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Book Review – Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective

In Book Reviews, Japanese History on December 28, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective
Nicolas Fiévé & Paul Waley


The subtitle of the book is Place, Power and Memory in Kyōto, Edo and Tōkyō[i].

Since last year, all of my book reviews have a standard format. You can read a description about it here. This message won’t appear in reviews from 2016 on. I just expect you to go to the reviews page if you don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure it’s OK.

Nicolas Fiévé is a scholar of Japanese architecture and pre-modern urbanism. Paul Waley is scholar of human geography[ii]. The two have extensive backgrounds in disciplines that often overlap. This book is a testament to that overlapping. They brought in other big guns to fill in the gaps and the result is a really unique 500ish page collection of historical comparisons and contrasts of urbanism in Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō[iii].

Quick Review


  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression Nothing. My friend, Rekishi no Tabi[iv], suggested it to me. So, I bought it because I trust his taste in these sorts of books more than most people’s. A really interesting exploration of the development and portrayal of Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō. This book is now in the permanent collection of books I keep within an arm’s reach while writing JapanThis!.
Type of Book A comparative analysis of the history of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. Some comparative analysis, but the articles are much more interested in exploring Kyōto and Tōkyō on their own terms and in their respective urban histories – as it should be.
Readability I expected it to be very readable. It is extremely accessible. Many of the chapters about Edo-Tōkyō serve as a good companion to Seidensticker’s book which I reviewed before.
Bias I expected very little bias. I didn’t perceive any bias in the book. There was a little cynicism about some of Tōkyō’s post war and bubble era policies, but they were spot on. Any fan of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum would agree.
Audience Scholars, university students, history nerds. People with in depth and active knowledge of the city. Long time JapanThis! Readers can get a lot out of this book. Yes, the more in depth and active understanding you have of both Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō helps. But I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I’d like to be but I had no problem keeping up with the chapters on the imperial capital.
Stars[v] ★★★★☆

Pros & Cons

I’ll start with the cons – because there aren’t many of them.

The first con is no fault of the authors or of the book itself. This is an academic book. It presumes the reader is familiar with the geographies of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. It also presumes the reader is familiar with the history of both cities. Furthermore, it presumes the reader is familiar with the vocabulary of historical architecture and urban studies – in particular, that of Japan. Depending on your level familiarity with the subject matter, this could be a major or minor hurdle. For example, as I mentioned before, I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I am with Tōkyō so I found myself spending a lot of time with the Kyōto maps in the book and checking some other books/maps when I was confused.

In the article, Metaphors of the Metropolis, William Coaldrake makes some assertions about Utagawa Hiroshige mocking the shōgunate’s use of architecture as a symbol of authority and power in his 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints. I’m not an expert on ukiyo-e, but I do love it and consider myself fairly familiar with the greats – such as Hiroshige – and when I look at the prints he cites, I just don’t see the same thing he does. While I disagree with him on this point, the rest of the article is really fascinating as he brings up reference guides for samurai to identify the rank of daimyō by the architecture used in their gates – indicating that there was a literal architectural vocabulary in Edo.

And lastly, while it’s fine to put citations at the end of an article or at the end of the book, I just wish more people would put footnotes at the bottom of the page. It’s so much more reader friendly. Who wants to constantly flip to the end of a chapter or the end of a book just to get some further information about something they just read. It makes no sense for writers to maintain this convention in the age of the internet where we have hyperlinks and instant access to things. Even though I’m reading a physical, printed copy of the book, I shouldn’t be expected to flip back and forth. It seems so archaic. This isn’t a criticism of just this book, though. There’s no reason for any writers or editors to do this.

So Let’s Go Through the Book

There are 13 contributors to this book. It starts off, and rightly so, with a focus on Kyōto from its simple and well planned beginnings (end of the Nara Period) to the chaos of the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War[vi] which literally brought the city to its knees and plunged the country into a century of civil war. The book comes back to Kyōto in the final chapters, mainly discussing how the political climate after the ’64 Tōkyō Olympics left Kyōto to fend for itself. The establishment of standards for the preservation of the city is a fascinating insight into the successes and failures of preserving an active urban space that is second to none – I dare say a city that is on par with Rome in terms of cultural heritage and significance[vii].

The majority of the book, as you can imagine, deals with Edo-Tōkyō. This is out of no ill will towards Kyōto. In fact, many of the articles compare and contrast Edo-Tōkyō with the old capital. However, it’s obvious that the legacy of Tokugawa controlled Edo still resounds throughout the capital, the country, and the world in general. We also just have much better records from the Edo Period.

Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book from my notes.

Japan was one of the first countries to establish laws protecting its ancient architecture. “Modernization” began almost as soon as the foreign powers arrived in 1850’s, but believe it or not, the first laws protecting national architectural and artistic treasures began in 1871 (Meiji 4). This tradition protected Kyōto until the 1964 Olympics[viii]. It protected Tōkyō, too. Unfortunately, Tōkyō was subjected to the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923 which pretty much erased Edo permanently. Thus, Kyōto and Tōkyō have evolved on distinctly different paths both culturally and legally. Kyōto’s geographic location is far less prone to destructive seismic active than Edo-Tōkyō.

Great attention is spent discussing the contrast of the streets near Edo Castle as compared to the intricate, maze-like system of gates leading into the Castle itself. I’ve argued many times, that the castle was a city in and of itself. I love the detail this book goes into about the city’s relationship with the castle.

I was really happy to see rivers, ferries, and bridges get a lot of attention. If you’ve been following JapanThis! over the years, you know about my obsession with rivers and bridges. In fact, my last article on Umayabashi was inspired by a casual reference to the bridge in this book. These places were obviously important to the people of Edo, too. They’re a constant theme in the art of the day.

While this book doesn’t address the connotative evolution of the word 江戸っ子 Edokko “Child of Edo,” the article By Ferry to Factory lends much credence to my pet theory that the current definition of Edokko is a byproduct of authors active in the Meiji Period. Those writers may have pined for Edo and they may have even been born in the final years of Tokugawa Japan. However, they lived most of their lives in Tōkyō. This is the same sentiment that Seidensticker alludes to time and time again in his epic Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa. But like this book, Seidensticker doesn’t concern himself directly with the word or concept itself, but there’s much implied about its usage when you combine the 2 books. Just like the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, this term has changed with subsequent generations[ix].

There’s so much more to say about this book, but I think I want to wrap things up with Jilly Traganou’s chapter, Representing Mobility in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan because this is a topic of great interest to me. As with many of the other Edo-Tōkyō chapters, it ties in with the work of Constantine Vaporis, who has written extensively about mobility of both commoners and samurai in the Edo Period[x]. Anyways, Jilly introduces train maps into the discussion. Trains were the first great successors of the feudal network of highways linking major cities. Pre-modern highways, check points, post towns, rivers, ferry crossings, bridges, modern urban elevated highways, trains, and subways; these are all connected – particularly in Edo-Tōkyō where we can see remnants of the continuum of mobility.


A lot of people thought my review of Seidensticker’s Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa was negative and so if you’re one of those people, let me clarify my feelings about his book. It’s a pretty bad ass book; I just didn’t like his style of prose. It was written in a literary style that no one uses anymore[xi]. The content isn’t bad, though. This book, Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective, actually gave me a new appreciation for Seidensticker’s book. It sort of verified, clarified, and demystified a lot of what Seidensticker said. By adding Kyōto to the conversation it really pushes the discussion to places I didn’t expect it to go. This is a really good thing. I love learning new things and this book taught me a lot and best of all, it has me asking more questions. So, I give this book a solid 4 stars![xii]

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[i] The lack of an Oxford comma pisses me off to no end lol.
[ii] Waley wrote the introduction to the Tuttle Edition of the Seidensticker book that I reviewed last January. It’s a good book and I think these two books make good companions.
[iii] Kyōto is really in a world of its own. It probably warrants a similar book, that shifts things back to the mysterious kingdom of 倭 Wa the oldest recorded name of a political entity in the Japanese islands. Kyōto marked the pinnacle of that burst of Japanese civilization and culture. In this book, Kyōto is very much put in contrast to Edo and the samurai government. It also plays foil to imperial Tōkyō. I wonder what another 500 pages on Nara and Kamakura would have yielded.
[iv] Rekishi no Tabi – the name can be translated as “a trip through history” – is a photographer and Japanese history nerd based in Tōkyō. Check out his photos here. Follow him on Twitter here.
[v] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind blowing. I dunno…, a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[vi] What was the Ōnin War? I’m glad you asked.
[vii] At least in my opinion.
[viii] It also provided a tradition and a framework for new laws in the post-Olympic era.
[ix] I had an article about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi, but I deleted it because it sucked ass. There will be a new reference article in 2016. Hopefully in the first few months of the year.
[x] His book, Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan, is required reading for any Japanese history nerd. I’ll be reviewing this book some time next year.
[xi] I was in high school when he died – totally pre-internet. I used to enjoy, and sometimes still do, that “great books” or “classics” approach to writing. But, it just doesn’t hold up today. It’s heavy on a classical style at the sake of straightforwardness.
[xii] When I introduced my new review system, I said that getting a 5 is an almost impossible target because… well, nothing’s perfect. A 4 definitely means you should read it. It’s the highest ranking you can get on JapanThis!.

What does Muromachi mean?

In Japanese History on June 24, 2013 at 3:14 am

Muromachi (Muromachi)

On the left, Nihonbashi Honkoku-cho. In the Middle, Nihonbashi Muromachi. On the right, Nihonbashi Honcho. The black lines are the original Edo Period blocks. The red lines are the modern blocks that exist today.

On the left, Nihonbashi Honkoku-cho.
In the middle, Nihonbashi Muromachi.
On the right, Nihonbashi Honcho.
The black lines are the original Edo Period blocks.
The red lines are the modern blocks that exist today.

The other day I wrote about Anjin-chō and Anjin Dōri. The street and former town are located in an area of Nihonbashi called Muromachi. I’ve always wondered about the name, and now after 8 years of living in Japan I finally got off my lazy ass and investigated it. But this story is great and full of plot twists.

Short Answer:  The name of Tōkyō’s Muromachi is copied from Kyōto’s Muromachi.

Not sure where this was, but this is probably what Muromachi looked like in the Edo Period... minus the telegraph poles.

Not sure where this was, but this is probably what Muromachi looked like in the Edo Period…
minus the telegraph poles.

The people of Edo saw similarities to the area in Kyōto as it was in the Edo Period. Kyōto Muromachi was a merchant district with many 土蔵 dozō earthen warehouses and the Edo Muromachi was also the home to many 土蔵 dozō – as it was located in the Nihonbashi area. The first kanji 室 muro means room, but can also refer to cellars or greenhouses or warehouses, such as dozō, that are designed to keep the stock cool or at a reasonable temperature. Apparently this was an apt comparison for the people of Edo.

CG dozo warehouse

CG dozo warehouse

Here's a modern dozo warehouse in the country.

Here’s a modern dozo warehouse in the country.

And here’s a disclaimer, I’ve only been to Kyōto twice so I really don’t know as much about the city as I’d like to. If anyone else knows more about this stuff that me, then feel free to chime in. The rest of this article is probably a train wreck…

Anyhoo, we are talking about the Muromachi of Kyōto in the Edo Period, which I’m guessing was a very different place than it had been before the Sengoku Period.

What makes me think that?

Well, the period from 1337 – 1465/1467/1573 is called the Muromachi Period[i]. In 1573, the last Ashikaga shōgun was forced to leave Kyōto by none other than His Noble Badassness, Lord Oda Nobunaga. Just as the Tokugawa Shōgunate is also called the Edo Shōgunate because of its location, the Ashikaga Shōgunate is also called the Muromachi Shōgunate because of its location[ii].

Ashikaga Takauji, founder of the Lame Bakufu... Errr, I mean, the Ashikaga Bakufu.

Ashikaga Takauji, founder of the Lame Bakufu…
Errr, I mean, the Ashikaga Bakufu.

So what’s the dilly, yo?

I have no idea where the first two Ashikaga shōguns held their court[iii], but the third shōgun, Yoshimitsu[iv], built a lavish palace on an old Heian Period street known as 室町小路 Muromachi Kōji Muromachi Alley. The residence was officially known as 室町殿 Muromachi-dono Muromachi Palace, but because of its legendary beauty it was colloquially known as the 花之御所 Hana no Go-sho the Palace of Flowers[v]. The location was ideal because it was a sprawling tract of land and it was very close to the real 御所 Go-sho Imperial Palace, or in reality close to one of the “temporary imperial residences” granted to the emperor by other court nobles or, at times, the shōgunate. The 花之御所 Hana no Go-sho Flower Palace aka the 室町殿 Muromachi-dono Muromachi Palace was the cultural, political, and military center of Japan for over 200 years.

Hana No Gosho aka Muromachi-Dono

The Hana no Gosho.
Seat of the Ashikaga Shogunate.
(Is it just me or does it look a little bit like Nijo Castle?)

Wait, what??? This place sounds so elegant and beautiful.
Why is this place famous for merchants and warehouse?

In its day, Muromachi was the center of Japan. From what I’ve read it seems like it was the most elite area of the most elite city. Unlike the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the Ashikaga Shōgunate was on pretty shaky ground from the beginning. Somehow they managed to last almost as long as the Tokugawa, but economic and political stresses rose to the surface and in 1467 war erupted. An 11 year war called the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War broke out. Within the first year of fighting, the north half of Kyōto had been burnt to the ground. 11 years into the war the city was fucked beyond belief. When the Portuguese arrived in Japan 1543 looking to trade and convert the country, they were shocked to learn that the emperor of the country was living in a capital city more or less in ruins. Even more bizarre to them, the emperor was living in conditions they described as a shack or hut.

Even though we don’t tend associate lasting stability with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it is from Nobunaga’s time that we see rebuilding in earnest in Kyōto. Slowly stability came and from the Edo Period on, Kyōto regained its former glory, albeit in a new Edo Period form.

So after the destruction of Kyōto, the city repurposed old lands, including the Flower Palace and the area around the former 室町小路 Muromachi Kōji Muromachi Alley became the location of the warehouses of some very prosperous and famous merchants. In the early modern period, it became famous for kimono shops. Some of these shops still exist today, so the street seems well worth the visit[vi].

Muromachi Alley in the early Showa Period

Muromachi Alley in the early Showa Period

OK, so Edo’s warehouse district borrowed Kyōto’s warehouse district’s name.

This should be the end of the story, shouldn’t it?

But it isn’t.

The town in Edo (and Tōkyō) was named after a merchant warehouse area of Kyōto.
But where did the original Kyōto name come from?

Well remember how I mentioned that in the Edo Period 室 muro was a reference to warehouses? Well, this was actually a folk etymology. In reality, 室 muro had absolutely nothing to do with warehouse originally.



The Final Plot Twist

It turns out there was a family of imperial court nobles called the 室町家 Muromachi-ke Muromachi Family. The Muromachi family claims descent from the Fujiwara family… and I’ll leave that up to you Kyōto lovers to figure out. The Muromachi clan built the original Muromachi-dono on the alley that came to be known as Muromachi Alley and later Muromachi Street. The Ashikaga Shōguns appropriated the residence and expanded it to make the Hana no Go-sho. So while we say that the Muromachi Period is named after the residence of the shōguns, that name actually referred to a totally unrelated family of aristocrats. How d’you like dem apples?

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[i] If you want to know why I have 3 dates for the ending of the Muromachi Period, then you need to read up on the Ashigaka Shōgunate, the Muromachi Period, the Sengoku Period, and the Azuchi Momoyama Period. That stuff is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay outside the focus of this article. But suffice it to say, making a cutoff date for the Muromachi Period can be a bit subjective depending on what angle your examining things from.

[ii] Which, as you can imagine, was probably not a warehouse district…

[iii] However, the first Ashikaga shōgun, Takauji, is buried at Tōji’in in Kyōto, so I’m assuming he had a residence in Kyōto to keep an eye on the fucking Emperors (yes, plural… it’s a long story), despite being a native of present day Tochigi.

[iv] Yes, he’s the same Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who built Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyōto.

[v] Yoshimitsu used the word for “imperial palace” and not the word for “just another lord’s palace.” Also Yoshimitsu was pretty gay for his day, which was totally acceptable for nobles of the military class at the time. The building was demolished after the overthrow of the last Ashikaga shōgun, but it is said to have been decorated in a cute floral theme in accordance to Yoshimitsu’s liking and there were lovely flower gardens all over the palace precincts. Everyone likes flowers – Yoshimitsu really liked flowers.

[vi] I’ve never been there myself, though… Next time, right?


In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on June 17, 2013 at 5:05 am

 (Divine Prince of Shining Wisdom)
14th Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Iemochi


I’ve been making jokes about all of the shōguns just because I like to have a good time with history. It’s hilarious to look back in time with a certain smarminess and condescension only granted by hindsight and the ridiculous technological supremacy of our age[i].

However, no one in Japan, least of not the shōgunate, thought these were hilarious times. There was not just the crisis of these “foreign menaces” demanding that Japan open up. There were insidious forces within Japan herself sensing blood and ready to go in for the kill to establish a new shōgunate. Most unexpectedly, the imperial court in Kyōto was starting to flex its muscles and trying to reassert its ancient power. Hell, those people didn’t even do anything. They just wrote poetry and blew smoke up each other’s overly cultured Kyōtoite asses. Blackened teeth, son. Where’d you think that fashion came from? Think about it.

Anyhoo, in the midst of this crisis, the 13th shōgun – inept, incapable, and quite possibly mentally retarded[ii] – Tokugawa Iesada died. I don’t blame the guy for dying, but the people who allowed someone that Ieyasu himself would have drowned in a river sealed the shōgunate’s fate.  As you can imagine, Iesada died without an heir… and every student of history knows that succession crises rarely end peacefully.

Did someone say "failed asian state?"

Did someone say “failed Asian state?”


Of course, the obvious choice for the next shōgun in this time of great crisis was a 12 year old boy named Yoshitomo.

A 12 fucking year old boy.

They married him to the emperor’s daughter in an attempt to unify the shōgunate and the imperial court because marrying a young boy from the shōgun’s family to one of the emperor’s daughters[iii] was the best way to quell the civil unrest of the time. The idea being that the imperial court and the shōgunate could rise up against the foreign menace under the banner of a 12 year old general.

Yeah… that’s the ticket!

So little Yoshitomo became shōgun at age 12 and donned the name Iemochi.

He died less than 10 years later. In his term as shōgun, a lot happened. The teenage Iemochi led a ridiculous military offensive against Chōshū domain at the request of the imperial court which resulted in a few executions and nothing more. The shōgunate and the bakuhan[iv] system had become so dysfunctional that 4 years into his reign the sankin-kōtai system was suspended (a de facto abolishment). The suspension of this system didn’t stop daimyō from coming to and from Edo to meet with shōgunate officials, but with our “smarmy hindsight” we can look back at this and say – without a doubt – shit was broken beyond repair.

But Wait!
Isn’t This Series About the Graves of the Shōguns?

Sorry for wasting 700 words on what shits Iesada and Iemochi were. Their utter inappropriateness on the government stage is just so frustrating to me. After the 8th shōgun, Yoshimune, we just got clowns and puppets[v]. Also, this is my favorite era of Japanese history so I tend to get long winded. Forgive me, please, because I don’t want to commit seppuku.

hara kiri

mea culpa. mea maxima culpa.


Primogeniture - not the best way to select a leader in a crisis.

Primogeniture – not the best way to select a leader in a crisis.

The other frustrating thing is that there was a perfectly qualified adult candidate for shōgun[vi].


Oh, I’m glad you asked. None other than the absolutely capable, exceptionally well-educated, creative yet patient, brought up in conditions that noble Spartans might appreciate – a veritable second Ieyasu; the one and only, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

They made a 12 year old kid shōgun and they made him marry the kid daughter of the emperor[vii]. He died from eating too much white rice[viii]. And that’s history, folks.

They buried him in a 2-story pagoda style urn at Bunshōin, Zōjō-ji.

Oh, but get this. His stupid wife from the imperial family, Princess Kazunomiya, died of the same rich people disease[ix].

If you want to see either of their worthless graves, the Tokugawa Shōgun Family Cemetery still seems to be open at Zōjō-ji.

Princess Kazunomiya.

Princess Kazunomiya.

A Final Note

Princess Kazunomiya died in the 10th year of the Meiji Era. The Shōgunate had fallen, but the Tokugawa Funerary Temples were still closely tied to the Tokugawa family. The family hadn’t been bankrupted yet[x]. The story goes that Kazunomiya wanted to be buried at Zōjō-ji with her husband. Take this request with a grain of salt. A woman of her day was chattel. She was a chess piece in a failed political game. As such, her choices were probably (1) get a shit grave back in Kyōto, or (2) get a grave fitting of the wife of a shōgun in Edo (now called Tōkyō). I don’t blame her. If you come to Japan to look at graves, you probably can’t see any of the emperors during the Edo Period. You probably wouldn’t want to either. The shōgunate had the monopoly on bad ass graves. Kazunomiya chose well[xi]. Her grave is still preserved at Zōjō-ji today.

Princess Kazunomiya and Shogun Iesada's 2-story pagoda style urns as they are today at Zojo-ji.

Princess Kazunomiya and Shogun Iesada’s 2-story pagoda style urns as they are today at Zojo-ji.

Princess Kazunomiya's Urn  at Zojo-ji.

Princess Kazunomiya’s Urn at Zojo-ji.

I feel like I’ve babbled a lot and run way off course on these last few entries about the Tokugawa Funerary Temples, but that’s OK. It was a time where everything was running off in all sorts of directions.

Tomorrow, the shōgunate will end. And the last shōgun’s grave will be something to really talk about.



[i] Don’t worry, I’m humble. I know that in a mere 50-100 years my generation (the last to grow up before the internet) is going to look like a bunch of australopithecines using sharpened bones and antlers digging holes to dump stillborn babies in – not so much out of respect as a need to keep predators from smelling the cadaver and hunting our asses down for dinner.

[ii] No matter what his actual condition, at least he looks competent in his portrait. Take another look at Iemochi. WTF, right?

[iii] Who, quite frankly, sounds like a complete bitch.

[iv] Westerners tend to describe Japanese system as “feudal,” but I prefer the term “bakuhan.” It describes the relationship between the shōgunate bakufu and the domains han).

[v] And not to hate on a kid, but maybe we could say that Yoshimune’s predecessor, the 6 fucking year old Ietsugu, was the beginning of the end. Once you start installing kids as heads of state, you know things are probably going to go downhill.

[vi] Actually, there were two.

[vii] Who, did I mention, sounds like a complete bitch.

[viii] 18th century Asian nobility problems

[ix] 18th century Asian nobility problems

[x] And the major branches never were to be completely bankrupted. Most were offered new aristocratic ranks in the Meiji government.

[xi] Also there’s good reason to believe that in her widowhood, she was banging Katsu Kaishū, a hatamoto of the Tokugawa. I don’t slut shame her for this. I love Katsu Kaishū and whatever makes a person happy is good enough for me. But the imperial court of the time definitely would have looked down on her for anything she did after marrying into the shōgunal family. So whether she was a bitch or not, I feel kinda sad for her. But not too much… fuck aristocrats.

Go-kaidō – The 5 Highways of Old Japan

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 23, 2013 at 12:41 am

Go-kaidō (the Five Great Roads)

Tokugawa Roads, awwwwww yeah!

This is a beautiful example of a classic Edo Era Japanese road (taken in the early Meiji Period).

Today we’re talking about the long roads that united Japan in the Edo Period. They still unite Japan today, actually.

First let’s get the etymology out of the way.

五 go is five. 街道 kaidō is usually translated as “highway,” but you could call it a road, a major artery or whatever. The word itself is made up of two characters; 街 kai/gai has multiple readings and meanings, but usually refers to a road or city/area. 道 dō literally means “road” or “way.” A 街道 kaidō sounds much more important than the 道 dō/michi or 通り dōri, both of which mean “street” in the local sense. This is illustrated by the Japanese idiom 街道を歩む kaidō wo ayumu  “to move up the ranks” – the literal meaning is taking the highroad instead of some crappy side street.

There were many “great roads” in old Japan. The 5 we’re talking about today terminated/started in Edo. So the predominance of these routes is a legacy of the Edo Period. If you look at earlier eras in Japanese History, you’ll find other highways of importance, most of which led to Kyōto/Nara.

Another great example of a well maintained Tokugawa Era road in the early Meiji Period.

Another great example of a well maintained Edo Era road in the early Meiji Period.

The 5 Great Roads are as follows:


The great highways of Japan were a little different from the first great highways of Europe built by the Romans.  But there are some similarities. The shōgunate mandated a fixed width of about 11m (36 feet) for the 5 Great Roads. (The size of Roman roads was strictly regulated for military purposes ranging from 3m to 15m depending on conditions). The 5 major routes of Japan were at the very least covered by 3cm of gravel and sand and local villages were required to maintain the road to ensure no pot holes landed a samurai in the mud. Important sections of the roads and dangerous sections of the roads were paved with large stones – similar to Roman roads. A final nicety was added. The roads were intentionally flanked by tall trees which ensured cool, natural protection from the scorching summer sun.

Nakasendo Highway in Edo Period

Here’s a paved section of the Nikko highway as it looked in the Meiji Period. Note the large stones on the main portion and smaller stones on the sides. Also, note the large trees planted along the road. (I’ve never seen those hammocky-looking things before, not sure what’s up wit’ dat)

Today some roads, like the Tōkaidō which united Edo and Kyōto, are major train routes. Originally there were (and still are) local trains, but now there are 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains connecting Tōkyō and Ōsaka/Kyōto. But in the old days people walked on these routes – some high ranking samurai went on horse, of course. And some history/hiking nerds get in their mind these days to walk the original roads. For example, you can, literally walk from Nihonbashi to Kyōto. You can’t do it in a day (the train takes about 2.5 hours), but sure, you can walk it. And a lot of people still do. Some people walk just sections of the old roads, some crazy fucks actually walk the whole thing non-stop.

The Tokugawa insisted that post towns were established along the roads. In Japanese, these are called 宿 shuku. They were basically rest towns where you could eat, sleep, and – if you were lucky – go drinking & whoring.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

Why Were These Roads So Important?

Here’s the weird things to us westerners; the Roman roads and subsequent European roads were pretty much open to anyone. Edo Period Japanese roads were open to local people. No problem. But crossing domain borders and walking across the country was strictly regulated. There were post stations with domainal or shōgunal representatives who would ask the Edo Period equivalent of “Your papers, please?

The reason for this can be summarized by a certain axiom 入鉄砲出女 iriteppō deonna. 入鉄砲 iriteppō means “bringing in guns.” 出女 deonna means “fleeing women.” The general idea was don’t import weapons, especially gunny weapons, into the domains via these official roads and for fuck’s sake, don’t let your womens get out. If the bitches get out, all hell will break loose.

We’ve seen this time and time again.  Ungrateful deonna. Go back to whence you come!*

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It's not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it's getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It’s not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it’s getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

But I digress.

Since the point of my series on Tōkyō places names is talking about place names, let’s go back to the etymology and then wrap things up.

東海道 Tōkaidō東海 tōkai means eastern sea.  Add 道 dō and the whole thing means “the eastern sea route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto by a coastal route that still exists today by high speed train. This route is still walked by people who like… walking. Its Tōkyō post stations (shuku) are Nihonbashi and Shinagawa. The old Shinagawa Tōkaidō route is a famous place in Tōkyō and home to something like 30 festivals year round. I go there often. You should too.

中山道 Nakasendō – literally means “the central mountain route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto through an alternate route. Its Tōkyō stations were Nihonbashi and Itabashi, where Kondō Isami was executed and his grave still exists. (Also, don’t confuse the word 中山道  Nakasendō with 中出し nakadashi in polite company).

甲州街道 Kōshū-kaidō甲州 refers to the capital of 甲斐国 Kai no kuni. My apartment is built on the remains of the upper residence of this province. Imagine that this is the road that connects Tōkyō to Mt. Fuji.  In Tōkyō, it passed through such towns as Nihonbashi, Shinjuku, Suginami, and Chōfu (birthplace of Kondō Isami).

奥州街道 Ōshū-kaidō – Basically, this connected Edo with the Tōhoku region (Ōshū is an area in Iwate, if I’m not mistaken). Its Tōkyō stations are Nihonbashi and Senju-shuku. Today there are neighborhoods called 北千住 Kita Senju North Senju and 南千住 Minami Senju South Senju. Minami Senju hosted one of the shōgunate’s 3 main execution grounds (another story in and of itself). This area also was post station for the Nikkō highway.

日光街道 Nikkō-kaidō – This was a direct route from Edo to Nikkō, the final resting spot of Ieyasu and Iemitsu (the first and third shōguns). Just as serving the shōgun in Edo was a duty expected of daimyō, service at Ieyasu’s funerary temple was also expected. There are local 東照宮 Tōshō-gū “Temples of the Eastern Prince” (ie; Ieyasu) all over the place, including several in Edo itself. This was designed to reduce the cost of an official visit to the main temple.  Its stations within modern Tōkyō are Nihonbashi and Senju.

A map of the Go-kaido.

A map of the Go-kaido. Sorry, Japanese only.



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* By the way, 入鉄砲出女 t-shirts coming soon!
UPDATE: t-shirts are here!!!!

Why is Kyōbashi called Kyōbashi?

In Japanese History on April 19, 2013 at 1:04 am

Kyōbashi (Capital Bridge)

What does Kyobashi mean?

The area surrounding Kyobashi Station is in yellow. Note the other major areas, Ginza, Hatchobori, Nihonbashi, and Takaracho. Also note Tokyo Station.

OK, I still haven’t written about the 五街道 Go-kaidō the 5 Highways or Nihonbashi yet, so bear with me.
Oh… I haven’t written about the capital of Japan yet, so bear with me.
Dammit! I haven’t written about 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai (mandatory service to the shōgun) yet! I’m sorry.
Please, please, please, bear with me.


I promise to write the rest of the entrees that are necessary soon. After I commit seppuku.

In the Edo Period, there were 5 main roads that connected the domains with the capital in Edo. When Ieyasu began developing Edo as his new capital, he had to connect the city to the rest of Japan. At first, the most important city to connect with Edo was Kyōto because the 朝廷 chōtei Imperial Court was there.

Long story short, the road that connected Tōkyō and Kyōto was called the Tōkaidō. The Tōkaidō began at Nihonbashi (The Bridge to Japan). You’d start in the commercial district and then cross a bridge and head out of the city. As more roads were built to facilitate 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance duty and other travel needs they all had their starting point/termination at Nihonbashi. Edo, being a castle town, was arranged in small neighborhoods and deliberately without a grid (for protection). In the early days of the shōganate, getting out of the city might prove difficult or at least a waste of time if you got lost. So once you crossed Nihonbashi, you passed through 江戸町 Edo no machi, a merchant district, headed south on a road towards 京橋 Kyōbashi.  Once you passed this bridge, you knew you were pointed in the right direction.

Kyobashi in the Edo Period. Sometimes I can't believe that such a beautiful view is what Tokyo is today. The shogun's capital was without a doubt, one of the finest cities in the world.

Kyobashi in the Edo Period. Sometimes I can’t believe that such a beautiful view is what Tokyo is today. The shogun’s capital was without a doubt, one of the finest cities in the world.

Wait a minute. You said 京橋 means “Capital Bridge.”
So why is this bridge taking us out of the capital???

京都 Kyōto means “The Capital, biaaatch.” And in the old days the city was generally just referred to as 京 Kyō “the capital.” In reality, the capital was officially wherever the emperor lived – an argument can still be made for this denomination even today.

Of course, in the Edo Period, the shōgun lived in Tōkyō. It was the de facto capital and by the middle of the Edo Period there was hardly any pretense in calling Kyōto the capital. But that was the name of the city. So Kyōbashi actually had two nuances. If you were leaving, it was the bridge to imperial capital and if you were coming, it was the bridge to the shōganal capital (scil; Edo).

The original Kyōbashi spanned the 京橋川 Kyōbashigawa Kyōbashi River. To the west was Edo Castle, in particular the so-called 大名小路 daimyō kōji daimyō alley (present day Marunouchi). To the east was Takarachō and Hatchōbori.

Kyobashi in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Total destruction, but the bridge survived and served the city well.

Kyobashi in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Total destruction, but the bridge survived and served the city well.

This picture is also after the Great Kanto Earthquake. The destruction doesn't seem as bad as the former picture. It was taken in the same year as the disaster, but since things seem a little more back to normal, I'm going to guess that this is later that year -- or straight up mislabeled -- but definitely the city seems on its way to recovery.

This picture is also after the Great Kanto Earthquake. The destruction doesn’t seem as bad as the former picture. It was taken in the same year as the disaster, but since things seem a little more back to normal, I’m going to guess that this is later that year — or straight up mislabeled — but definitely the city seems on its way to recovery.

Today, if you walk down from the starting point of the Tōkaidō in Nihonbashi to Kyōbashi station and walk all the way to the expressway, you’ve followed – more or less – the old Tōkaidō road.

In the 1870’s, a stone bridge was built. In 1922, a second wider bridge was built. It withstood the Great Kantō Earthquake like a champ and stayed there until a decade or so after WWII. In 1959 the river was filled in and the bridge disappeared. If you go to the location of the former bridge, you can view the course of the river roughly by following the 東京高速道路 Tōkyō Kōsoku Dōro Tōkyō Expressway from the Marunouchi Exit to the Kyōbashi Exit – easily done on foot. The original bridge stood in 京橋3丁目 Kyōbashi sanchōme near Kyōbashi Station.

One of the original bridge markers from the 1875 Meiji Period bridge remains as a memorial.

One of the original bridge markers from the 1875 Meiji Period bridge remains as a memorial.

A single bridge marker from the Taisho Era bridge remains. The Taisho Era bridge survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and WWII. It's final demise came with the filling in of the river in the 1950's.

A single bridge marker from the Taisho Era bridge remains. The Taisho Era bridge survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and WWII. It’s final demise came with the filling in of the river in the 1950’s. That’s a bad ass stone bridge. Bad Ass!!!

Tour of an Edo Period House in Kyoto

In Travel in Japan on January 18, 2010 at 11:41 am

This came to my attention via Japan Probe, and as a lover of Japanese history, it immediately caught my attention. The Japan of the past that we might see in movies and read about in books is quickly disappearing. Here in Tokyo it sometimes seems like only the shrines and temples have survived the earthquakes, fires, carpet bombings and construction booms over the centuries. The Tokyo of today would be utterly unrecognizable to an inhabitant of the Edo Period (we’re talking as late as 1868, folks). Kyoto was luckily spared most of destruction of the American bombings during WWII and emerged from the war comparatively unscathed. While the other urban centers had no choice but to rebuild quickly (and seemed to continue that growth to this day), Kyoto has been been allowed to keep its classical beauty intact.

In this YouTube clip, Professor Jeff Berglund of Kyoto University gives a tour of his house. Maybe in Kyoto this kind of house is common. I don’t know. All I do know is that it’s absolutely beautiful and he’s taken great efforts to maintain it.

They say it’s a 160 years old. If that’s true, that puts the construction date at about 1850. At that time, Japan was still a closed country enjoying 260 some odd years of virtual isolation from the world.

But not for long.

Commodore Perry and his fleet of “Black Ships” arrived in the summer of 1853 and threw Japan into close to 15 years of turmoil culminating in civil war. That period, known as the Bakumatsu (end of the shogunate), brought much of violence and bloodshed to the quiet capitol of the Emperor. Professor Berglund’s house has a view of the Kamogawa River (which was the place where many a decapitated head was placed by radical rōnin seeking to overthrow the shogun’s government in Edo and restore “rule” to the Emperor).  Basically the house saw the end of the feudal era, the modernization of Japan, the rise of nationalism, the defeat and subsequent American Occupation, the path towards superpower and the bubble economy and is still standing there in its Edo Period elegance.  Absolutely amazing!!

Here’s the video:

if that doesn’t work, here’s a direct link:

Some interesting things about the house:

1 – It’s a 160 years old.

2 – He’s added a balcony (not a feature of Edo Period houses, if I’m not mistaken), which he uses during the hot summer months for dining and relaxing.

3 – The balcony affords a view of the Kamogawa River and Higashiyama Mountain (two of the main geographic landmarks in Kyoto).

4 – He states that 水の横の京が一番涼しい. Literally, “The capital on the water is the coolest.”

It’s a play on the kanji for Kyoto/”capital” () and the kanji for a cool breeze which is made of the kanji for “water” and “capital.” I don’t know if that’s supposed to be funny or something, or maybe I just didn’t get the pun – but basically he’s saying that in the hot summer months it’s best to be out on the water in Kyoto to cool down. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

5 – On the second floor, he has a little window area where he drinks coffee and reads the paper in the morning. In the evening’s he likes to kick back and booze it up there.

6 – If I’m not mistaken about the last bit, he has to replace all the tatami mats each year to keep the house in such pristine condition.

7 – Then the video cuts off. Dang.

Anyways, it’s a really nice house and I’d love to live in one just like it. If anyone wants to give me money to buy such a house, I’ll happily take donations (^_−)−☆

awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrky( -_-)凸

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