Diving into the Heart of Edo
Edo was the name of what is now Tokyo, and was the capital of Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868), the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was the last period of samurai governance. In many respects, Edo presents a contrast to Kyoto, the previous capital of Japan beginning in the late eighth century. While Kyoto represents a Japanese elegance influenced by its aristocratic history and government, Edo boasts an iki (sharp and chic) style originating in its samurai culture and mass culture, which particularly came alive during this time. Visiting commercial, hi-tech centers while shopping is one way to enjoy Tokyo, but it is also fun and enlightening to explore its history. Here are some spots that will immerse you in old Edo.
The Tokugawa Shogunate’s headquarters, Edo-jo (Castle of Edo), was located where the current Imperial Palace is situated. The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which used to be Edo-jo’s dungeon, is open to the public.
www.kunaicho.go.jp/event/higashigyoen/higashigyoen.html (Japanese only)
Zojoji––the family temple of the Tokugawa clan––is also accessible. Six of the fourteen shoguns rest here in this temple. It is particularly popular during cherry blossom season because of its stunning view with the iconic Tokyo Tower in the backdrop.
If time permits, you can extend your tour to Toshogu Temple in Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture, which enshrines Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shrines and temples of Nikko, including Toshogu, and its natural surroundings are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Already attracting many tourists from outside Japan, Sensoji Temple was the center of life for Edo’s inhabitants. After Edo became the capital of Japan, the population of Edo grew, and so did visitors to the Sensoji. The famous Nakamise, on the approach to the temple, is one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan.
If you are familiar with the revenge story of the Chushingura, aka the Forty-Seven Ronin (which really happened in the early eighteenth century), you might want to visit Sengakuji Temple near Shinagawa Station. This temple enshrines Lord Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku, and his 47 retainers (later ronin, or masterless samurai) who exacted revenge.
The tale of the Chushingura is one of the most popular plot lines for kabuki, a highly stylized traditional performing art that emerged and developed during the Edo period. After being closed for three years, the principal kabuki theater in Tokyo, the Kabuki-za, reopened in April 2013. Even if you cannot get a ticket to a show, it is worth looking at the Kabuki-za’s architecture and checking out the souvenirs in nearby stores.
www.kabuki-za.co.jp (Japanese only)
Kabuki-za reopened in April, 2013, after three years of renovations.
In case you don’t have enough time to explore the traditional side of Tokyo, just visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum near Ryogoku Station, which has a diorama of Edo and displays items from that period.
Food Culture in Edo
The city of Edo faced the ocean, and seafood was plentiful. Since the Bay of Edo was shallow, asari (short-neck clams), anago (salt-water eels), and cultured nori seaweed were harvested. It’s known that people in Edo enjoyed sushi, sashimi, and tempura, as well as soba noodles. Vendor carts serving these dishes were common in Edo.
Developed in the Edo Period, one of the main features of Edo-mae sushi is its preparation. Since there was no refrigeration back in those days, sushi chefs had to create ways of keeping fish fresh as long as possible (while still being tasty). Some of their solutions included marinating fish in sauce, curing it with vinegar, and blanching it.
Nigiri sushi, with anago, is usually garnished with a soy sauce base glaze.
Sukiyaki is a simmered, tabletop dish of thinly sliced beef, tofu, and vegetables in a sweet and savory sauce. It became popular at the end of the Edo period and was originally called gyunabe (literally “beef pot”) in Edo but sukiyaki in western Japan. The name sukiyaki comes from farmers in those days grilling fish and tofu on their suki (plows) on breaks from working. Iron pots are used for cooking present-day sukiyaki.
Japanese people traditionally did not have a habit of eating beef. Sukiyaki or gyunabe emerged at the end of the Edo Period.