Before Tokyo became the high-speed, high-tech, futuristic Japanese capital we know today, it was known by another name: Edo. Japan’s de facto capital for nearly 300 years, through times of peace, conflict, disaster, and cultural flourishing, Edo was an integral place and period in the history and identity of Japan that exists today.
Though both Edo and Tokyo have been nearly destroyed hundreds of times throughout their history, remains of the capital of the Tokugawa shogunate still exist and survive amidst modern Tokyo; in ruins, museums, temples, pathways, customs, and history, travelers with a keen eye (and a handy guide) can still take a stroll through the ancient Edo hidden among Tokyo’s skyscrapers and busy streets.
When Did Edo Exist, And Why Did Its Name Change To Tokyo?
After achieving victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa shogunate (military feudal system of government), which would remain in power for over 250 years, from 1603 to 1868. Though the shogun was officially appointed by the Emperor, and the capital remained in Kyoto throughout the Edo Period, the shoguns were the country's de facto rulers, and likewise, Edo, where Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself, was the political capital of Japan.
During this period of relative peace, Japan experienced great economic growth and rapid urbanization. Cultural practices like sumo and ukiyo-e, which are hallmarks of Japanese culture to this day, came to be or flourished during this period.
In 1868, the Meiji Restoration came to a head, toppling the power of the shogunate. Soon after the Emperor was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was then renamed Tokyo, meaning Eastern Capital.
Where Can Visitors Experience Edo In Modern Tokyo?
Between earthquakes, devastating fires - particularly damaging in the wooden buildings of the Edo Period - and bombings, Tokyo has been consistently destroyed and built anew. But Edo still exists beneath Tokyo, in ruins, pathways, and cultural heritages.
Among the many amazing museums in Tokyo, the ones focused on Edo heritage and history should be the first stop for travelers eager to understand the period. The most popular is the Edo-Tokyo Museum; though it is currently closed for renovations, it does feature an impressive virtual exhibit taking visitors through the streets of old Edo and a lot of informational videos.
For an immersive experience of Edo, visitors can make their way to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, where important and typical buildings of the Edo period were relocated and reconstructed, allowing people to walk through reconstructed Edo streets. The Edo Wonderland Nikko Kimura is somewhere between theme park and museum, and it's a great option for those interested in a more visual representation of what life and culture would have looked like, with staff playing out the day to day of an immersive Edo, and viewings of traditional Edo art like Oiran shows, archery displays and ukiyo-e exhibits.
Ruins of Edo Castle
When the Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, their capital was built around the massive Edo Castle. A complex structure running over 16 kilometers, Edo Castle was once one of the largest fortresses in the world, but very little of it remains today. The Tokyo Imperial Palace, the residence of the Emperor, was built where a part of the Castle used to stand; though the palace is not open for visits, the remains and ruins of the imposing Edo Fortress extend far into modern Tokyo.
One of the best places to see it is right at the Imperial East Gardens right beside the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda district. A beautiful city park was built where the inner defensive circles of the castle once stood. In the Gardens, the trees and lawns are intermingled with surviving Edo Castle entrance gates, walls, and moats; the base structure of the main tower, tenshu, is an archeological centerpiece in the park.
The Chidorigafuchi Moat, one of the most popular cherry blossom observational spots in the city, was once one of the numerous moats that made Edo the Venice of Japan. Today, this Edo structure that has seen centuries of history brings visitors from all over to enjoy the Sakura Festival. Visitors can experience a bit of the Edo day-to-day routine by renting and riding a boat along the moat and enjoying Tokyo from a different perspective.
The Tokugawa Mausoleum
Zojoji Temple is a popular spot in Tokyo, the contrast of its traditional architecture with the modern Tokyo Tower in its background makes it a picture-perfect place in a picture-perfect city. But Zojoji Temple is also deeply linked with Edo and the Tokugawa clan.
Though the Zojoji Temple predates Edo, the Tokugawa elected it as their family temple, and six of the Tokugawa shoguns are buried in the Teitoku-in Mausoleum, on temple grounds. The temple's main gate (Sangadetsumon) is the only intact structure from the period, dating to 1622.
The Asakusa Shrine
Asakusa is a district that flourished and developed as an entertainment district in Edo, from kabuki theaters in the 1600s to movie theaters in the 1800s. It is there that the Asakusa Shrine is located; it was constructed in 1649, by order of Tokugawa Iemitsu as a shrine to honor the three builders of the Senso-Ji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country. Asakusa Shrine is one of the very few buildings that survived the devastating 1945 US air raids which destroyed most of Tokyo, including the Senso-Ji. As one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, it is an Important Cultural Property of the Japanese Government.
The shrine is the focus of the yearly Sanja Matsuri, an Edo traditional festival that honors the three founders of Senso-Ji, held at the end of May. During the festivities, traditional ceremonies are held and Edo customary parades and entertainment are held and celebrated; there’s hardly a better way to experience Edo life.