My favourite place: Tokyo

The lat­est in our his­tor­i­cal hol­i­day se­ries sees Les­ley dis­cover the an­cient heart of one of the world’s most mod­ern cities

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - By Les­ley Downer Les­ley Downer is a his­to­rian and au­thor who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on Ja­pan. Her most re­cent book is a novel, The Shogun’s Queen, set in 19th-cen­tury Edo (Ban­tam, 2016)

Vis­it­ing Tokyo is like stepping into the fu­ture. Ev­ery­thing feels clean and bright and new. I get up ear­lier, walk faster, join the crowds hur­ry­ing along the streets, gaze up in ad­mi­ra­tion at the lat­est mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, all steel and glass, ex­tra­or­di­nary curves and an­gles.

But Tokyo’s brash moder­nity is only one side of this sprawl­ing, glo­ri­ous city. It also has its quiet spots where, de­spite Amer­i­can fire­bomb­ing in the Sec­ond World War, the at­mos­phere of the old city sur­vives. Old houses ram­ble along lanes just wide enough for a bi­cy­cle, tem­ple bells toll, and you can still find the oc­ca­sional canal for which Tokyo was once fa­mous.

I fell in love with Tokyo nearly 40 years ago. I’ve ex­plored nearly ev­ery cor­ner, de­pend­ing on what book I’ve been work­ing on. It’s a city of neigh­bour­hoods, and each has its own his­tory and flavour.

Tokyo has two names and two dis­tinct sto­ries. In 1590, the war­lord Toku­gawa Ieyasu took a fish­ing vil­lage called Edo as his power­base. He uni­fied the coun­try and be­came its first shogun.

Un­der Ieyasu’s descen­dents, Ja­pan was largely closed to the out­side world and en­joyed 250 years of peace. Edo grew into a vast city, as pros­per­ous as Paris. It was a beau­ti­ful place criss­crossed with canals. West­ern­ers called it the Venice of the East.

Spread across the hills to the west was the high city where the 260 daimyo – regional over­lords rather like the barons of the me­dieval era – main­tained their palaces, guarded by bat­tal­ions of samu­rai. Ev­ery year or two, most trav­elled from their pro­vin­cial lands to Edo to pay homage to the shogun. Right at the heart was Edo Cas­tle. It’s now known as the Im­pe­rial Palace, but you can still see the gran­ite ram­parts and the plaza where the pop­u­lace knelt as the great lords passed by in their palan­quins. To this day, sub­way lines can­not pass un­der­neath and aero­planes may not fly above the palace.

But the vi­brant heart of the city was the war­ren of lanes to the east – the low city where the towns­folk lived. Here, men en­joyed the plea­sures of the ‘float­ing world’. Wood block-print artists like Hoku­sai plied their trade, cour­te­sans presided over sa­lons while geisha shim­mied along the narrow streets. You can still ex­pe­ri­ence the bus­tle of the low city in Asakusa, where crowds surge up Nakamise street to pray at Sen­soji Tem­ple, with its huge bell and five-storey pagoda. The tem­ple is Tokyo’s old­est – founded in 628 and re­built after its de­struc­tion in the Sec­ond World War. Mean­while, two mu­se­ums recre­ate the flavour of old Edo: the Fuk­a­gawa Edo Museum and the Edo Tokyo Museum in the Ryo­goku dis­trict.

This whole world came abruptly to an end in 1853 when the Amer­i­can com­modore Matthew Perry and his four gun­ships pushed into Edo Bay, threat­en­ing the city. Fif­teen years later, after a civil war, the Em­peror Meiji was re­stored as fig­ure­head and trav­elled in grand pro­ces­sion from Ky­oto to Edo. Edo was re­born as Tokyo (‘East­ern Cap­i­tal’).

The Ginza dis­trict, classy to this day, em­bod­ies the glam­our of the post-Restoration pe­riod. There, the first rick­shaws

clat­tered, gas lamps glowed and the first brick build­ings ap­peared. In 1872, the first trains puffed into the new sta­tion in nearby Shim­bashi, the grand­est of the Tokyo geisha dis­tricts and home to the Kabuki-za, the city’s prin­ci­pal the­atre for the 400-year-old kabuki drama form.

Tokyo was a so­phis­ti­cated, thriv­ing city when, in 1923, an earth­quake re­duced it to rub­ble. The Sec­ond World War saw it flat­tened again, and when the Amer­i­cans ar­rived in 1945, Tokyo was a sea of ash.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a turn­ing point. High­ways ap­peared, soar­ing over the city on stilts. A broad, tree-lined boule­vard – ‘the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo’ – swept up to the Olympic Sta­dium in the Yoyogi dis­trict.

Pros­per­ity had ar­rived, but with it came protest, erupt­ing in the un­der­ground al­ter­na­tive scene in the Shin­juku dis­trict, a place that still has an edge of ex­cite­ment. If any­where is Blade Run­ner city, it’s here, ver­ti­cal neon signs blaz­ing like the ban­ners of a samu­rai army.

Tokyo in the 1980s felt like the most glam­orous place on Earth. New, jaw-drop­ping build­ings sprang up, de­signed by some of the world’s great­est ar­chi­tects. Fash­ion, art and the­atre all blos­somed.

To­day’s city is a lit­tle less fre­netic, but it con­tin­ues to feel pros­per­ous, serene and safe. It still feels like the fu­ture.

Vis­it­ing Tokyo is like stepping into the fu­ture. But its moder­nity is only one side of the city

With its huge bell and five-storey pagoda, Sen­soji Tem­ple is one of Tokyo’s most pop­u­lar – and ven­er­a­ble – land­marks

Uta­gawa Hiroshige’s Moon After Snow at Ryo­goku, from the se­ries Three Views of Snow at Fa­mous Places in the East­ern Cap­i­tal, 1843

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