The Flying Feet of the Hikyaku - Running Through History

Captivated as I was to learn about the runners with knotted cords who helped plot the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, I decided to delve into running's influence in other places and time periods.

These explorations led me to the blog of Matt Shores, a researcher on early modern Japanese literature, who has written about a class of people in 17th-19th century Japan known as the hikyaku -- literally "fleet feet" or "flying feet." These running messengers played a critical role in delivering items and messages, given that in Japan's mountainous terrain, other modes of transportation, like horses or carriages, weren't very practical.

The life of a hikyaku messenger was bare-bones and intense. Regardless of the season, they wore just a loincloth and hand-woven straw sandals, sometimes with cloth wrapped around their feet for a bit of cushioning. They had straw hats to deflect the rain and sometimes wore cloaks when the weather got really bad, but were otherwise running nearly naked almost all the time. Hikyaku ran in teams of two, so that if one was to be injured, the other could keep the message moving forward. They ran relay style, passing off whatever they were carrying to the next runners, in a box carried on the end of a bamboo pole.

I love the characters that comprise the word "hikyaku."  Matt Shores shared these on his website.

I love the characters that comprise the word "hikyaku." Matt Shores shared these on his website.

The hikyaku network developed because the Tokugawa shogunate (the feudal Japanese military government) had a need to send documents all over Japan, but civilian merchants soon used the hikyaku as well -- and for good reason: the service was incredibly efficient. The hikyaku could cover about 125 miles every 24 hours, making them more speedy than messenger systems of the time in Europe and the United States.

By the early 20th century, as a postal system developed in Japan, the hikyaku went by the wayside, but the fact that they served Japanese government and commerce for more than 300 years is a testament to the power of a network of fit people capable of covering long distances on foot.

If you're as captivated by the story of the hikyaku as I am, I encourage you to visit Matt's blog and read his whole article about the hikyaku system. He also shares additional drawings of hikyaku through the ages. Check it out!

Wishing you flying feet of your own, I'll see you on the trail!