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Transcreating Tokyo

Follow cultural anthropologist Takeo Funabiki on a journey through the history of Tokyo

©Satoshi Asakawa

Looking to learn more about the history of the greatest city on earth? Our ongoing 'Transcreating Tokyo' series explores Tokyo's past and its complex relationship with the present through a wide variety of themes, from topographic patterns and the bodily arts to the city's favourite fast food and its world-famous cherry blossoms. These glimpses into the history of Edo-Tokyo are provided by cultural anthropologist Takeo Funabiki, a born-and-bred Tokyoite with over 30 years of experience as a teacher and later as professor at the University of Tokyo. Check out the full list of articles below, and look out for updates every two months or so.

Start your journey here

Summer festivals
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Summer festivals

Instead of the usual four, it’s more accurate to say that Tokyo actually has six seasons. That’s because both the weather and people’s activities change noticeably in the capital every two months. This series, which here kicks off with summer (July and August), will see me delving deeper into all six seasons over the coming year. In the northern hemisphere, especially in North America and central Europe, summer starts in June and runs until August, when the first signs of autumn can already be felt in the air – and in the tired demeanour of hotel and restaurant employees in resort towns everywhere. In Tokyo, on the other hand, the onset of summer comes with the end of rainy season in July and is always accompanied by suffocatingly hot weather. This heat lasts throughout August and into the first half of September, when city-dwellers can finally start looking forward to cooler days. With such steamy conditions come incessant warnings of heatstroke and constant chit-chat about how unbearable the weather is, as if summer was an all-round despicable time of the year. But for me, these two months are a time when the blue sky, clouds and lush greenery make it seem as if the city is bursting with energy. Urban versus rural festivals That energy is also why so many of Edo-Tokyo’s great traditional festivals or matsuri take place in summer. These multi-day celebrations see portable mikoshi shrines carried around neighbourhoods, participants splashed with water and countless onloo

Kabuki, then and now, part 3
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Kabuki, then and now, part 3

As I mentioned in the first column of this three-part series, kabuki languished on a path of deep decline in the first few decades of the postwar era. But as was argued in my previous entry, the latter part of the 1960s saw a revival, with debuts by new stars like the ‘Sannosuke’ (‘three nosuke’), namely Ichikawa Shinnosuke (later Ichikawa Danjuro XII), Onoe Kikunosuke (now known as Kikugoro) and Onoe Tatsunosuke (whose son is the current Onoe Shoroku), and the Taka-Tama duo (Takao Kataoka, now Nizaemon, and Bando Tamasaburo) bringing audiences back. Those involved with kabuki had been running scared, worrying that ‘tradition will die out’, but the emergence of these new heroes pulled the artform out of its misery and drove away such dark clouds. A stunning recovery Turnarounds like that tend to happen every now and then here in Japan. A similar thing occurred with kyogen (traditional comic theatre), which was at one point virtually unknown and devoid of any popularity. But the arrival of a young man called Mansai Nomura changed the tide completely, and now kyogen is attractive enough to inspire ‘dinner shows’ built around the performers. In Japan, ‘stars’ have remarkable ability to gather popular attention. Therefore, if you’re looking to revive a genre that’s gone stale, giving birth to a star is the way to go. Stars can occasionally emerge out of nowhere, but to put it poetically, if the ground is completely dry, nothing will grow. Even during kabuki’s darkest years, t

Kabuki, then and now, part 2
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Kabuki, then and now, part 2

Described as having a ‘dreary past’ and being ‘inevitably on the decline’ in my previous column, kabuki is now constantly drawing sell-out crowds. How did this turnaround happen? Before answering that question, we need to look at what kabuki is exactly – otherwise, this column could be summarised in a single sentence that would read something like ‘debuts by young stars like Sannosuke and the Taka-Tama duo brought audiences back’. Folk art? Not so fast  In 2008, kabuki was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco – a recognition eagerly reported in the press, which was happy to fete kabuki’s World Heritage status. But what is a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage, really? Taking a look at the long list of performing arts so designated, we find entries such as Uganda’s ‘Bigwala, gourd trumpet music and dance of the Busoga Kingdom’ and ‘Ritual dramatic art of Ta'ziye’ from Iran. Alright, then – looking at other Japanese representatives, we get ‘Mibu no Hana Taue, ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima’, and the picture becomes clearer: the Intangible Cultural Heritage label applies to folk arts from all around the world. Kabuki, however, does not fit in such a category. Although its origins lie in folk arts, it has kept up with the times for the past 400 years as a contemporary, urban form of entertainment. The Unesco list contains several ’classical’ forms of performing art, such as China’s Peking Opera and Japan’s Noh and Bunraku, but none of these compare

Kabuki, then and now
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Kabuki, then and now

As I wrote in a previous ‘Transcreating Tokyo’ column, the city of Edo-Tokyo has given birth to three main forms of bodily entertainment: kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling and geisha ‘service’. Now that more than 300 years have passed since their inception, the original three may have been absorbed by new genres – film and theatre, sport, and the world of culinary and so-called adult entertainment, respectively – but they continue to play a central role in the city’s cultural landscape, in which the old and the new interact in peculiar ways. This column is the first in a new six-piece series that explores the past and present of Tokyo’s three arts of the body. Kabuki – a relic of the past? I have been watching kabuki for half a century. As it’s been quite a while since the Showa era ended, not to mention that the war is now a distant memory, I thought my story had to avoid sounding like the reminiscences of an old grumpy fellow. But to my surprise, it turned out that the kabuki I remember is actually extremely old-fashioned. Well, what was kabuki like when I first started watching it in the early 1960s? To put it simply, it was on the decline. In those days, the most famous kabuki actor was movie star Kinnosuke Nakamura. Many of the other major actors associated with kabuki, such as Kazuo Hasegawa and Chiezo Kataoka, had also moved into the film industry before the war and become very successful. Still, these greats seemed to retain a deep affection for kabuki: at the heigh

In praise of 'rabbit hutches'?
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In praise of 'rabbit hutches'?

When visiting Tokyo, it’s best not to expect being invited to a Japanese home. This isn’t because Japanese people lack a sense of hospitality: instead the hesitancy is due to the fact that Japanese homes are much like personal spas, i.e. private places for rest and relaxation – as I wrote in the previous column in this series. What’s more, the reason you often hear for why Japanese people rarely invite ‘outsiders’ and throw parties at home is houses in Japan are too cramped for that – people tend to be too embarrassed to let anyone in, unless they’re very close friends. Speaking of which, in the past – even during the Bubble era – it was quipped that ‘although the Japanese are wealthy, their homes are small like rabbit hutches’. But the foreign correspondent who wrote this obviously did so without sufficiently observing reality and investigating the topic.  The legacy of feudal rule First of all, if we look back at the Edo era, we’ll note that 70 to 80 percent of the Japanese population was based in the countryside, where houses were much larger. Farmers who were relatively well off, owning roughly two hectares of farmland, lived in houses comparable to modern luxury mansions in size, with many of these dwellings still standing today. It was only in urban centres like Edo, Kyoto and Osaka where non-samurai commoners had to endure cramped quarters. Well then, can it be said that the majority of Japanese homes became ‘rabbit hutches’ from the Meiji era onwards, when large-sc

Zooming in and out in Japanese culture
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Zooming in and out in Japanese culture

When we talk about Japan, it isn’t necessarily wrong to use familiar concepts like wabi-sabi and ‘fusion of tradition and modernity’ – it’s just that most people are probably tired of hearing these tropes. Here, I hope to leave these concepts behind and instead illuminate one major characteristic of Japanese culture, one that has developed over the past 400 years, and explain it through the idea of ‘zooming’.  The humongous and the minuscule Japan is a relatively small island nation and – as you can tell by looking at Japanese rugby players – Japanese people are traditionally rather small in stature. Still, large things have obviously always existed in Japan, and these often seem to have been held in high regard. Among the man-made objects that remain today, take the 5th-century rectangular tombs built for an emperor in western Japan, which are up to a kilometre long on one side. As for eastern Japan, one might mention the 17th-century Edo Castle – now known as the Imperial Palace – which sits right in the centre of Tokyo but is surrounded by an over three-mile long jogging course.  Large natural objects are best represented by Mount Fuji (3,776m), once viewable from anywhere in Edo (Tokyo) and known as the city’s very own mountain. As Hokusai depicts in his ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ series, the peak was beloved by Edoites precisely for its majestic scale. Even when it comes to human size, Japan has its giants: the average sumo wrestler weighs 150kg, and it isn’t un

The Japanese home as a spa
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The Japanese home as a spa

Recently – say over the last 15 years – when staying at hotels abroad, I occasionally come across entire families casually riding the elevator wearing nothing but their bathrobes. Looking just like they’re heading to the beach, these radiantly smiling folks in slippers make me, the lone, quiet character occupying part of the same small space, feel like the world’s been turned upside down. Let me explain.  The Japanisation of the luxury hotel Back in the day, hotels in Japan were places where locals learned the ways of ‘civilisation’: warnings such as ‘please don’t wear your yukata in the hallways’ or ‘please don’t wear sunglasses in the lobby’ hinted at the level of manners expected. Formal clothing was often mandatory at hotel restaurants, and underdressed patrons were even offered the chance to borrow ties at the reception. This was in complete contrast to ryokans (traditional-style inns), where people wear bathrobes when heading back from the bathing area, enter the banquet hall barefoot, sit cross-legged, down drinks without inhibition and act a little disorderly. Of course, most of these ryokans were of the onsen (hot spring) type. Bathrobe-wearing guests strolling around the fancy hotels of New York and Paris appeared for a reason – that is, because every luxury hotel worth the moniker now places great emphasis on its spa facilities. I understand that this marketing strategy has been wildly successful in the West. Most Japanese travellers staying at these hotels are

The mysteries of sushi, part 3: the evolution of sushi
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The mysteries of sushi, part 3: the evolution of sushi

I’ve managed to shed light on some of the mysteries of sushi in the past two instalments of this series (here and here), but a few questions still remain. Why is it that non-Japanese people, who until recently balked at the thought of raw fish, have now started eating sushi? As a Japanese person, this somehow feels rewarding, embarrassing and frustrating, all at the same time. Nobody seems to remember that sushi was once branded a disgrace: a suspect, ‘fishy’ food – the slander of the past appears to have been completely vanquished. Us Japanese were once discriminated against – racially – as ‘weirdos who eat raw fish’, so I can’t help but feeling a little anger at the unremorseful foreigners who now tell me ‘sushi is great’. This ‘historical awareness’, however, does not seem to be shared by the younger generation, so me losing my temper won’t make any difference anyway. After all, my anger flows from a major misunderstanding: what people all around the world eat these days isn’t really sushi (鮓)– it is ’sushi’. Now you might be confused – isn’t sushi just sushi? Well, sure, sushi is sushi, but the original Japanese term and what people mean by ‘sushi’ nowadays do not always refer to the same thing. After all, the ‘naporitan’ spaghetti you get at a traditional kissaten is certainly not a Neapolitan dish, it’s pure washoku. You might already realise what I’m getting at here, but let me explain further. On the origin of sushi speciesJust like living beings, culture undergoes

The mysteries of sushi, part 2: fast food
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The mysteries of sushi, part 2: fast food

In the first part of this article, I wrote that ‘sushi, which can be referred to as “B-grade gourmet”, lives and dies by its ingredients. My hope is that both Japanese and New York fishermen will continue to explore the marine life that inhabits niche ecosystems along their respective coasts, and try to refine their palates in order to create their own form of sushi, instead of attempting to recreate the "Edo style"’. People who consider sushi a luxury delicacy may have been taken aback by my ‘B-grade’ label, but I have to repeat: although its price may often suggest luxury, sushi firmly remains ‘B-grade gourmet’. Why is that? The fermented roots of sushiIn fact, what is commonly called sushi these days, i.e. Edomae sushi, is a recent phenomenon in the history of sushi: it only appeared in the latter part of the Edo period (early 19th century) as a convenient form of fast food. Until then, ‘sushi’ referred to fermented fish and game, which had been buried in a mixture of salt and cooked rice (and, in some cases, sake lees and koji mould) and left to ferment for months or even years. The rice component was originally a fermentation agent and was not to be eaten. Examples of this type of sushi – which is commonly referred to as narezushi – include the Lake Biwa region’s funazushi, which is still eaten today. In order to understand the origins of Edomae sushi, obviously unfermented and eaten with rice, one has to look into the social history of fermented food. Consumables like

The mysteries of sushi, part 1 – Tsukiji and sushi
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The mysteries of sushi, part 1 – Tsukiji and sushi

My foreign friends often ask me to name the very best sushi shop in Tokyo, so that they can go there and taste the delicacies. My habitual answer is that they can go to pretty much any expensive place and the fish will be top-class. I say expensive, because the all-inclusive bill at a place like this usually comes to more than ¥15,000. Good sushi can be had for less than that, but the expensive places source directly from the Tsukiji fish market and get really high-quality fish, which obviously is truly delicious. However, the other side of the coin is that all the fish at all these shops comes from the same market, and as the taste matches the price, little variation exists. Therefore, when people say that this shop has great sushi but that shop’s stuff is lousy, they’re mostly just boosting their personal favourites. Tsukiji, the secret of Tokyo sushiSo, could you say that the sushi chefs at all these shops are equally skilled and do the exact same thing? The answer is no – plenty of difference exists. Some of these ‘masters’ exert themselves to provide you with ample appetisers or amuse-bouche before they get to the nigiri. Make no mistake: it’s theoretically impossible to use a sushi knife to make fish more delicious than it already is. Hence, a chef's skill comes down to whether or not they make the original ingredient taste worse than it originally did; in other words, it’s about minimising the negatives. To make a sports comparison, the art of sushi is not a 100-metre

The mysteries of the kimono: part 2
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The mysteries of the kimono: part 2

In part one of this article, I looked at three big mysteries surrounding the kimono. I also hinted at a fourth mystery, which is perhaps the biggest one of all: how this traditional form of clothing has persisted through to the present. Here, in part two, I hope to provide plenty of new insights for both Japanese and foreign readers. The kimono has partly disappeared from Japanese society, but simultaneously remains deep-rooted. What I mean by this is that while the kimono is no longer worn as an everyday form of dress, it is still worn as formal attire for special occasions. As I mentioned in part one, women often receive expensive kimonos as gifts from their parents and wear them at ceremonies such as Coming of Age Day and weddings. Although not to the same extent as women, men also don these increasingly rare garments on formal occasions, including New Year’s Day. As for why the tradition has changed, we need to begin with an admittedly rather sociological discussion on the meaning of clothes to us humans, so do bear with me. Clothing goes 3D – except for the kimonoPutting aside the question of whether clothing originated as a means of keeping us warm or as ‘fig leaves’ to cover our private parts, we know that early clothes were made of fur, bark and other ‘flat’ materials that made covering the entire body difficult. Although this allowed for plenty of ventilation, the gaps also robbed the body of warmth. By contrast, the ancient Roman toga and the Indian sari were far

The mysteries of the kimono
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The mysteries of the kimono

In Japan, the essentials for living are described with three characters: 衣 (i), 食 (shoku), and 住 (ju), which stand for, respectively, clothing, food and shelter. In a new series of articles, we’ll be focusing on these three aspects, looking at them one by one and presenting them especially for readers from abroad who are looking to visit Tokyo. Let’s begin with clothing
The traditional Japanese garment is the kimono, which is associated with a number of little mysteries. Japanese folk may not think the kimono is something mysterious, but they would be surprised to find out the trivia associated with it. Below, we take a look at the mysteries in the form of questions (scroll down to the end of the article for the corresponding explanations). Mystery 1: How come vintage kimonos are so cheap?
So you want to buy a kimono? While you can find them at department stores and speciality shops (gofuku-ya) in places like Ginza, they’re pretty expensive. You can, however, pick up a secondhand one at a much more affordable price. For instance, a luxurious ¥1 million kimono, made with gold and silver threads and still looking as good as it did on the day it was first bought, can be bought secondhand for around ¥50,000. Mystery 2: Why isn't samurai attire (men’s kimonos) used for tourism?


If you go to Buckingham Palace or Vatican City, you’ll be sure to find soldiers dressed in colourful traditional garments, providing the perfect setting for a photograph. Yet if you go to the Imperial

Edo, the sea and sushi
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Edo, the sea and sushi

In the previous five parts of this series, I have attempted to explain the central aspects of Edo/Tokyo, covering topics such as the terrain, the Imperial Palace and distant Mount Fuji. The final topic in this series is the sea. Besides Tokyo, many other giant cities also face the sea – or so I thought. In fact, when I started writing, I came to realise that there actually aren’t many that do. American metropolises like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles fit into this category, as does Rio de Janeiro, but after that only mid-sized cities like Barcelona and Marseille come to mind. In Japan, the big cities of Osaka and Nagoya are coastal too, so being Japanese, I presumed that other countries would feature several big cities on the sea. However, Japan is an island nation, and the distribution of goods into major population centres was first realised through shipping here. As for Tokyo Bay, it has functioned not only as a passageway for transport, but also as the ‘sea of sushi’ – a site for fishing. 'Edomae' sushi What is the origin of the term ‘Edomae’ sushi? 
It’s a term often seen on the outdoor signs of Tokyo sushi restaurants and most people probably translate this word as ‘Edo-style’ sushi, but that is incorrect. Originally, the term was used to signify that the shop serves seafood caught in the waters facing Edo, i.e. Tokyo Bay. It may be difficult to imagine nowadays, but the bay used to provide ample fishing opportunities in Edo times: unlike in the contempor

Mount Fuji and the people of Edo
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Mount Fuji and the people of Edo

In part two of this series, I wrote about Tokyo’s three levels of terrain, namely the plateau, the lowlands and the landfill, which are in turn encompassed by the sea and mountains. The sea here is of course Tokyo Bay, which I will write about next month, while the mountain refers not to the nearby peaks, but to the towering Mount Fuji. Views of FujiMost people think that Mt Fuji is located in Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, and it was indeed these two prefectures that filed the application for the mountain’s World Heritage registration, which it achieved last year. However, historically, Fuji attained the status it has today as the ‘mountain of Edo’. Tokyoites may have forgotten this fact simply because the mountain is usually hidden behind the tall buildings that have transformed the city’s skyline in recent decades. Only 50 years ago, long after the end of the Edo period, Mount Fuji could be seen from anywhere in Tokyo. Born and raised in Setagaya, I saw the mountain clearly in both mornings and evenings when traversing the Odakyu line railway crossing. The depiction of a young migrant from the countryside renting a place at ‘Fuji View Apartments’ to start his Tokyo life was a staple of old-time TV dramas, and those in the know say that there are no fewer than 24 ‘Fujimi-zaka’ (‘Fuji View Hills’) in the city. Despite the geographical distance, the people of Edo felt a particular closeness to Mount Fuji. In contrast, the gentle folk of Kyoto, inhabitants of Japan’s o

The cherry blossoms of Edo
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The cherry blossoms of Edo

It is perhaps only in Japan that the nightly TV news can open with a story declaring the start of the cherry blossom season before moving on to Putin's declaration that Russia has annexed Crimea. This purpose of this column, however, is not to lament Japan’s inward-looking tendencies – here, I take the position that Tokyo's cherry blossoms are in fact very worthy of discussion. There are good reasons for why the northward march of the ‘cherry blossom front’ is a topic of such intense interest. One is the fact that unlike hibiscus or skunk cabbage, cherry trees bloom everywhere in Japan. True, camellias also bloom in every corner of this country, but those flowers are far less popular and also do not burst open all at once along a clearly noticeable ‘front line’ like the sakura do. This relates to another factor, namely that the Japanese island chain stretches over a considerable distance from north to south – the archipelago is almost as long as the distance between Norway’s Oslo and Algeria. The ‘front’ begins its charge in Okinawa in February and then marches northward until it reaches Hokkaido around the Golden Week holidays in early May, ensuring that the pink flowers stay in the news over an extended period of time. Where, then, should you view the blossoms in Tokyo? To answer like a travel guide, anywhere is fine. When I was young, we would hop onto the Inokashira train line from Shibuya and sit by the windows admiring trees blossoming along the tracks. Of course, a

The body of Edo
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The body of Edo

In the Edo era, three forms of bodily entertainment were born: kabuki theatre, which has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the United Nations and remains highly respected both inside and outside Japan. Sumo wrestling, which has maintained its popularity in the face of problems like match-fixing scandals and the lack of Japanese champions. And geisha ‘service’, though there may be some debate as to whether geisha should be listed as one of Tokyo’s traditions since the practice has come to be criticised as prostitution. Here, I will explore the roots of these three forms of entertainment and illuminate the importance of the ‘body’ in Japanese culture.  What do we mean by ‘body’?Entering the Edo era, Christianity in Japan had been annihilated, and all religion, including Buddhism, was controlled by the shogunate. This control led to the waning influence of religion and strengthened the social order constructed by the central government, gradually erasing the idea of the transcendent god from the minds of the Japanese. Here, the transcendent god refers to a higher existence, a being from whom the very foundations of our world originate. Due to the absence of such a worldview, and the resulting lack of focus on the afterlife, the idea that the real, transient world is what matters came to be widely accepted. Hence, the human body, which is simultaneously the source of our enjoyment and its object, assumed greater importance. Worldly entertainment such as books a

Hibiya: Tokyo’s navel
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Hibiya: Tokyo’s navel

Tokyo's basic topography has not changed much over the last 400 years. In order to understand it, you need only know that Tokyo is built on three main types of land: the ‘landfill’ bordering the sea, the ‘lowland’ between the rivers, and the ‘plateau’ that spreads inland. One area, the southeastern corner of the Imperial Palace at Hibiya, overlooks all three types. The landfillIn pre-Edo days, the area south of the Hibiya intersection was an ocean cove, but today long streets lined with tall buildings span the distance between Hibiya and the present-day coastline at Hama-Rikyu and its vicinity. All of this was constructed on landfill that replaced what had previously been riverlands and the sea. Before Edo existed, however, most of the terrain near the seashore was very rough, disrupted by countless small hills and depressions. At the start of Hibiya-dori, close to where this uneven coastline used to be, stands what was once the tallest peak within Tokyo's 23 wards, Mt Atago (boasting an impressive elevation of 25.7 metres!). Massive public works were undertaken to flatten the hillocks during the construction of Edo, whereas the dips were in turn filled in with soil dug up during the building of Edo Castle’s moat. These efforts allowed for the expansion of the city and its population, and led to the building of the Hibiya, Marunouchi, Yaesu, Nihonbashi, Kyobashi, Shinbashi and Tsukiji districts.  As a result of this, water-related place names that include the characters f

Transcreating Tokyo
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Transcreating Tokyo

To know the history of Tokyo, you only need to remember two particular years: 1600 and 1868. 1600 was the year in which Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rival warlords at the Battle of Sekigahara, which led to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate three years later. This marked the beginning of a new Japanese socio-political system, centred around Edo, which later became known as Tokyo. 1868 was the year in which Ieyasu's Edo-based political system was replaced by a new, modern regime that restored imperial rule. The time before 1600 was the pre-Edo era. The Edo era lasted from 1600 to 1868, and modern Japan dates from 1868 to the present. The overlapping erasThere is a reason why this Tokyo tourist guide begin with this history segment. Any landscape in Tokyo consists of modern Japan superimposed on the Edo period, or contemporary Japan on the natural world of pre-Edo. For example, Asakusa, with its famous Sensoji Temple, is a district where 'nori' seaweed was produced, thanks to the area's abundant natural resources that date from before the Edo period (this Asakusa nori is widely used for sushi). Asakusa prospered greatly during the Edo era, which saw the founding of the temple, adorned with a Buddha statue that is said to have been discovered by chance in a fisherman's nets. As Edo culture developed, the temple environs became a place of entertainment for the common people. Asakusa continued to develop as a thriving neighbourhood during the modern era as well, as peopl

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