“Let’s Go for a Morning Walk to Nihonbashi”
This guide serves as both a walking guide of Nihonbashi and a lesson in “Walking with Mindfulness,” in which we will learn to sharpen our awareness as we walk.
By walking with mindfulness, rather than casually strolling around town, you might discover things you never thought of or noticed before.
Our destination is Nihonbashi, which is just a ten-minute walk away. When you’re ready, exit the hotel, turn on this guide, and let’s head on over.
Since walking is something we usually do unconsciously, let’s start by observing the very act of walking.
I’m going to ask you several questions which will allow you to direct your awareness to different things. Focus on each one as you walk for one minute. Try a slow pace for now.
Let’s start walking.
“How is the rhythm of your breathing?”
“How is your posture?”
“What are you looking at?”
“How do your feet feel on the sidewalk?”
“How hard is the ground you’re walking on?”
How did it go? By taking the time to consider these things, you’ve probably already made some new discoveries.
This guide engages all five of your senses so you can get a strong feel for the town. Nihonbashi is a town that, like all great art, has risen out of the ideas and curiosity of its people.
What’s the story behind this town? How did it come to be? Who were its founders, and what were their ideas?
As we tell you this history as you make your way to the old Edo town of Nihonbashi, please remember to take your time and pay attention to the act of walking.
"Nihonbashi’s History: An Edo Town Founded by a Shogun and Built by Merchants"
This is a verse from “Kochaebushi,” a song that describes the departure of travelers from the Nihonbashi neighborhood of Edo. This scene has also been depicted in the famous Edo-era ukiyo-e woodblock prints, The Fifty Three Stations of Tokaidō. Nihonbashi served as the first station on the Tokaido road, an important historical road dotted with post-station towns that connected Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. The song itself describes the seven bells that would ring at around four in the morning when travelers would begin their journey to Kyoto along the Tokaidō Road. They would leave when it was still pitch dark out to be able to make it to an inn town before nightfall, typically traveling 30 to 40 kilometers a day.
In the same year that the Edo Bakufu government was established, the Nihonbashi Bridge was also built. According to the Ieyasu Shogunate’s orders, this bridge was to be the starting point of five major roads connected to Edo: two western routes to Kyoto, the Tokaidō and the Nakasendō; the Nikkō Kaidō to the north; the Ōshū Kaidō to the northeast; and the Kōshū Kaidō to the northwest.
Japan at the time had no high-rise buildings or highways to obscure the views, so travelers had the pleasure of seeing the majesty of Mt. Fuji, the austerity of Edo-era castles, and the beauty of the sunrise from miles away. According to legend, “Nihonbashi” was given its name because it was seen as the center of Japan’s beautiful natural landscapes.
On the northern banks of the Nihonbashi River, a riverside fishing market was established, which later became known as “the kitchen of Edo”. It was a very prosperous market indeed, so much so that it was called “The Harbor of the Palace of the Dragon King,” based on the kingdom described in the famous folktale of Urashima Taro. The market played such a big role in Nihonbashi life that Utagawa Hiroshige included it in his Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaidō ukiyo-e.
Let’s try to imagine Nihonbashi in Edo-era Japan: a river winding amongst the streets, the smell of fish, the splashing boats, and the busy comings and goings of the townspeople.
Nihonbashi was a cultural, commercial, and creative hub, and at that time it was the most creative space in Japan. What would you have been doing here, if you were alive at that time?
While you listen to this music, try to imagine what your life would have been like in Edo-era Nihonbashi. Then, we’ll continue our walk through time into the Meiji era.
"Nihonbashi’s History: As Westernization Unfolds, a Town of Commerce and Finance is Born"
The last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, ended the reign of the Edo Bakufu by restoring imperial rule. The capital of Edo changed its name to Tokyo, and the whole country moved forward into the Meiji era. This completely changed the town of Edo. The Meiji government began a campaign of westernization, which included bringing new infrastructure like railroads, postal services, and telephone lines to the country, as well as using brick construction instead of wood and the introduction of gaslighting.
Similarly, the day-to-day life of the people also changed greatly. Western food like bread and beer became popular, and people gradually began to cut off their topknots, adopt western-style cropped hairstyles, and wear western clothing and shoes.
Nihonbashi was one of the first places to benefit from westernization. Mikoshi, a company that still manages a shopping center on Chūō-doori Avenue to this day, was a pioneer of westernization in the town. They announced Japan’s first-ever department store, seeking to replace fabric shops that specialized in making kimono and other similar specialized goods shops. They were also the first to introduce escalators and elevators in Japan.
Such developments must have prepared the people of the time for the coming internationalization of Japan, but while Japanese people were readily creating a brand new culture, they were also steadily heading towards large-scale international conflicts.
As the times changed from Edo to Meiji, so, too, did the town and the lives of its people alter. And while some people embraced the new cultures and trends that painted the town, there were also likely those who greatly disapproved of it. If you had been a resident of Nihonbashi during this time, how would you have felt to see the town change? As you listen to the music, try to imagine your life in Meiji-era Nihonbashi.
"The History of Nihonbashi: How It Came to Be as It Is Today"
You should be close to Nihonbashi now. In the grand scheme of things, a ten-minute walk is not long at all. Nowadays we have trains and buses, so traveling doesn’t require that much work anymore.
But the people of the Edo era traveled long distances on their own two feet, over mountains, and through valleys, to get where they needed to go. What must it have been like for those travelers to finally arrive in Nihonbashi? Let’s try to imagine that as we slowly cross over the bridge. As you walk for the next two minutes, pay special attention to your footsteps and your posture.
“How is the rhythm of your breathing?”
“How do your feet feel after your journey?”
“What do you see as you approach your destination?”
“Are there any monuments that stand out to you?”
Now that you’ve become more aware of the process of walking, let’s take a moment to stop and observe the “Nihonbashi” sign. These kanji and hiragana words, displayed on a plaque mounted on a pillar beside the highway, were written by the last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa himself. They were written at the request of the Mayor of Tokyo at the time, because “thanks to Yoshinobu’s determination, the town was founded without destruction and bloodshed.”
Unfortunately, shortly after in the Taisho period, Japan was struck by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the town became almost unrecognizable. Nihonbashi’s riverside fish market was destroyed by the quake, and much of the town burned completely to the ground in the fires that erupted. You can still see traces of the damage from those fires on a portion of the Nihonbashi Bridge.
In the Showa period, Japan intensified its war efforts, and in the Great Tokyo Air Raid, the city burned anew. With the shortage of metals caused by the war, the kirin statues in the center of the bridge were in danger of being demolished, as many other bronze statues in the town were seized, melted, and reformed into weapons. The kirin only barely managed to avoid the same fate because of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced Japan to surrender.
You can see signposts depicting this history throughout Nihonbashi. On the eastern side of the north end of the bridge is a statue of the Princess of the Dragon Castle from the story of Urashima Taro and a commemorative pillar that serve as monuments to the riverside fish market. In the center of the bridge are the Kirin statues, with their wings outstretched, and Shishi lions stand intermittently along the length of the bridge. In fact, there are 32 Shishi statues hidden along the facade of the bridge.
Following the war, Nihonbashi was able to revive its current splendor thanks to the hard work and dedication of many of the local people. Even though the town was razed to the ground, the old shops were rebuilt and soon returned to business. The people of this neighborhood have ensured that the fires of history were never extinguished, no matter what happened.
About 400 years have passed since the Nihonbashi bridge was founded. In all that time, what kind of people have crossed this bridge, and how did they feel when they made it to the other side? As the music plays, let’s take some time to imagine the stories of the people who came to this bridge before us. Then it will be time to conclude this guide.
"What Will You Make of Your Town?"
A market town founded by a shogun; a cultural hub created by its people, the pioneers of westernization. This is a town forged by the will of its inhabitants.
How have you changed after taking the time to walk slowly through the town, directing your awareness inwards and outwards? By being more aware of the normally automatic act of walking, what were you able to discover? What kinds of emotions bubbled to the surface? Did you come up with some interesting ideas? You may have even dreamed up memories of a past life.
Now that you’ve experienced this transformation, I’d like you to take some time to think about the future of your town. Towns, no matter the era, are made based on the will of the people who live in them. They are not just something bestowed by some lofty person somewhere.
So, as you return to the hotel, try to think of the future of your own town. Even the smallest seeds can sprout into beautiful flowers.
・Nihonbashi Bridge and Mitsukoshi Dept (Greater Tokyo) / Tokyo Greater Metropolitan Library
・The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō - Nihonbashi (section)/ Hiroshige Utagawa/ National Diet Library Digital Collection
・Nihonbashi and Edobashi - Famous Places of Tokyo, Station, "First Commercial Bank"（section) / Utagawa Hiroshige（3rd Generation)/ Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library Special Collection