Sunday, January 30, 2011

Old Tokyo


Actually, there is no such thing as an "Old Tokyo". Unlike most of big European cities, the capital of Japan doesn't have a typical old town or even any other major concentration of old architecture. Whatever historical sites are still left to see, they are pretty much scattered all over the metropolis and well hidden in between modern urban areas. This makes Tokyo a city of interesting contrast but also deprives its visitors of chance to experience the past Japan. Of course it is still possible to taste a bit of the samurai life while walking around some narrow, crowded bazaars or picturesque temple parks but these are all together quite rare in comparison with more present-day-like districts. As a result, those wanting to really immerse themselves in the past should take a trip to Kyoto, the old capital, and it's surrounding cities like Kobe, Osaka and Nara, where the old is still well preserved and Japanese traditions seem to be more visible than in the westernised Tokyo. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to go there yet, so right now I want to share with you my impressions about some historical sites of the Eastern Capital (and this is what the name 'Tokyo' stands for, in opposition to Kyoto lying to the west).

Tokyo is a relatively old city, dating back to Kamakura period, when it was simply a small fishing village with no significance at all, then called Edo, after a minor samurai clan that was governing it. In the late 12th century it was first fortified and in 1457 the Edo castle was built in the place where the Imperial Palace now stands. Throughout the course of history, Edo became more important and in 1590 it was finally obtained by Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful warlord, whose mausoleum is now in Nikko. When Tokugawa became the shogun and de facto ruler of Japan in 1603, Edo's rank and wealth grew as the new military capital, while the Emperor, the highest priest, was still residing in Kyoto. By the 18th century Edo was already the biggest city in the world with a population of around one million inhabitants (almost twice as populous as the biggest European cities of that time, London and Paris). The picture (or rather photochrom) below shows the panorama of the city around 1865.

The Japanese political schism came to an end in 1868 as a result of the civil Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration. The Emperor moved to Edo in 1869, making it the official imperial capital and the single military, religious and cultural centre. The city was renamed as Tokyo and the Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace. Tokyo entered the period of rapid growth and versatile development, which more or less continues to the present day. So what are the reasons for Tokyo losing most of its old urban areas and replacing them with modern structures? Unfortunately, the capital suffered some incredible catastrophes as well, mostly in the first half of the 20th century. First of all, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake devastated most of Tokyo and Yokohama in only 10 minutes, killing up to 150.000 people. Not only was Tokyo hit by one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in Japanese history, but also by extremely high winds from a nearby typhoon, that caused the fires to rapidly spread all around the city.

The other catastrophe (and by far worse) was the bombing of Tokyo by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. It started in 1942 as a 'morale breaker' and a direct response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but soon changed into a full scale strategic bombing of 1944 and 1945. The fire showers consumed most of the beautiful old wooden buildings and more than 50% of the city was destroyed. The estimated number of 100.000 deaths seems to be greatly lowered by both American and Japanese authorities interested in maintaining the friendship between both nations. Unfortunately the savage bombings of Tokyo by the USA are not a well-known fact, despite being maybe more devastating than both Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings combined.

Going back to the present matters, it is really amazing how Tokyo has managed to recover from all these damages, transforming into a true global city and still keeping some of its bygone charm. Bits of it are well visible in the district of Ueno with it's well-known park and a neighbourhood of finest cultural sites, like three National Museums, temples, shrines, libraries and a lively street market. There's also Japan's oldest and most famous zoo established in the late XIX century. Another place worth seeing is the Asakusa district, home to the great Senso-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple from the VII century (the capital's oldest). Asakusa used to be Tokyo's main entertainment district with many theaters (later cinemas), festivals and a small carnival. Although it is now far less popular with the young people than newer districts like Shibuya or Shinjuku, it's still a major touristic attraction. It is said that Asakusa's narrow alleys (like the pretty Nakamise-dori), filled with traditional music coming from shop speakers and the smell of food hastily prepared in street stalls, are somehow reminiscent of Kyoto. And there are also 45 actively working geishas in the area.

Finally, the most impressive historical area of Tokyo must be the Imperial Palace itself and it's surrounding Gardens. Located in Chiyoda district, the huge Palace area consist of the Emperor's residencies, archives, museums and administrative buildings. Unluckily, normal visitors are not allowed into the heavily guarded inner grounds, including the seven-winged Kyuden (the main palace), and can only stroll around the Gardens, watching the palace from afar. There are special times of year, however, when everyone is allowed inside. These include the Emperor's birthday on December 23rd, when he even greets the cheering crowd that gathers in the Reception Hall. This year I was unable to attend, maybe I'll go some other time. And this concludes the small tour around the capital's history. The bonus movie shows a small shrine in Harajuku visited by me and my good friends a while ago after a night out in Tokyo.

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