Tokyo began as a fishing village named Edo, more than 400 years ago when, in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate in the city. It began an era of enormous growth – culturally, politically and demographically – while separating the city from that controlled by the Emperor, who resided in Kyoto, the formal capital of the nation.
Some of the best examples of architecture from this period remain in Asakusa, a district in Taito, including the magnificent Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon; the area, which was once the city’s premier entertainment district, today hosts many festivals, such as the Sanja Matsuri, one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo. Sadly, Asakusa, like much of Tokyo, was badly damaged by US raids during World War Two, particularly the 1945 firebombing.
It was one of three occasions when the city fell victim to fire, following the fires of 1657, which claimed more than 100,000 lives, and those that proceeded the earthquake of 1923. You can learn more about the Edo Period, as well as the disasters that have shaped the city’s architecture and history at the excellent Edo-Tokyo Museum.
In 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate ended and imperial rule was restored, bringing the Edo Period to an end after nearly 260 years. The transition, known the Meiji Restoration, saw the Emperor move to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo and became the capital of Japan. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the city underwent a remarkable transformation, with the introduction of stone and brick to buildings and roads, the first telecommunications line and the first steam train.
Today, one of the most ‘traditional’ parts of the city is Yanaka, which you will see described as Shitamachi, referring to affluent areas of Tokyo to the west of the palace. Although the phrase actually originates from Edo times, the well-heeled area undoubtedly has an imperial feel. It is also home to the Yanaka Cemetery, built in 1872, and famous for Cherry Blossom Avenue, which blooms each spring. Also from this period is the Ueno Zoo, opened in 1882. For a bit of modern history, ride the Ueno Zoo Monorail, the first of its type in the country, which opened in 1957.
The Taisho era (1912-1926) followed the Meiji period; a time of great cultural expansion and a rise in living standards. However, in 1923 the city was devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake, and in particular the fires that followed. There are discreet memorials in Yokoamicho Park in Sumida Ward to those who died in disaster and the violence that followed. Following this period, the Pacific War broke out in 1941, resulting in Tokyo-fu (prefecture) and Tokyo-shi (city) being abolished – with the Metropolis of Tokyo formed in 1943. From the 1950s onwards Tokyo was rebuilt into the sprawling, incredible and modern city we know today.
Those interested in the city’s history, of course, should visit the Imperial Palace itself, built on the grounds of a former Edo castle during the Meiji period, although the majority of it was rebuilt after World War Two. Although many architectural sites have fallen victim to fire, Tokyo’s history can still be enjoyed through its culture. There are, of course, the sumo tournaments and Kappo Yoshiba, the city’s sumo restaurant, where wrestlers continue traditions that have their roots in antiquity.
Likewise, visitors can enjoy Noh, a form of classical Japanese dance-drama that dates back to the 14th century, in the National Noh Theatre, or Kabuki in the Kabuki-za Theatre. There remain many traditional Japanese crafts – such as Kiriko glass, Amezaiku, Oshima Tsumugi, and Washi paper – that can be purchased or experienced through expert demonstrations.