nihonbashi winter ukiyoe

What does Nihonbashi mean?

日本橋
Nihonbashi

(Japan Bridge, more at “the Bridge to Japan”)

Map of Nihonbashi-ku
Former Nihonbashi Ward. What started as a mere bridge became a collection of cramped and bustling commercial neighborhoods synonymous with Edo’s shitamachi culture.

日本橋 Nihonbashi means “the bridge to Japan,” indicating the terminus of the Five Great Highways which connected Edo with the provinces. The formal name of the bridge was 江戸日本橋 Edo Nihonbashi, and you can find this name in art, literature, and historical records of the Edo Period. The bridge spans a section of 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River known as 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa the Nihonbashi River, a manmade channel integrated into the moat system of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle.

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji

日本
Nihon
, Nippon
Japan;
literally, “source of the sun”

hashi
, –bashi
bridge

As you can see, the etymology of this place name is pretty straight forward.

By the way, there like 50 footnotes in this article. Feel free to use them. If you’re new to JapanThis!, you can click this one as a test[i].

Why Call it the Bridge to Japan?

When 德川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s most powerful warlords, came to 江戸 Edo in 1590, there was no canal here. There was a decrepit fortification with some decent moats and a small collection of fishing villages to support the fort’s need for food and other useful materials. He immediately began transforming his residence into a state-of-the-art Muromachi Period-style castle and also began consolidating the villages into a proper 城下町 jōkamachi castletown (literally, town/s under the castle).

Everyone knows that Ieyasu became the de factō ruler of Japan in 1600[ii]. However, officially he was only the lord of the Eight Kantō Provinces[iii] at that time. Then, in 1603, everything changed. The 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto granted him the hereditary title of 将軍 shōgun, thus making him the supreme samurai overlord of all Japan. Edo was no longer a mere regional power on the rise, but the new military and political capital of the country. Accordingly, Ieyasu expanded the moat system of his castle again[iv] adding an unnamed channel that would soon become the Nihonbashi River. This created a need for a major bridge. It was made of 欅 keyaki zelkova and 檜 hinoki cypress, and spanned 51 meters (167 feet) in length. The width was about eight meters (26 feet) which meant it was legally “two streets wide[v].” This accommodated two-way traffic necessary for such a busy commercial center[vi].

Reconstructed Bridge at the Edo-Tokyo Museum
Faithful recreation of Nihonbashi as it looked in 1829 at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Many highways had passed through or near Edo since ancient times, most importantly 東海道 Tōkaidō the so-called “Eastern Sea Route”[vii] which now linked the shōgun’s capital with the imperial capital. As a result, Ieyasu decreed that this bridge be the starting point for the five highways in and out of the city. The bridge was, quite literally, the bridge to all of Japan.

While Nihonbashi the bridge and the neighborhood it came to represent originally were in the center of the city in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu had no idea that 150 years after his death, Edo would be one of the largest cities in the world – with a population of at least a million inhabitants. Even 100 years after his death, Nihonbashi would no longer be the literal center of the capital, but it was definitely the one of the symbolic and cultural centers of Edo’s vibrant 下町 shitamachi low city[viii]. Although it was nearly on the doorstep of the castle, it was a manmade island – a self-contained city within the city.

Kosatsuba noticeboard on the Old Tokaido Road, Edo, Nihonbashi.
One of the major kosatsuba of Edo was this one located in Nihonbashi. Note that it’s propped up on a stone base. This must have sucked for people with bad eyesight – remember no glasses back then.

In its humble beginnings as a literal, moated island of commoners, the first shōgun chose this as the spot for his gold and silver mints. The silver mint would soon move to present-day 銀座 Ginza, but far more important to him was 金座 Kinza the gold guild. Furthermore, because of this island’s proximity to Edo Bay, the newly built network of channels and moats, and the castle of the shogun himself, it was the perfect place to establish a fishing concession to feed the city. Travelers, upon arriving in Nihonbashi via the highway system would see a giant 高札場 kōsatsuba[ix], a signboard which listed the laws and penalties unique to the capital[x].

Things will change as time goes on, so please remember that. In the beginning, Nihonbashi, the Bridge to Japan, represented a noticeboard of regulations for travelers, a gold mint for currency, and a fish market. Soon thereafter, it became home to one of Edo’s first entertainment districts, later shopping and dining. If Edo as a whole was a castletown on steroids, Nihonbashi was its new commoner town not to be outdone anywhere in the realm[xi]. Though it was home to the gold mint, it was most famous for its fish market which stood for 300 years! Furthermore, a lot of foods we associate with Edo, like sushi, eel, soba, and tempura became famous in Nihonbashi. Let’s take a look at the neighborhood’s various aspects one by one, shall we?

Further Reading:

Online it says this photo is Nihonbashi, but I think this is Edobashi or Aramebashi.
Check it out! Three ghosts in the boat!!!

The Kinza

Everyone knows Ginza, but few know its classier, older brother, Kinza. The names mean silver guild and gold guild, respectively. You can read about Ginza in my classy article here.

In 1595, Tokugawa Ieyasu sanctioned the creation of a gold monopoly for the Eight Kantō Province that he controlled from Edo. He was primarily interested in assuring consistent quality and value in gold coins minted under his authority. The gold guild was a kind of regulatory agency and sourcing/mining management collective that also oversaw goldsmithing, inspection, and approval of all coins and other goldworks within Tokugawa-controlled lands. Because this was one of the highest value commodities in Japan at the time, Ieyasu established this guild and all its facilities on a newly created island surrounded by moats right next to his castle. Initially, he commissioned the famed gold-master and appraiser 後藤庄三郎 Gotō Shōzaburō from Kyōto to organize the Edo Kinza. Except for a brief period of scandal, Shōzaburō’s descendants were the hereditary overseers and inspectors of the Kinza on behalf of the Tokugawa Shōgunate until the government’s collapse in 1868.

Koban (gold coin)
Gold coin (koban) from the early Edo Period.

In 1698, during the reign of the 5th shōgun 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (yeah, the “Dog Shōgun”), major restrictions were placed on the minting of gold coins in order to prevent counterfeiting and the size of the Kinza was reduced. In fact, only the actual Gotō office could produce these coins and other craftsmen had to find new jobs or were reassigned[xii]. Furthermore, in 1765, the work of minting smaller denominations of coins was shared with (and in some cases completely offloaded onto) the Ginza (silver guild). In 1810, due to shoddy work, the shōgunate ordered the Gotō family head to step down and appoint a new family head. They never regained the good graces of the shōgunate and were reprimanded again in 1845. In the 1850-60’s foreign coins of exotic designs, faster production methods, and much more consistent metallic-makeup began filtering into Japan. Because the gold minting techniques were so closely guarded, the shōgunate had no choice but to retain the Gotō clan, but by now they functioned in a very diminished capacity and the shōgunate had little faith in them.

Bank of Japan
Bank of Japan, located on the site of the former Kinza

When the shōgunate collapsed in 1868, the new Meiji Government continued to work with them, as it worked with most infrastructure-related agencies until it could decide what to do with them. However, in February of 1869, the new imperial government abolished the Kinza and Ginza because foreign governments were complaining that Japanese coins were not consistent in their metallic content and therefore worthless for international trade. This gave the newly created 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan an opportunity to completely modernize the minting of coins and bring it up to international standards.

Today, you can find the headquarters of 日本銀行 Nihon Ginkō the Bank of Japan[xiii] on the site of the Edo Period Kinza main office. It’s a solid piece of Meiji Period brick architecture.

Meiji Period coins
Meiji Period coins

Why isn’t Kinza Famous?

So, everyone knows Ginza. Even people who haven’t been to Ginza, know Ginza. But very few people know Kinza. While writing this article, I asked three native Tōkyōites if they knew Kinza. All three said, “no.”[xiv]

Well, if you read my article about Ginza, I think it’s clear why the nickname Ginza stuck. It was a popular area that was famous for shopping and even if people couldn’t afford silver goods, they good peruse the shops and watch craftsmen ply their trades. It was an exciting area and silver was everywhere. Gold, on the other hand, was too precious to just put on display. The shōgunate was paranoid of counterfeiting and didn’t trust the families that were tasked with guarding such secrets. They constantly reduced the size of the gold guild and so Nihonbashi wasn’t widely known for gold or gold minting in the public imagination. It was overshadowed by the neighborhood’s myriad other charms[xv].

Further Reading:

Nihonbashi Fishmarket
Nihonbashi fish market. In its final days, they say it was the dirtiest and stinkiest part of Tokyo. On the bottom left, you can see goods displayed on an itabune plank.

The Nihonbashi Fish Market

In Nihonbashi, the two things that overshadowed the Kinza in the early years of the Tokugawa Shōgunate were the pleasure quarters, its surrounding entertainment districts, and the fish market. The fish market, known as 日本橋魚河岸 Nihonbashi Uogashi, was the most enduring of these so I’d like to focus on it first.

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu granted the fishermen on 佃島 Tsukuda-jima Tsukuda Island[xvi] a concession to supply Edo Castle with fish. By this decree, after delivering the best fish of their daily catches to Edo Castle (including certain associated daimyō palaces), they were allowed to sell off their surplus to the general populace. This prestigious arrangement made the fishing families of the island the pre-eminent fish wholesalers in the city. In 1603, when Nihonbashi and its river were created, the fishermen had an easy way to transport fresh seafood directly from 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay to the castle via the connected moat system. They established the Uogashi on the river bank, just northeast of the bridge, and other local fishermen also set up shop there, eventually taking over the entire area from Nihonbashi to 江戸橋 Edobashi Edo Bridge.

Nihonbashi Fish Market in the Meiji Period
Nihonbashi Fish Market in the Meiji Period. The bridge on the left is Edobashi. Notice the western style frontage on the river.

By the early 1700’s – just a hundred years into the Edo Period – there were more than 500 seafood wholesalers, brokers, and distributors, making Nihonbashi Uogashi one of, if not the, largest fish market in the world at the time[xvii]. Written descriptions, woodblock prints, and Bakumatsu Era photographs show us that this was a lively place. Sellers displayed fish and related goods on special wooden planks called 板舟 itabune “timber boats” laid out in storefronts. You can still see these in very traditional fish markets today[xviii]. Shop owners with the best locations rented out their itabune to smaller operators who could get in on the action when they had a particularly good catch. This cooperation fostered critical relationships between fishermen and merchants, beneficial to both.

Fish Market after the 1923 Earfquake
Nihonbashi Fish Market after the Great Kanto Earfquake

The Nihonbashi Fish Market lasted for more than 300 years until it was destroyed in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. When people think of “Tōkyō” and “fish market,” the first place that usually comes to mind is 築地市場 Tsukiji Shijō the Tsukiji Fish Market. However, that location was only in operation from 1935 to 2018 (a mere 93 years!) and now everything’s been moved to the tourist-friendly 豊洲市場 Toyosu Shijō the Toyosu Market (only two years old at the writing of this article)[xix].

Edomae Sushi
Edomae Sushi

Edomae Sushi & Edomae Unagi

江戸前 Edomae, literally “in front of Edo” is a word that most sushi-lovers know. The popular meaning today is “Tōkyō-style.” However, Edomae originally referred to the ocean and inlets directly in front of Edo Castle. By the Edo Period, this term was strongly associated with the Nihonbashi Fishmarket and its surrounding 寿司屋 sushi-ya sushi shops which had developed a new style of sushi unique to the capital, 江戸前寿司 Edomae-zushi Edomae sushi[xx]. Some maps from the late 1800’s describe the waters of the entire bay, all the way to the western coasts of modern Chiba Prefecture as “Edomae.”[xxi] Because the best fresh fish was abundant and readily available, 鮨屋台 sushi-yatai sushi stands[xxii] popped up everywhere. A customer would order their favorite fish and, presto! The chef would make it right there for you on the spot. There were no chopsticks involved (you used your hands[xxiii]) and there was no sitting (standing at the counter only). It was the birth of fast food in Japan.

Red Snapper (Tai)

Tai – Red Snapper for the Rich

In the Edo Period, the most prized catch pulled from Edo Bay[xxiv] was 鯛 tai red snapper, and especially 真鯛 madai “true tai” (Pagrus major), which I think is just a larger, redder snapper[xxv]. The best specimens of these expensive fish were sent directly to Edo Castle and the daimyō palaces incorporated into its environs. Because of the cultural influence of Ancient China, most Asian countries view red as an auspicious color[xxvi] and so if tai is available there, it’s the rich person’s go-to fish[xxvii]. In fact, in Japanese, there’s even a play on words regarding tai. The sound /tai/ occurs in the Japanese word めでたい medetai which means “happy,” “joyous,” or “lucky” so the words medetai and tai are closely linked. But I want to emphasize the fact that tai was an extravagant fish that only the wealthy could afford to regularly. The poor could usually only get it on special occasions.

Unagi

Unagi – Eels for Everyone

Another fish that was highly prized in Edo and on sale to commoners of means in Nihonbashi was 鰻 unagi eel (Anguilla japonica) which used to be plentiful in the estuaries of the Edo Sea[xxviii]. The restaurants and fishmongers in Nihonbashi innovated a particular way to cook it. First, they would cut off the head of a live eel, make a difficult slit down the back of the fish[xxix], skewer it, grill it with salt, steam it, baste it with sauce, then grill it again (sometimes basting a second time for good measure).

The flavor is rich and complex, unlike the subtle taste of Kyōto and Ōsaka which Edoites derisively called うすい味 usui aji thin or diluted flavor. Locals were soooo particular about this dish[xxx], that traditional comedic story tellers[xxxi] still recount tales of people complaining when their unagi wasn’t up to par. Two funny terms that got thrown around were 場違い鰻 bachigai unagi “an out-of-place unagi” (ie; the eel isn’t Edomae-quality) or 送り鰻 okuri unagi “a send-it-back-to-wherever-the-hell-it-came-from eel” (again, because it’s not Edomae-quality). For the cheapest, worst tasting ones, Edoites reserved the hilariously insulting moniker 江戸後鰻 Edoushiro unagi. This is another play on words. It’s not Edomae (“in front of Edo”), it’s Edoushiro (“behind Edo”). I literally had to take a break from writing because I couldn’t stop giggling from this one. Edoushiro… I’m dying! 😂😂😂

Further Reading:

Sarashina Soba
Sarashina soba is a specialty of Nagano, but a few high-end soba shops served it in Edo and still serve it in Tokyo.

Soba Becomes Famous

Because of all the fresh seafood available at the Nihonbashi Fish Market, and possibly because of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s purported love of the dish, another culinary specialty that became famous in Edo was 天ぷら tenpura tempura. But more important than that was 蕎麦 soba buckwheat (noodles), a fast food that came to rival Edomae sushi. Later, the fate of these two delicious foods would become inextricably linked.

In 1614, roughly 10 years after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, a monk named 慈性 Jishō from 尊勝院 Sonshō-in Sonshō Temple in Kyōto[xxxii] came to Edo to meet with the monks of 東光院 Tōkō-in Tōkō Temple in Nihonbashi[xxxiii]. This was a very ordinary thing to do. Both temples were of the Tendai Sect and sending monks around to ensure doctrines were being taught correctly was normal. Jishō kept a diary of his activities in Edo which included a very curious entry. One day, he and some other monks from Tōkō-in went to visit a public bath, but it was too crowded. His Edo colleagues suggested that they return to the temple for lunch to try one of their specialties, soba noodles. Buckwheat itself wasn’t particularly unusual, but buckwheat noodles? – that was a new one for Jishō. This is the first known account of soba noodles in Edo.

Because of the Buddhist prohibition against eating meat, soba was a delicious and easy dish that first became popular among monks in Edo. While tradition says the habit of eating these noodles spread among temples and shrines before becoming popular with the common people, we’re pretty sure soba noodles, as we know them today, originated in 信濃国 Shinano no Kuni Shinano Province[xxxiv] and had made their way to Edo by 1603 when daimyō from that region established permanent palaces in Edo as an act of loyalty to Tokugawa Ieyasu. This is why, even today, the Tōkyō style of soba is almost identical to the Shinshū style of Nagano[xxxv]. In fact, there are a number of shops that have been operating since the Edo Period founded by families brought in from Shinano specifically to make soba because the daimyō and samurai from that area thought the Edoites hadn’t quite nailed it[xxxvi].

Edo Period portable soba stand
Portable soba stand in Edo.

We think the first soba shop in Edo was 信濃屋 Shinano-ya in Nihonbashi’s 瀬戸物町 Setomono-chō[xxxvii], established in the 1660’s. This makes me think that soba didn’t really go mainstream until the early 1700’s. But still, nearly 200 years in an age before mass media and when neighborhoods were relatively self-contained by law is a pretty decent amount of time for Edoites to claim this dish as part of their local identity. Soba and sushi became the go-to fast food options for busy people who could afford to eat out.

Kake Soba
Basic kake soba. It’s common to put tempura on top of this dish.

About the same time soba started catching on, another shop called Shinano-ya in 新材木町 Shin-zaimoku-machi[xxxviii] began serving soba noodles in a deep bowl of hot broth on cold days. They called this dish ぶっかけそば bukkake soba because all of the male staff would form a circle around the bowl and jerk off onto it just before serving to customers[xxxix]. The most popular topping was tempura (often a bundle of thinly sliced vegetables covered in batter). By the early 1800’s, people shortened the name and just began calling this winter favorite かけそば kake soba[xl]  – as it’s still called today.

Further Reading:

Oiran in Shin-Yoshiwara
Oiran (highest ranking courtesans) of Shin-Yoshiwara.

The Yoshiwara

Alright! I don’t know about you, but all this talk about delicious food has me in the mood for some good ol’ fashioned drinking and whoring. As I mentioned before, the Five Great Highways met in Nihonbashi. Long time readers will remember that the 宿場 shukuba post towns that dotted all these routes were notorious for prostitution, and sometimes not much else[xli]. Now, what do you think happens when five such paths intersect?

Well, the shōgunate knew what would happen and immediately blocked off an area as an officially sanctioned and regulated “pleasure quarters.” That’s the English translation of 遊郭 yūkaku. They named this one 吉原 Yoshiwara “the fields of joy.” And boy, were they ever – for the male clientele at least[xlii]. The 2nd shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada established the pleasure quarters in 1617 in Nihonbashi’s 葺屋町 Aya-chō[xliii]. The illicit business of the Yoshiwara was officially regulated, but laws were rarely enforced outside outside of it from the beginning, unless things got out-of-hand. That said, the most prestigious brothels with the highest-end entertainers and richest clientele were always in the official pleasure quarters, doing business on the up-and-up.

Oiran in Shinagawa; photo by JapanThis!
Oiran at the Shinagawa-shuku Oiran Dochu in 2019

If you recall the beginning of our story, this area was just a tiny island ripe for development by the shōgunate. But that was back in 1600. Fifty years later, and hundreds of thousands of travelers coming and going later, Nihonbashi had become fully urbanized. A full complement of theaters, restaurants, and other entertainment venues opened up around the Yoshiwara. Thinking this was a bad look when travelers, especially feudal lords, prestigious monks, and occasional foreign visitors to the capital[xliv], the government started getting paranoid about the hedonism prevalent in the Yoshiwara. In particular, they were worried about the increasingly wealthy merchant class and artisan class in Nihonbashi and Ginza. If Edo’s worker bees had cash to burn on the luxury economy enjoyed by the upper echelons of the samurai class, society as they knew it could possibly (quite maybe) breakdown altogether. Remember, the shōgunate was only three shoguns old at that point. That is to say, there had only been a little over 50 years of peace after a hundred years of all out civil war throughout the entire country. A little hand-wringing about public mores is understandable.

Map of Moto-Yoshiwara
Moto-Yoshiwara on a modern map. Footnote readers will recognize it’s bisected by Kinza-dori.

In 1656, the shōgunate decided to relocate the Yoshiwara far from the castle and far from the “Bridge to Japan.” However, in March 1657, fate dealt the city of Edo a massive blow. On that day, a horrific three-day conflagration now known as 明暦の大火 Meireki no Taika the Meireki Fire[xlv] burned through Edo consuming everything and everyone in the way of the deadly inferno. It’s estimated that the fire destroyed 60-70% of the capital and claimed 100,000 souls. Well, that sucked ass, but it saved the shōgunate the trouble of forcing the Yoshiwara to completely tear itself down and relocate to the outskirts of the city, the 浅草 Asakusa area[xlvi]. In Nihonbashi, the blocks where the pleasure quarters once stood retained the name 元吉原 Moto-Yoshiwara Old Yoshiwara until relatively modern times[xlvii]. The one in Akasaka was originally called 新吉原 Shin-Yoshiwara New Yoshiwara, but after a while it, too, was simply the Yoshiwara.

Further Reading:

William Adams - Miura Anjin
Statue of Miura Anjin and his stupid hat.
He’s the “patron saint” of foreigners who come to Japan and stay for life.

Famous People From Nihonbashi

A lot of famous people came from Nihonbashi after the Tokugawa Period, but there are a few notable personages from Edo. The first two that come to mind are 三浦安針 Miura Anjin William Adams and 耶楊子 Yayosu Jan Joosten (van Lodensteyn), Englishman and Dutchman, respectively. Tokugawa Ieyasu took them as 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers and granted them samurai privileges, such as wearing two swords at all times. The shōgun had great confidence in William and granted him a fief on 三浦半島 Miura Hantō the Miura Peninsula in modern 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture. As far as I can tell, Ieyasu didn’t much care for Jan’s bad attitude (apparently he was a drunk) and gave him a crappy fief in far off 長崎 Nagasaki. He did give both men residences in or near what we call Nihonbashi today. The part of town where Williams’ Edo estate was came to be called 安針町 Anjin-chō Anjin Town and the area near Jan’s residence came to be called 八重洲 Yaesu, a corruption of Yayosu in the shitamachi accent of 江戸弁 Edo-ben the Edo dialect.

Matsuo Basho - haiku guy
Haiku genius, Matsuo Basho.

Nihonbashi claims another notable person – a 俳諧師 haikashi haiku poet named 松尾芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō, but he’s so famous, most people simply call him Bashō. He wasn’t born in Edo, but moved to Nihonbashi from the provinces when he was about 30 years old. Actually, he only lived in the area for about 10 years and then wandered around the country and finally settled in 深川 Fukagawa. I’m not going to get into a biography of Bashō (you can read more about him here) because he only lived here for such a short time. That said, there were a lot of poets active in the neighborhood. In fact, one of his students was his main financial backer, a wealthy fish wholesaler who procured seafood for the shōgunate. Anyhoo, it was during his time in Nihonbashi that Bashō became super famous. And speaking of famous, I’ll wrap up with one of his most famous haiku which was written at his home in Fukagawa[xlviii].

古池や
furuike ya
蛙飛び込む
kawazu tobikomu
水の音
mizu no oto
the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

I’ve borrowed the translation from a great website with a lot of Bashō’s work called Masterpiece of Japanese Culture. If you click that link, you’ll find an explanation of the poem and an audio clip of a native speaker reading it with the correct pitch accent. It’s a pretty easy one to memorize. Why not give it a listen and see if you can master the intonation? Bust it out next time you’re at a party and impress all your friends.

Further Reading:

Nihonbashi and Edo Castle
Nihonbashi, Edo Castle, and Mt. Fuji.

So What Happened After Edo Became Tōkyō?

Well, the story just gets sad, so I’m gonna be brief and ineloquent about it.

They rebuilt the original “Bridge to Japan” about 7-8 times during the Edo Period. In 1911, the Meiji Government decided to build an epic new stone bridge in the “European Style” – whatever the hell that means. It looked nothing like its iconic Edo Period predecessor, but judging from photographs, I have to say it’s a pretty great looking bridge in its own right. The Fish Market continued to thrive between Nihonbashi and Edobashi but got nastier and more stinky over the years as seafood wholesalers implemented western mass production/distribution strategies. There are stories of discarded fish parts littering the surrounding streets and sickly, stray animals running amok at night.

Nihonbashi, the Fish Market, anf Edomachi.
Nihonbashi and the fish market in the Meiji Era. This is basically how the bridge looks today, except there’s a highway covering it. Arrrrrrrrrrrgh!

In the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earfquake, the City of Tōkyō spent much time and energy rebuilding the city. Between 1923-1928, they filled in some of the Edo Period canals with debris[xlix]. If you remember from the beginning of this article, Nihonbashi was originally an island[l], well, this blended the old commercial center with the surrounding areas. Yes, it was more convenient to get around, but it was quickly losing its Edo heritage. Despite vehement protests from Nihonbashi locals, 12 years into the Shōwa Era, the government succeeded in tearing down the old Fish Market and built a new one on reclaimed land in an area unimaginatively named 築地 Tsukiji literally, “reclaimed land.” On days that industrial activity didn’t cause smog, apparently you could still see Mt. Fuji from Nihonbashi when the weather was good.

Tokyo Firebombing 1945
The Firebombing of Tokyo claimed 100,000 lives, destroyed 286,358 buildings, and left a million people homeless. It reduced 41 km2 of Tokyo to ashes in less than 24 hours.

In 1945, upon orders of a sick fuck named Curtis LeMay, the US committed 東京大空襲 Tōkyō Daikūshū the Firebombing of Tōkyō. If the Great Kantō Earthquake killed Edo, the firebombing hammered the nails in the coffin of the shōgun’s capital. In order to clear out debris, more rivers were filled in or just covered up. Once the city had more or less recovered, Tōkyō was ready to showcase its new kinder, gentler, less imperialistic face to the world. In preparation to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics, the Metropolitan Government decided to build a freaking highway over the river and the iconic Bridge to Japan.

Nihonbashi today
Nihonbashi bridge today. No, not the highway. The road under the highway.

Yes, you read that right. The “Bridge to Japan” and the river that took its name got steamrolled over by an ugly-ass highway that hates Tōkyō and hates its history and, let’s be honest, it hates you and me. If you love Edo-Tōkyō history, that’s why you read my website. The 1964 Olympics are forever giving the middle finger to you and me and Japanese History. Just look at that disgusting highway. Oh, and there were no zoning laws about building heights[li]. By the 70s and 80s, Nihonbashi was just a residential/business district with only a few hints of its storied past. Tōkyō became one of the world’s leading economies, but along the way they had built tall buildings, a handful of mini-skyscrapers, and completely destroyed the view of the bridge and its iconic view of Mt. Fuji.

Presently, Nihonbashi is famous as a financial and business center. 東京証券取引所 Tōkyō Shōken Torihikisho the Tōkyō Stock Exchange (JPX) is there, as are many large companies and banks. Some of the shitamachi flavor persists even to this day if you spend enough time walking around the area. You can find small izakaya and restaurants that have a decidedly traditional style.

In 2013, when I originally wrote about Nihonbashi, there was a lot of excitement about the Nihonbashi Revitalization Project which promised to remove the highway and bring the Meiji Period bridge back to life! On the website, they had a great CGI movie showing what the area would look like once the expressway had been moved under the Nihonbashi River and the bridge would serve as promenade for pedestrians. Sadly, they took down the video years ago and it looks like that ambitious (and astronomically expensive) project has been put out to pasture. Instead, they’ve begun running boat rides that offer stunning views of the underside of the highway and built some websites to promote local restaurants. Oh well.

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[i] Yay! You used a footnote. Just click the one here to jump back to the text.[ii] The year of 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai the Battle of Sekigahara.
[iii] 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces (MusashiSagamiKazusaShimōsaAwaKōzukeShimotsuke, and Hitachi)
[iv] This castle, by the way, was also known as 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle because it was built on a hill overlooking 千代田村 Chiyoda Mura Chiyoda Village. It was originally built and controlled by the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan and later expanded by the Sengoku Period warlord, 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan.
[v] The streets in Nihonbashi were relatively wide for a commoner district. They averaged about 10-12 meters in width. To put this in perspective, the official highways were required to be about that same size. There is a folk etymology that claims Nihonbashi derives from 二本の橋 nihon no hashi “two long bridges” because it could accommodate two-way traffic, but this is untrue.
[vi] 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsu-kan the Edo-Tōkyō Museum has faithfully rebuilt the northern half of the bridge at the entrance to their permanent exhibit using traditional materials and construction methods. You can actually see what the bridge looked like when they rebuilt it in 1829.
[vii] The Tōkaidō existed as far back as the Heian Period and there is evidence that some stretches of this route existed during the Kofun Period. Some scholars believe some sections must have been forged as far back as the Jōmon Period. Historians tend to refer to the Edo Period highway as 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō the Old Tōkaidō (or Former Tōkaidō) and the older trail as 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō the Ancient Tōkaidō.
[viii] High city and low city refer to the samurai districts and commoner districts. Feel free to read my article about Yamanote and Shitamachi.
[ix] The sign in Nihonbashi was considered especially important and ranked as 大高札場 dai-kōsatsuba great notice board. In the Edo Dialect, people called all of these signposts takafuda or o-takafuda, the latter is superficially more “polite” than the former. Though both terms are not proper Japanese today and probably sounded ignorant in formal situations in the Edo Period.
[x] They might even see condemned prisoners exposed to the elements and the whims of passersby beside the Nihonbashi noticeboard next to the bridge. After all, nearby Kodenma-chō was home to a notorious prison and execution ground for Edo’s wealthy.
[xi] Until, ya know, it literally started to smell like rotten fish. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.
[xii] Prior to this, there had been many goldsmiths working as “retainers” under the Gotou family. In Ginza, there were many such silversmiths, but their numbers were never reduced like those of the Kinza because silver was a less valuable commodity than gold.
[xiii] Also known as 日銀 Nichigen by friends and lovers.
[xiv] A very scientific poll. They also didn’t know the etymology of Ginza either, so, maybe I’m asking the wrong people lol.
[xv] That said, after the Great Kantō Earfquake, the city built a road called 金座通り Kinza-dōri Kinza Avenue in Nihonbashi (nobody uses the name today). This was a nickname by the locals and referred to a warehouse called Kinza in Ginza. Apparently, this was a total coincidence and had nothing to do with the Edo Period Kinza in former Ryōgae-chō. The nickname “Kinza” just never happened for this area. It was always Nihonbashi. What does Ryōgae-chō mean? Read my article on Ginza to find out, but the TL;DR answer is it was the original name of Nihonbashi when it was only the Kinza.
[xvi] Guess who has an article about that? What does Tsukuda mean?
[xvii] These operators were organized into four official concessions: 本船町組 Motofunachō-gumi the Motofunachō Group, 本小田原町組 Honodawarachō-gumi the Honodawarachō Group, 本船町横店組 Motofunachō-Yokodana-gumi the Motofunachō-Yokodana Group, 按針町組 Anjinchō-gumi the Anjichō Group. Long time readers with a keen eye will recognize these as neighborhood-based groups. Anjinchō is a reference to the Anjin-chō neighborhood whose name is derived from 三浦按針 Miura Anjin William Adams, the English samurai (a direct retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu). You can read my article about Anjin-chō here.
[xviii] I’ve seen them regularly on the Old Tōkaidō in Shinagawa Post Town.
[xix] The Nihonbashi Uogashi was such a fixture of the city and its history, that it took the Tōkyō City Government almost 10 years to convince the public that moving the fish market was a good idea. Not only did it seem like an insult to the heritage of the capital, it could have potentially destroyed the livelihoods of fishmongers in Nihonbashi, most of whom had been operating since the Edo Period. The same thing happened in the build up to the now-postponed (most likely to be cancelled) 2020 Tōkyō Olympics when the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government first proposed to close Tsukiji Fish Market and open the new market in Toyosu. You can still visit great sushi shops in Tsukiji now, but the area has changed a lot (and will continue to change dramatically in the next 5-10 years).
[xx] This Edomae sushi became so famous, that it eventually spread throughout all of Japan. Basically, most modern sushi is Edomae sushi – even if the fish isn’t caught in Edo Bay. In fact, 99.9% of sushi is not caught in Edo Bay. It’s perceived as (and probably is) too polluted now.
[xxi] On JapanThis!, I’ve always called the waters in front of the capital Edo Bay or Tōkyō Bay. That said, from the Heian Period until end of the Edo Period, these waters were called 江戸海 Edo Umi the Edo Sea. I think we should bring back this term.
[xxii] Portable sushi stands.
[xxiii] In the Edo Period these sushi stands were portable in the beginning, the operators couldn’t bring chopsticks and clean water to wash them after each use. And although 割り箸 waribashi disposable chopsticks that you break apart before using were invented in Japan during the Edo Period, they weren’t widespread until the postwar era (Shōwa Period).
[xxiv] Also known as the Edo Sea, as we’re going to start calling it from now until the end of the world.
[xxv] Don’t ask me. I grew up in the middle of the US in river country. I don’t know shit about seafood.
[xxvi] Anyone who has been to a Taiwanese (or Chinese) New Year celebration will have noticed all the red and gold decorations.
[xxvii] Or at the very least, the poor people will splurge to eat it on special occasions.
[xxviii] Unagi is scarce (if not practically extinct) in Tōkyō Bay now. Stores usually source it from Aichi Prefecture and Chiba Prefecture, the Chiba ones often fetching hirer prices because they can be sold as legitimate “Edomae Unagi” if we use the definition of Edomae to refer to the Edo Sea (which stretches from Tōkyō to Chiba).
[xxix] Edo was a military city where half of the population were samurai. Samurai committing 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment was not uncommon. As a result, gutting an unagi was seen as offensive because it was similar to seppuku. So, in the Kantō area, fileting eels from the back, though more difficult, was considered more polite (if people were looking). In Kansai (and the rest of Japan), where samurai only made up 3-5% of the population, slicing these fish’s bellies was no problem. Some say that Ōsakans hated Edoites (and now hate Tōkyōites) so much, that they proudly gut unagi from the belly as a way to tell Tōkyō to fuck off. Talk about a cultural inferiority complex…
[xxx] Which, today, is standard throughout Japan. I mean, they don’t call it Edomae unagi now, but pretty much any unagi dish you eat anywhere in Japan is Edomae unagi.
[xxxi] Traditional comedic storytellers are 落語家 rakugo-ka.
[xxxii] This temple has a new name these days and you can still visit it in Kyōto.
[xxxiii] At the time, Tōkō-in was located in 日本橋新縄町 Nihonbashi Shinnawa-chō Shinnawa-chō, Nihonbashi (present-day 日本橋本町4丁目 Nihonbashi Honchō 4-chōme 4th block of Honchō, Nihonbashi). After the Meireki Fire in 1657, the shōgunate relocated the temple to present-day 台東区西浅草3丁目 Taitō-ku Nishi-Asakusa 3-chōme 3rd block of West Asakusa, Taitō Ward. You can still visit today, if you’re into that sorta thing.
[xxxiv] Roughly modern 長野県 Nagano-ken Nagano Prefecture.
[xxxv] 信州 Shinshū is an alternate name for Shinano Province.
[xxxvi] There may have been a health reason for soba’s popularity. According to English Wikipedia, “At that time, the population of Edo (Tokyo), being considerably wealthier than the rural poor, were more susceptible to beriberi due to their high consumption of white rice, which is low in thiamine. It was discovered that beriberi could be prevented by regularly eating thiamine-rich soba.” Now, I don’t use English Wiki as a source for Japanese History because it’s generally dogshit (hence, it’s just getting a footnote), but there is something to reasoning. The 14th shogun actually died from complications related to beriberi, so it’s possible that supplementing your diet with soba could have been extremely beneficial for Edo’s middle and upper classes. That said, without science, I don’t know how they would have known what foods were rich in or lack thiamine – let alone known what thiamine was.
[xxxvii] Present-day 室町 Muromachi neighborhood. What does Muromachi mean?
[xxxviii] Present-day 堀留町 Horidome-chō.
[xxxix] Long time readers should know that this is joke – and an old joke, at that. Bukkake simply means “splash” in this case, and refers to the cook splashing on some toppings like tenpura or goose/duck to finish off the dish before servings. I think the best translation of bukkake soba is “hot soba with toppings.” But nobody asked me, thus it’s bukkake soba forever. If you’re still clueless, here’s the Wikipedia article on bukkake.
[xl] Presumably because it’s just shorter and easier to say.
[xli] I’m looking at you Shinjuku and Kawasaki.
[xlii] English Wikipedia’s entry on the Yoshiwara has now been added under the category of Slavery (by country or region), so there’s that.
[xliii] Present-day 人形町 Ningyō-chō.
[xliv] Remember, Japan wasn’t “officially” a “closed country” until the 1630s.
[xlv] Here’s what English Wikipedia says about it.
[xlvi] Today, it’s in 台東区千束4丁目 Taitō-ku Senzoku 4-chōme 4th block of Senzoku, Taitō Ward. I can give a tour of this area if you’re interested. Bring extra cash if you plan to indulge.
[xlvii] Years ago, I did 人形町七福神巡り Ningyō-chō Shichi-fukujin the Meguri Pilgrimage of the Ningyō-chō 7 Gods of Good Luck. While drinking tea with a local old-timer, he corrected me and said it was 元吉原七福神巡り Moto-Yoshiwara Shichi-fukujin Meguri the Pilgrimage of the Old Yoshiwara  7 Gods of Good Luck. I’ve never heard this wording from anyone but him, but there it is. Just putting this out there… as a footnote.
[xlviii] I searched all over for something he wrote about Nihonbashi, but I couldn’t find anything specifically about the neighborhood.
[xlix] Filling in these rivers allowed them to build avenues for street cars and automobiles.
[l] Or two or three… who’s really counting. Just look at the maps I provided, bitch.
[li] I don’t think there are any regulations about building heights in Tōkyō even today. But, during the Edo Period, two-stories was the max… BY LAW. Only castle turrets and watchtowers were allowed to be higher.


Are you actually still reading? The article is finished. What kind of glutton for punishment are you?

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Nihonbashi, facing Edobashi.  (big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo's procession)
A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo. Nihonbashi is in the foreground. Edobashi is the background. You can see the kosatsuba (noticeboard) on the left side of the image.
Big time anachronism going on here, btw. This is supposed to be the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo’s procession about the time the Kamakura Shogunate was established lololol).
Nihonbashi - Meiji Government's memorial. Beginning of Highways to Japan.
This was the “zero kilometer” marker for the 5 roads placed there by the Meiji Government.
It has since been moved as a memorial thingy on the side of the road so you can take pictures of it without getting run over by a car.

 

20 thoughts on “What does Nihonbashi mean?

  1. Thanks for this! And with all the pretty pictures and everything too. I’ve heard rumor that they were planning on taking down the highway and making the bridge thus more open to the sky and such again, but… that was years ago, and I don’t remember where I heard it, and clearly it hasn’t happened yet, so…

    1. My pleasure! Thanks for reading/commenting!

      And yes, there was a plan to put the highway underground and expose the bridge again for the current bridge’s centennial. But the 500 billion yen price tag was too steep for governor Ishihara.

      Apparently, there is a Nihonbashi revitalization effort that still hopes for that.

      Here you can see CGI representation of what the area would look like without the ugly highway:

      http://www.nihonbashi-tokyo.jp/en/revitalization/future.html

      1. Ooh, lookit that! I’m not surprised that the gov’t should balk at the pricetag; it’s a shame, but, it would indeed have been terribly expensive. Still, hopefully, fingers crossed, someday…

      2. Did you watch the CGI video? That would be a dream come true for history lovers in Tokyo and for civic pride.
        Such a great idea.

        Really makes me hate that highway. lol

    1. You’re very welcome! Thanks for commenting!

      And I couldn’t agree more. But after 8 years in Tokyo, I’ve just sort of accepted the fact that very little remains of Edo. Or what does is very small and very precious.

  2. What about the theory that because of width the bridge was initially called “two-lane bridge” (in Japanese 二本橋 a homonym of “nihonbashi”) for the fact that two carriages could pass in the opposite directions (which supposedly was an unusual feature in the old times). I heard it even in a lecture from London’s SOAS professor.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! And thanks especially for bringing up a really interesting point!

      Actually, I know this theory, and I considered including it, but I didn’t because I don’t buy it. One, the bridge size doesn’t appear to be particularly unique in size for a bridge in Edo. Two, the bridge was built for the express purpose of connecting Edo to the Tokaido highway. So I am of the opinion that the name was deliberate from the very beginning. Also, as opposed to village names or bridge names that predate Tokugawa Ieyasu’s initial building projects, which often have very complicated, dialectal or unclear origins, most of the things built by the shogunate have carefully chosen names and tend to be much better documented.

      While we’re on alternate theories, there’s another one I heard — which I also don’t buy. The theory states that the bridge was commonly referred to as the 二本ノ木橋 Nihon no Ki no Hashi. Nihon no ki being colloquial expression for “log” since the bridge was originally made from logs. I don’t buy this theory because a bridge made out of logs sounds shabby and the Tokugawa were definitely not shabby. Nihonbashi was made from cut wood.

      Both are interesting stories, but I think they’re just folk etymologies.

  3. There’s a big map in Nihonbashi station showing the Nihonbashi river going under the Nihonbashi bridge. This seems a bit anomalous…surely the river was there before the bridge?

    I looked into it and seems like the river got renamed Nihonbashi river from (I think) the Asakawa river. And I bet nobody the kappa about the name change, for their meishi..

  4. I had edo dream ladies in line chanting we are from from edo high court I had to bow then one came up give me a gift it was like hair pin in silver with grasshopper simple European man came up said that’s Chinese I said no
    It’s hairpin it’s edo never had power full dream like that I usual have bad dreams at nights

  5. Did you update this post? I googled Nihonbashi to read about the fish market and this page came up. I’ve been subscribed to your site forever. I think this was one of the first things I read from you. Since you redesigned everything, the pictures really stand out. Everything looks better than I remember. Falling back in love with Japan This!

    1. Wow. That was fast! Yes, I didn’t just update the article, I deleted the old one and completely rewrote it from scratch, then secretly published it last night at like 4 AM lololol

      Anyhoo, thanks for being a long time reader. Thank you for noticing the site design overhaul. It’s been a lot of work, actually. You’re the only person who’s commented on it, so I’m happy that somebody noticed.

      Thanks for all the kind words and hope you found what you needed about the fish market here. There was only one line about it in the original article.

  6. Hi. Thanks for all this great research and storytelling.

    I have a question. You used the term Edomachi in the article but didn’t define it. What or where is Edomachi?

    1. Great question! So Edomachi has two meaning. One, the city of Edo in general (but usually has the connotation of shitamachi areas. Two, the blocks in Nihonbashi directly behind the fish market (from Nihonbashi to Edobashi).

      If you look at the photo I labeled “Nihonbashi and the fish market in the Meiji Era,” do you see the neighborhood behind the fish market. It’s made of black 蔵 (kura) storehouses and wooden shops. Because it was the first urbanized district in Edo, that area came to be called Edomachi – “Edo Town.”

      Hope that helps! (and thanks for the kind words!)

  7. Just came from your Ginza article. Someone in comments asked about Kinza.

    Thanks for answering that question.

    But really, I’m just hungry now. Ha ha ha ha ha.

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