Nihonbashi: where modern Tokyo and historical Edo meet

Nihonbashi has always been a business and commercial hub in Tokyo, with Mitsukoshi–Tokyo’s premier department store– and the Tokyo Stock Exchange located nearby.  But with recent developments of other multi-use buildings hosting shops, office facilities and hotels, the area is enjoying a new vibrancy.

The name “Nihonbashi” means “Japan Bridge”.  It is the name given to a bridge crossing the Nihonbashi River, a waterway that flows between the Kanda River and the Sumida River and once fed the moats surrounding Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace).  It is also the name of the neighborhood near the bridge and the subway station that serves it.

All distances from Tokyo to other parts of Japan are measured from this bridge.

It is said that the first wooden bridge on this site was built in 1603, the year the Tokugawa shogunate began.  But I recently read in Hiromi Rogers’ book, Anjin – The Life and Times of Samurai William Adams, that even the 1603 bridge had a predecessor–a rickety bridge consisting of just two logs.  While the word “Nihon” can mean “Japan”, there is a homonym written with different kanji characters which means “two long, thin objects” (eg, logs), which was likely the true source of the name “Nihonbashi”.

The 1603 bridge was a gracefully arched structure 62 meters long and 7.5 meters wide that has been memorialized in numerous contemporary prints.  Apparently it was once possible to see Edo Castle to the west when standing on the bridge.

Although the wooden bridge was replaced by a double-arched white stone bridge in 1911, there is a partial full scale replica in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, as well as a half size replica in the international terminal at Haneda Airport, for those who want the experience of walking across an Edo Period bridge.

When it was opened in 1911, the current bridge featured street car rails down its center.  These were removed after the street car was superseded by the Ginza subway line (Tokyo’s first subway line) in the 1930s.

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Designed by Tsumaki Yorinaka, the bridge is both functional and elegant, featuring bronze statues of lions and kirin (mythical creatures).  There are 32 bronze lions on the bridge, although spotting all 32 is a bit of a challenge!  Interestingly, it is said to be good luck to meet the eyes of one of the lions capping the arches, something you can really only do while actually on the river (see below for more on that).

Today one of only two Tokyo bridges that date back to the Meiji Period, the Nihonbashi Bridge was literally overshadowed by the construction of the metropolitan expressway in the 1960s.  It is said that the expressways were built over Tokyo’s waterways because the city had an urgent need for expressways in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but lacked the funds to acquire the needed land (the exercise of eminent domain in Japan is also a difficult and time-consuming process).

There is no question that the overheard expressway detracts from the attractiveness of the area, although in the area near the bridge the underside of the expressway has been sealed and painted in a light color to improve the overall environment.  Some greenery in the area also helps.

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During the Edo Period, the city’s fish market operated from the north bank of the river just east of Nihonbashi–the forerunner of today’s Tsukiji Fish Market.  At the same time, it appears that the river in the area around Nihonbashi was a busy transit and market area for various products, in addition to being regarded as the point at which all long distance journeys began and ended.

These days it’s possible to board a boat from the south side of the bridge for a “cruise” through various waterways of the area, including out into the Sumida River.  Two different companies operate, offering several sailings daily of differing lengths between 45 and 90 minutes.  One company, Mizuha, also provides English explanations.  On weekends the trips sell out quickly.  Consider buying your tickets as soon as you arrive in the area and then having a look around while waiting for your sailing.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, when you visit the area, you can also see what it looked like in both the 17th and 19th centuries and learn more about daily life in those times using an app called Time Trip View that was developed by Fuji TV (commemorating their 2014 television series called “Time Trip App”).  Click on icons when standing at the north or south end of the bridge to see animations with Japanese narration and also still shots with English text for those who don’t speak Japanese.  I found the iPhone app worked better than the Android version.

In spite of all the modernization, the area north of the former fish market is still a rabbit warren of narrow streets of bars and restaurants–and these days even some galleries.  One restaurant that is particularly well-known is Kaneko Hannosuke, a small place whose specialty is “ten-don”, a bowl of rice topped with freshly fried tempura and covered with a special sauce (JPY950).  It’s so popular that people are willing to wait in line, sometimes for an hour or more, for the privilege of dining here.

Spending a few hours in the vicinity of Nihonbashi can provide visitors a sense of both modern Tokyo and historical Edo.

 

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