze, half-expecting to be mauled by angry bears. Instead, a clan of snow monkeys appeared, swinging back and forth on the flexible stalks like trapeze artists. In fact, I soon found, the Japanese wilderness was close to Edenic. The only bugs I encountered were dragonflies and tiny spiders in webs garlanded with dew. The only vipers had been drowned by villagers in glass jars to make snake wine, a type of sake considered a delicacy. More often, the landscape seemed as elegantly arranged as a temple garden, allowing me to channel the nature-loving Edo poets, whose hearts soared at every step. “The Japanese still have the pantheistic belief that nature is filled with gods,” Iyer had told me. “Deities inhabit every stream and tree and blade of grass.”

As the trail zigzagged above the rushing Kiso River, I could finally imagine the ancient “road culture” in all its high theater. A traveler would pass teams of porters clad only in loincloths and groups of pilgrims wearing broad-rimmed straw hats adorned with symbols, sometimes lugging portable shrines on their backs. There were wealthy travelers being carried in palanquins, wooden boxes with pillows, decorations and fine silk curtains. (My guidebook suggests ginger tea for passengers who suffer from motion sickness.) One could meet slow processions of zattou, blind masseurs, and goze, women troubadours who played the samisen, a three-stringed lute, and trilled classical songs. There were monks who banged drums and tossed amulets to bemused passersby shaven-headed nuns country doctors in black jackets, lugging medicine boxes filled with potions. Near the post station of Tsumago, travelers would also encounter vendors selling fresh bear liver, a medicinal treat devoured to gain the animal’s strength.

A bronze pagoda at the Toshogu Shrine, traditionally held to be the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is reachable by steps through a cedar forest. (Hiroshi Okamoto)

Today, Tsumago is the crown jewel of post stations. During its restoration, electricity lines were buried, TV antennas removed and vending machines hidden. Cars cannot enter its narrow laneways during daylight hours, and its trees have been manicured. Even the mailman wears period dress.

The shogunate’s time capsule began to crack in 1853 with the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, who cruised into Edo Bay in a battleship and threatened bombardments if Japan did not open its doors to the West. In 1867, progressive samurai forced the last shogun to cede his powers, in theory, to the 122nd emperor, then only 16 years old, beginning a period that would become known as the Meiji Restoration (after “enlightened rule”). Paradoxically, many of the same men who had purportedly “restored” the ancient imperial institution of the Chrysanthemum Throne became the force behind modernizing Japan. The Westernization program that followed was a cataclysmic shift that would change Asian history.

The old highway systems had one last cameo in this operatic drama. In 1868, the newly coronated teen emperor traveled with 3,300 retainers from Kyoto to Edo along the coastal Tokaido road. He became the first emperor in recorded history to see the Pacific Ocean and Mount Fuji, and ordered his courtiers to compose a poem in their honor. But once he arrived, the young ruler made Edo his capital, with a new name he had recently chosen, Tokyo, and threw the country into the industrialization program that sealed the fate of the old road system. Not long after Japan’s first train line opened, in 1872, woodblock art began to have an elegiac air, depicting locomotives as they trundled past peasants in the rice fields. And yet the highways retained a ghostly grip on the country, shaping the routes of railways and freeways for generations to come. When the country’s first “bullet train” opened in 1964, it followed the route of the Tokaido. And in the latest sci-fi twist, the new maglev (magnetic levitation) superfast train will start operations from Tokyo to Osaka in 2045 —largely passing underground, through the central mountains, following a route shadowing the ancient Nakasendo highway.

As for me on the trail, jumping between centuries began to feel only natural. Hidden among the 18th-century facades of Tsumago, I discovered a tiny clothing store run by a puckish villager named Jun Obara, who proudly explained that he only worked with a colorful material inspired by “sashiko,” once used for the uniforms of Edo-era firefighters. (He explained that their coats were reversible—dull on the outside and luridly colored on the inside, so they could go straight from a fire to a festival.) I spent one night at an onsen, an inn attached to natural hot springs, just as foot-sore Edo-travelers did men and women today bathe separately, although still unashamedly naked, in square cedar tubs, watching the stars through waves of steam. And every meal was a message from the past, including one 15-course dinner that featured centuries-old specialties like otaguri—“boiled horse’s intestine mixed with miso sauce.”

But perhaps the most haunting connection occurred after I took a local train to Yabuhara to reach the second stretch of the trail and climbed to the 3,600-foot-high Torii Pass. At the summit stood a stone Shinto gate framed by chestnut trees. I climbed the worn stone steps to find an overgrown shrine filled with moss-coated sculptures—images of Buddhist deities and elderly sages in flowing robes who had once tended to the site, one wearing a red bib, considered a protection from demons. The shrine exuded ancient mystery. And yet, through a gap in the trees, was a timeless view of Mount Ontake, a sacred peak that Basho had once admired on the same spot:

By the time I returned to Tokyo, the layers of tradition and modernity no longer felt at odds in fact, the most striking thing was the sense of continuity with the ancient world. “Japan changes on the surface so as not to change on a deeper level,” Pico Iyer explained. “When I first moved to the country 30 years ago, I was surprised by how Western everything looked. But now I am more shocked at how ancient it is, how rooted its culture and beliefs still are in the eighth century.” This time, back at the Hoshinoya Hotel, I took the elevator straight to the rooftop baths to watch the night sky, which was framed by sleek walls as paper lanterns swayed in the summer breeze. Even though Tokyo’s electric glow engulfed the stars, the great wanderers of the Edo era might still manage to feel at home in modern Japan, I realized. As Basho wrote in the poetry collection Narrow Road to the Interior, “The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

About the Author: Photographer Hiroshi Okamoto is based in Tokyo. Read more articles from Hiroshi Okamoto and Follow on Twitter @hiroshiokamotoo About the Author: Tony Perrottet is a contributing writer for Smithsonian magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and WSJ Magazine, and the author of six books including ¡Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel and the Improbable Revolution that Changed World History,The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games and Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped. Follow him on Instagram @TonyPerrottet.
Read more articles from Tony Perrottet

The 1930s

Fashion Silhouette

The worship of excess and luxury, which was synonymous with the 1920s, came to an abrupt end with the stock market crash in October 1929. By 1930, when the Great Depression had taken hold of economies world-wide, hemlines were ankle-length, the natural waistline was restored, and femininity was in style again. “Softer, sculptural clothes now accentuated the contours of the female form … The Great Depression effectively froze the silhouette for the decade, because most women could not afford to update their wardrobe” (Clothing Through American History: 1900 to the Present).

Evening dresses made of bias-cut fabrics clung to the curves of the body, and gowns made of satin and with low-cut backs were popular. During the day, women wore form-fitting, knee-length suits. Shoulder pads, first used by Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, became the norm because they flattered the waistline. Fur stoles and collars as well as small hats embellished with feathers or floral details and worn at an angle were popular. Hair was worn longer but with curls at the nape of the neck.

By the 1920s, moving pictures had already become the most popular leisure activity in America. But Hollywood’s influence on fashion only increased during the Depression, when people regarded the movies as an escape from their problems. The movie industry, in turn, created a desire for the glamour and lifestyle of the rich portrayed on the big screen. Clothing retailers courted this influence by using photos of movie stars in their ads.

Costume Jewelry Styles

While many women could not afford to buy new clothes regularly, they could refresh and change the look of their outfits with accessories. Jewelry makers obliged by inventing new types of pieces. The dress clip became the most important jeweled accessory in the 1930s. Clips were often worn in pairs at the neckline or singly on jacket lapels, hats, purses and belts. Then the double-clip brooch was invented in France, for fine jewelry, and brought to America by Gaston Candas of Paris. He patented his invention in the U.S. in 1931 Coro bought the rights in 1933 and launched their first Duettes in 1935. This product was so successful that other companies started inventing their own devices for mounting separate clips on a single frame that could be worn as a brooch. The first double-clip brooches were designed with two pieces that were mirror images in the 1940s, these pieces became asymmetrical and more three-dimensional.

Also in the 1930s, the baskets of fruit and flowers (known as fruit salads or tutti frutti) marketed by Cartier and other fine jewelers produced a wave of imitations among costume jewelry makers. Companies such as Coro, Trifari and Boucher, among others, produced lines of costume jewelry made with molded glass that imitated the Indian-carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds. In addition to fruit salads, the Art Deco style evolved to include Far East-inspired motifs with materials that imitated coral, mother-of-pearl, and carved jade.

More whimsical, imaginative jewelry was produced in this decade. One reason for this trend was the influence of Surrealism on designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli. The other reason was the increased use of inexpensive, colorful plastics. “Bakelite was well-suited to the chunky, heavy jewelry styles of the ‘30s. It could be laminated into geometric shapes (polka dots were a popular motif), set with rhinestones, clad or inlaid with metal, carved on a lathe, made into the shapes of animals, fruits, or other realistic figurals … Bracelets of all types – solid and hinged bangles, link, elastic “stretchies,” cuffs, and charm bracelets – brooches, dress clips, shoe clips, buckles, earrings, rings, necklaces, beads, and pendants were all made from Bakelite” (Christie Romero).

During this decade, the Art Deco style continued to evolve and later became known as Art Moderne or Streamline Modern. This change was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus School in Germany (1919 – 1933). Following their teachings, a group of industrial designers wanted to strip away all surface decoration from products and apply the principle of streamlining – originally developed to make planes, trains and automobiles go faster – to the design of everyday objects. In architecture, sharp angles were replaced with simple, aerodynamic curves exotic woods and stone were replaced with concrete and glass. Other characteristics included a horizontal orientation to buildings as well as the extensive use of chrome hardware. This aesthetic was applied to costume jewelry, aided by innovative manufacturing techniques developed in Pforzheim, Germany, and later adopted by U.S. jewelry manufacturers. Among the makers of jewelry in this Machine Age style was Jakob Bengel.

Care and Maintenance of Gilt Objects

Gilt, or golden colored objects, can be beautiful and unique but also extremely fragile. They can last virtually forever or be damaged or destroyed in an instant. Totally impervious to light, chemicals, and time or wiped away with the briefest exposure to water. They are thoroughly understood by few and compromised by many.

Gilt objects are created by using various karats of gold leaf, metal leaf (primarily bronze), or various types of “gold” paint. They can be plated, water or oil gilded, and painted. Plating can be done using many methods from traditional ormoulu, using mercury and heat, to various electrically induced coatings. Water gilding uses water soluble animal based protein glues while oil gilding can be applied using everything from traditional primarily linseed oil based sizing to a variety of modern sizings that can consist of many different synthetic materials. “Gold” paint can be pigmented with easily tarnished bronze powder, non-tarnishing mica powders, or in extremely rare cases actual gold powder, that are mixed into virtually any type of clear coating.

I hope you are beginning to understand that gilt objects are not a homogenous or easily defined category. Not only are gilt objects made by using many different materials and methods, one object will often be gilt using a mix of more than one of these materials and methods interspersed and overlaid. On top of this, all of these different materials and methods are often damaged by completely different materials and type of exposures. Adding one more layer of complexity is that different gilt coatings will then be covered with a variety of protective clear coatings that can range from the now extremely rare traditional coating of water based animal protein glue sizing, to wax, to spirit varnishes such as shellac, to nitro-cellulose lacquers, to the extremely varied synthetic chemical based modern clear coatings.

Possible Damage Situations

  • Uncoated water gilded gold leaf will not tarnish and is impervious to most chemicals and ultra violet light exposure, but can be scratched by your fingernail and wiped away with one swipe of a water wet cloth.
  • A metal substrate oil gilded with gold leaf will be fairly stable under water exposure, but a gesso coated wood substrate oil gilded with gold leaf will not.
  • Uncoated bronze leaf and bronze pigmented paints can quickly begin to oxidize and tarnish and in the course of a fairly small amount of time go from a golden color to everything from dull brown to a fairly lurid green.
  • Water gilded gold leaf will often not be damaged by the most powerful and crude commercial paint stripper, while oil gilded gold leaf will be quickly damaged or completely destroyed.
  • About the only constant in gilt coatings is that due to their thinness they will be damaged by wear and friction.


These different materials and methods can also be used to achieve very similar looking finishes.

  • A 23kt gold leaf matte coating on gesso can be made to appear very much the same whether it was oil gilded or water gilded.
  • Bronze powder pigments and mica powder pigments can appear the same, especially when new.
  • When you see the patina of grime and exposure time can add, oil gilded bronze leaf coating can be very hard to differentiate from gold leaf coating.

All of this variety, susceptibility, and fragility means that I, as a professional gilder and gilding conservator, spend a great deal of time trying to repair gilt objects that have been improperly and poorly cleaned, stored, packed and transported. These various types of damage are caused by a variety of types of people from the object’s owners and cleaning staff, to very expensive and high profile moving companies, restorers, “artists”, and even other conservators.

Long before the invention of the steam engine or spinning wheels was a human invention that revolutionized ancient means of trade, transportation and warfare – horseshoes.

Indeed, the invention of the horseshoe came from necessity. Roughly the same time that humans discovered the domestication of horses, they immediately understood the need to protect the horse’s feet. The goal was to make the most out of their ride.

The earliest forms of horseshoes can be found as early as 400 BC. Materials used ranged from plants, rawhide and leather strap gears referred to as “hipposandals” by the Romans. In Ancient Asia, horsemen equipped their horses with shoes made out of woven plants. The shoes were not just for protection but also to soothe existing injuries the horse might have sustained in its activities.

In several parts of Northern Europe known for its cold and wet climate, horses found it difficult to get a toehold on the terrain. This gave birth to the craft of nailing metal shoes around the six and seventh centuries.

These pieces of archeological evidence found across the globe point out to the fact that ancient civilizations were aware of the need to equip their horses’ hooves with some kind of protective gear. These prototype foot gears became the precursor to the modern shoes used to protect equine hooves nowadays.

The invention of the horseshoe stemmed from working animals such as horses being exposed to harsh conditions on a daily basis that lead to breakage or excessive damage to their hooves. By providing sufficient protection from sharp objects in the ground and the constant stress of travelling hundreds of miles every day, horses became more useable for longer periods of time.

Another reason from which the invention of horseshoes turned into a pivotal moment in history is the fact that horses equipped with protective foot gear actually run faster compared to horses in the wild. For instance, aluminum horseshoes have actually been proven to lighten the weight of moving the horses’ feet. They protect the feet from breakage, and allow the horse to move a few seconds faster – which can spell the difference between winning and losing in a horse race event.

The history of horseshoes is a bit of a convoluted narrative as historians find it hard to agree on several accounts when horseshoeing first started. Cast iron horseshoes are particularly difficult to date, especially when such materials were usually repurposed to create weapons and other forms of metal craft.

This resulted in archeological findings becoming so scarce that the beginning of such practice became hard to prove. Even the history of horse domestication is a tricky subject. The ongoing consensus is that horses were first ridden around 3500 BC.

Around 2500 BC, war horses normally strapped on chariots were widely used in warfare, and horses had to be equipped with some form of protective foot gear made out of leather. At any rate, the practice of horseshoe-making became widespread during 1000 AD, mostly in Europe. The shoes were made from light bronze alloys characterized by a scalloped shape structure and six nail holes.

Over time, the scallop-shaped shoes gradually disappeared. Two nail holes were added into the design. This resulted in a wider and heavier structure. By the 14 th century, horseshoes became a common commodity. It began selling in large quantities in medieval Europe. Specialized shoes were designed for horses used in different situations such as trade, transportation, or war.

It was not until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution that horseshoe production reached its peak. The 1800s saw the emergence of machines capable of mass-producing horseshoes that gave a huge advantage in warfare. And by 1835, a horseshoe manufacturing machine was patented for the first time in the United States. The machine was capable of producing 60 shoes per hour.

During the American Civil War, horseshoe production turned out to be a significant advantage for the Northern armies’ victory as they acquired a horseshoe-producing machine. Horses properly equipped with protective gear preformed better in the battlefield compared to horses without shoes. This led to the defeat of the Southern forces in the 1860s.

By the early 1900s, equestrian horseshoes became a commercial success, owing to a stable market brought by the emergence of horse-riding as a sport. It was during the 1900 Olympic Games that equestrian was introduced to the world as a competitive sport. A new age dawned for horseshoes and horse use in general.

A wide range of materials have been used in horseshoes since then. But throughout modern history, equestrian horseshoes have been made largely out of steel and aluminum.

Horseshoes made out of steel have been found to be more durable and cheaper compared to aluminum shoes. With the emergence of equestrian as a sport, and horse racing came the need for equestrian horseshoes that were lighter. These allowed horses to move faster while providing enough protection from hoof breakage.

A recent study published on the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science observed horses wearing steel and aluminum shoes. The study pointed out that horses wearing steel shoes (with weight 2.5 times heavier than aluminum) generally demonstrated greater flexion on the lower leg joints as well as an improved animation at the trot. On the other hand, horses wearing aluminum horseshoes demonstrated lower knee action and hoof flight.

The significance of this finding lies in the fact that putting greater weight on the horses’ legs (through heavier horseshoe materials such as steel) results in higher flight arcs for the hoof and greater flexion.

This makes sense when horse use is considered – horses used in equestrian would be better off with aluminum horseshoes as the material allows for greater sweeping action. On the other hand, horses used in performance events would be better off wearing steel shoes. Nevertheless, the study was not able to prove that either type of shoe materials significantly affected stride length and suspension.

Indeed, the history of the horseshoe has come through great lengths. It demonstrates the scope of human ingenuity and proves that necessity is the mother of all invention.

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