Museum stories
Historical city travel guide: Edo (Tokyo), early 19th century

Location

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.

A woodblock print of a map of Edo, shown from above. The network of canals rings the city.
Published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (1762–1835), map of Edo. Hanging scroll, woodblock print, 1785.

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.


Getting there
A woodblock print showing pedestrians and horse riders travelling along the Tokaido Highway. Trees line the road, with water either side. Mount Fuji is seen in the background.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), No 16 Yoshiwara, hidari Fuji (Yoshiwara: Fuji on the Left) from the series Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Highway. Colour woodblock print, 1833–1834.

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.


Getting around
A colour woodblock print of a sedan chair (kago) with a woven roof and a blue cushion on the chair.
Maruyama-Shijo School, empty sedan chair, (kago) under a full autumn moon. Surimono; colour woodblock print, 1856.

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 painted hanging scroll depicting two women beneath cherry trees by a river. The trees have pink blossom. A  townscape and mountain trail away into the distance.
Attributed to Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842–1894), two women under flowering cherry tree by the Sumida River, Senso-ji on far bank and Mt. Fuji in the distance. Hanging scroll painting, 1865–1894.

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.

A colour woodblock print of women in a pleasure boat on a river. In the background other boats travel down the waterway and buildings line the banks.
Eishosai Choki (1781–1813, c. active), a large pleasure barge, possibly belonging to Takashimaya tea-house carving its way through boats on the Sumida. Colour woodblock triptych print, c. 1781–1813.

Things to see and do
Asakusa Temple
A colour woodblock print showing Akasuka Temple in Japan. The building is seen within a heart-shaped cutout, and people flock through its gates
Torii Kiyonaga (17521815), Sensoji no seiran (Clearing Skies over Sensoji (Asakusa Temple)) from the series Edo hakkei (Eight Views of Edo). Colour woodblock print c. 1781.

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.

Sansō Hall
A colour woodblock print showing the Sanso Hall. Visitors walk along a winding path towards the hall that sits on high ground. People enjoy the view from the balcony.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Gohyaku Rakan Sazaido (The Five Hundred Rakan Nautilus Hall) from the series Toto Meisho (Famous Places of the Eastern Capital). Colour woodblock print, c. 1833–1838.

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.

Shopping
A colour woodblock print of a shopping street in Edo. People walk under parasols and men eat fruit from a stall on the right-hand side.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), No 44 Nihon-bashi-dori from the series Meisho Edo Hyakkei (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo). Colour woodblock print, 1858.

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
A page from a woodblock illustrated book showing print sellers along the Tokaido Highway. People stroll in the street and look at the prints for sale.
Multiple print artists, Maruyama-Shijo School, Tokaido meisho zue (Pictorial Guide to Famous Places on the Tokaido). Woodblock illustrated book, 1797.

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.

A colour woodblock print of Hokusai's 'Great Wave'. A huge wave arches over a tiny Mount Fuji in the background, and spray comes down over three boats that struggle in the swell.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) from the series Fugaku sanjūrokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji). Colour woodblock print, 1831.

Entertainment

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.

Two colour woodblock prints showing famous actors. On the left is  Ichikawa Danjūrō VII, depicted with long flowing hair and beard holding a branch in his teeth. He has red face make-up. On the right Iwai Kumesaburō II is depicted in women's clothes - with bows in his hair and elaborate clothes.
Left: Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Kan Shojo from the series Oatari kyogen. Woodblock print, 1814 . Right: Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Iwai Kumesaburō II as Yaoya Oshichi. Colour woodblock print, 1832.

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 specialize 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 VII).

A painted hanging scroll showing a group of young women (geishas) playing musical instruments (samisen), and sitting inside a well-furnished room.
Utagawa Kunihisa (active 1801–1818), group of geishas and young attendant playing musical instruments. Hanging scroll painting, 1801–1818.

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
A colour woodblock print showing horse's legs from a low angle, with people in the background walking along a row of buildings on the Kōshū Kaidō highway.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), No 86, Yotsuya Naito Shinjuku from the series Meisho Edo Hyakkei (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo). Colour woodblock print, 1857.

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 ryōri
A colour woodblock print of a blue and silver fish, possibly katsuo, bonito or skipjack tuna with sprigs of saxifage and a poem inscribed above.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Kachoga genre – large fish, katsuo, bonito or skipjack tuna with sprigs of creeping saxifrage, with poems. Colour woodblock print, c. 1832.

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).

Dojō

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).

Miso

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 delicacies

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).

Fine dining

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.

A page from a woodblock illustrated cooking book showing a leafy vegetable and Japanese text.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), (Edo ryuko) Ryori tsu. Woodblock illustrated book, published 1822, 1825, 1835.

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.

Drinks

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.


Local customs
Things to be aware of
A colour woodblock print of a male samurai. He wears elaborate clothes with spotted textiles, and wears two swords. His hair is tied back and he is making a fierce expression.
Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Yuranosuke. Colour woodblock print, 1815.

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.

Religion
A painted handscroll depicting visitors to a shrine. A colourfully dressed group of visitors walk through a building into the gardens behind.
Attributed to a follower of Sumiyoshi Gukei (1631–1705), scenes of cherry-blossom viewing in spring in Ueno, from Hirokoji (south) to Sanno shrine (north). Handscroll painting, 1716–1736.

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.

A colour woodblock print (triptych) showing a beach scene where people are relaxing and sitting on the sand. In the background, a green island rises out of the sea and a mountain looms in the distance.
Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), travellers at Enoshima: Collection of elegantly dressed pilgrim travellers waiting at tea-stall at Katase Beach. Colour woodblock print, c. 1788–1789.

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.