We're taking a trip back to early 19th-century Japan and visiting Edo – modern-day Tokyo – as curator Alfred Haft reveals the unmissable sights, the cuisine you've got to try and the best places to stay in this historical travel guide.
Historical city travel guide: Edo (Tokyo), early 19th century
Edo in the early 1830s is a bustling city of more than a million people. It is by far the largest city in Japan, and, although few of its residents know it, one of the largest cities in the world. Founded as a fortified castle town in the late 1500s by the samurai general Tokugawa Ieyasu, during its more than 200 years of history, Edo has evolved into a diverse metropolis accommodating samurai administrators, farmers, artisans, tradesmen, and the wealthy merchants whose gleaming white storehouses line the Sumida River, the main river flowing north-south through the city.
The city stands on the southern edge of the vast Kantō Plain and fronts Edo Bay (Edo-mae). It has no natural defences, so a spiralling network of canals was constructed around the castle as a kind of protective moat. Today Edo has reached the height of its prosperity in a period of peace, and these waterways function as a transportation network delivering produce and manufactured goods from every region of Japan.
Aside from the castle, buildings in Edo rise no higher than two storeys, so from many neighbourhoods, but especially from the crests of hills and along the east-west canals, Mount Fuji is often visible low on the western horizon.
When to visit
Over the course of a year, Edo experiences the range of seasonal conditions that you might expect of a temperate climate – balmy springs, baking hot summers, mellow autumns and biting cold winters. Like the rest of Japan, Edo also has a summer rainy season (tsuyu) when, for around four weeks, rain is a constant, and everything stays at least damp if not entirely drenched. Try to avoid this time of year!
In the East Asian calendar, the months are numbered 1–3 for spring, 4–6 for summer, 7–9 for autumn, and 10–12 for winter. The calendar in use in the 1830s follows a lunar cycle that starts about a month later than the Western calendar. For example, New Year's Day is the first day of the first month but falls during the Western equivalent of February. Remembering this difference will help you to schedule around the rainy season in the 5th month (corresponding to June), and keep you from arriving at annual events (or your hotel) a month early.
Most visitors reach Edo on foot, travelling along one of the country's five major highways. The most famous is the Eastern Sea Road (Tōkaidō), which runs for 500 kilometres between Edo and Kyoto. It is among the best maintained highways in the world. Its 53 main stations and numerous intermediate stations are equipped with a variety of inns, restaurants and stables. Large cryptomeria trees planted at regular intervals provide shade, and wheeled vehicles are prohibited, so the road's surface is usually smooth.
Walking is the best way to get around the city. You will be able to move at your own pace and explore the sights or areas that interest you. High ranking samurai travel the city in ornate sedan chairs but Sedan chairs (kago), consisting of a cloth sling or a cushioned frame suspended from a pole, can be rented for excursions outside the city.
A number of Edo's sights are located along the Sumida River. The wide embankments on both sides are planted with cherry trees and make for pleasant walking, particularly on spring and summer evenings. Large wooden bridges cross the river at various points, and there are many ferries. You can also travel up and down river via water taxi (chōkibune), a small boat that carries around three passengers. Larger groups of six or seven people might consider hiring a covered pleasure boat (yakatabune) for the day or evening.
Things to see and do
Whether you are staying for several months or a few days, Edo has something to accommodate every taste and interest, ranging from Confucian study groups to the earthy entertainments available in the theatre and brothel districts. Some visitors may hope to catch a glimpse of life behind the walls of Edo Castle, but this heavily guarded compound is off-limits to the public. No matter, though, as there is plenty else to see. One place to start might be Asakusa Temple, formally called Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy (Kannon in Japanese, or Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit). The avenue between the main gate and the worship hall is a sight in itself, with stands and vendors offering religious amulets, local snacks, and popular souvenirs such as bamboo toothbrushes. The streets around the temple (okuyama) present a range of amusements, sideshows, curiosities, and restaurants.
For views of the city and Mount Fuji, try the balcony of the Sansō Hall (also called the Sazae or Sazai Hall) at the Temple of Five-hundred Arhats (Gohyaku-rakan-ji). One spiral staircase takes you to the top of this unique three-story building, and a different spiral staircase leads you down, so visitor traffic flows smoothly.
To find the latest in Edo fashion, head to the textile emporiums of Shirokiya and Echigoya, located in Tori-cho, one of the city's finest shopping districts, near Nihonbashi, Other places of interest include Nihonbashi's celebrated fish market; Susaki, at the southwest edge of the city, for worshipping the sunrise on New Year's Day; Ueno for cherry blossoms in springtime, although the less crowded Mt. Asuka and Mt. Goten have equally beautiful displays; and the areas surrounding Ryōgoku Bridge on both sides of the Sumida River, which are known for fine restaurants with views of the fireworks in summer.
Art and culture
If your interest is colour woodblock prints and the latest instalments of best-selling illustrated novels, visit the bookshops lining the last section of the Tōkaidō Highway as you enter the city, the neighbourhood of Shiba. Here you can browse the stacks of brightly coloured prints designed by artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada among many others. Their subjects range from landscapes and warriors, to Kabuki actors and high-ranking courtesans and their works are surprisingly cheap – you can pick up a nice print for the price of two bowls of noodles. The first few prints in Hokusai's hit series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji are now available, although some designs like Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Ed. later known as the Great Wave) are in such high demand, that examples from the first printing may already be scarce.
The residents of Japan's other large urban centres might disagree, but as far as the proud locals and many visitors are concerned, Edo is the entertainment capital of Japan. Even high-ranking samurai trained in the Confucian classics and burdened with the responsibilities of leadership cannot resist the pull of Edo's pleasure quarters.
The two most famous areas are Yoshiwara, the government-authorized brothel district where high-ranking courtesans charm their way into the purses of their wealthy clientele, and the theatre district, where the stars of the Kabuki theatre entertain the general public with historical dramas and scenes of contemporary romance. Kabuki performances start early in the morning and last for most of the day, with individual plays sometimes continuing for ten or more acts. The leading men (tachiyaku) and the men who specialise in women's roles (onnagata) have perfected their art over many years and sometimes over several generations. Celebrated performers include the leading actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VII and the onnagata Iwai Kumesaburō II (later Hanshirō VI).
For a more relaxed entertainment environment, head to the unlicensed pleasure districts, such as Fukagawa in the southeast corner of the city, where geisha (professional musicians and dancers) will perform their beguiling versions of popular ballads and tunes from the Kabuki theatre. Their instrument of choice is the three-stringed samisen, which has a twanging sound similar to a banjo. You will hear this instrument being played across the city, in both restaurants and private homes, as the daughters of wealthy merchants have also taken an interest in it, much to their parents' chagrin.
Where to stay
The immediate vicinity of Edo Castle and the hills to the west are occupied by large samurai estates. A wealthy daimyō might maintain two or more estates throughout the city. These serve as the permanent residence of his wife and children, who by law cannot leave Edo, barring exceptional circumstances. Low-ranking samurai on a year's tour-of-duty in Edo live in row houses near their lord. The rest of the population is packed into low-lying areas close to the Sumida River. One of Edo's main hotel districts is Naitō Shinjuku, the next-to-last station on the Kōshū Kaidō highway as you enter the city.
Food and drink
Edo cuisine (Edo ryōri) reflects the tastes of eastern Japan. It includes a high proportion of locally grown vegetables, such as Nerima radishes (daikon) and Japanese mustard spinach (komatsuna). An abundance of fresh fish reaches the city from Edo Bay, including red snapper (tai), flounder (hirame), bonito (katsuo), crayfish (ebi), and many varieties of small shellfish. A prized delicacy is the first bonito catch of the year (hatsu-gatsuo), enjoyed around the beginning of summer (East Asian 4th month, or May in the Western calendar).
A local specialty is fish stew made with freshwater pond loach (dojō). In the earliest known version of the dish, which may have originated in 1804 at a restaurant near Asakusa, the loach is cooked whole. In a more recent version called Yanagawa (or nuki-nabe), it is filleted along the belly but kept in one piece and cooked with burdock root, and then topped with beaten egg (tamago-toji). This recipe may have originated at a restaurant called Yanagawa sometime in the past decade or so, but other restaurants are also credited with creating it, and there are other explanations for the origin of the name. The stew may also be served over a bed of rice (maiko-don).
A local specialty is Edo sweet miso (Edo ama-miso). Miso's main ingredients are fermented rice paste (kōji) and soybeans, which may be combined in various proportions. People in western Japan generally prefer the sweet flavour of light-coloured miso, which has a relatively higher proportion of kōji. People in eastern Japan tend to prefer the stronger salty taste of dark-coloured miso, which has a relatively higher proportion of soybeans. Bright red Edo ama-miso takes its flavour mostly from soybeans, but contains less salt, and has a sweeter flavour due to its higher kōji content, compared with other types of eastern miso.
Other favourite foods include: Edo nori (a type of red seaweed), pickled vegetables (tsukemono), dark soy sauce (koi-kuchi shōyū), tofu, sweets made from melted syrup (often made and sold by street vendors), tempura, rice crackers (senbei), and different kinds of buckwheat noodles (soba).
Edo is a city of luxury dining. Superior restaurants line the riverbanks around Ryōgoku and populate the neighbourhood around Asakusa. Particularly famous is Yaozen (literally 'Yao quality' dining). When first established near Asakusa sometime around the late 1710s–early 1730s, Yaozen catered to local Buddhist priests, but their clientele has since greatly expanded and they have become known for fine cuisine in general.
Over the past decade or so, the fourth generation proprietor Kuriyama Zenshirō has cultivated a reputation as a man of cultural interests. He is so well-connected that his 1822 cookbook, All You Need to Know about Popular Cuisine in Edo (Edo ryūkō ryōri tsū), includes prefaces by the samurai poet and intellectual Ōta Nanpo and the calligrapher and Confucian scholar Kameda Bōsai, along with illustrations by the samurai artist Tani Bunchō and the popular artist Katsushika Hokusai. The second volume appeared in 1825, the third in 1829, and the fourth is expected in 1835, so if you take a fancy to the local cuisine, these are books to look out for.
For an alcoholic drink, it's usually rice wine (sake) which is served at most social occasions. Water is available for tea, but for health reasons, water is best consumed after being boiled.
Things to be aware of
There are a few things to look out for when wandering the streets of Edo. Samurai wear two swords, one long and one short, secured at the waist by a sash (obi). They are the only men allowed to wear two swords, and are therefore easy to recognize from a distance. If you are a samurai walking in the street and happen to encounter a superior, bow low until he passes. Everyone else should bow to every samurai.
Edo has many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines addressing a range of religious and spiritual needs, and each with a calendar of festivals and ceremonies. One of the largest temples is Kan'eiji, built northeast of Edo Castle along the crest of Ueno Hill as a defence against the evil forces that might attack the castle from the unlucky northeast direction.
An important pilgrimage destination is the Benten Shrine on the island of Enoshima, located off the coast southwest of Edo. The only female deity among the Seven Lucky Gods, Benten is associated with music, wisdom, and good fortune. She is also associated with water, and her shrines are often located on islands, or near rivers and waterfalls. She is worshipped in both Buddhist and Shinto contexts, and sometimes in a blending of the two – a feature of religion common at this time. The fresh sea-air along the coast makes a pleasant change from the hustle-and-bustle of Edo, and many visitors enjoy gathering seashells on Shichirigahama Beach opposite the island. A trip to Enoshima can be combined with a visit to see the ancient capital of Kamakura and its famous bronze Buddha, which sits stoically on a plinth, exposed to the elements.
Want to continue your voyage of discovery around Japan? The Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries cover from 5000 BC to the present day – go on a virtual visit and discover five highlight objects on our gallery page.
Check out more blogs and resources from the special exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, which ran from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022.
In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series:
- Nineveh, 7th century BC
- Rome, 1st century AD
- Athens, 5th century BC
- Thebes, 13th century BC
- Osaka, early 19th century