Edo, the Original Ecocity

The city of Edo, seat of power under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867) and antecedent of today’s Tokyo, differed fundamentally in its development and layout from most of the world’s major cities, and the distinctive aspects of the city’s early development persist even today in the underlying spatial structure of central Tokyo. In the following we will explore the pattern of development that made Edo the town it was—and that to a large degree makes Tokyo the city is.

A small, unassuming town during Japan’s medieval period, Edo was transformed into a major city around the beginning of the seventeenth century under Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), the warlord who unified Japan and founded the Tokugawa shogunate. The rapid construction of a city to dwarf all other castle towns throughout the land was made possible by advanced civil engineering technology placed in the service of unchallenged political power, and it proceeded according to a grand master plan. Nonetheless, Edo’s spatial layout was nothing like that of European cities built on the basis of the rational, geometric urban plans adopted from the Renaissance on. Much of what distinguishes Edo from these European cities can be attributed to accommodation of the natural environment. That is to say that the design of Edo, like that of most Japanese cities, strongly reflects the topography and natural conditions of its site.


Around the same time the Japanese were building Edo into a major metropolis, various European countries, in keeping with contemporary ideas on the ideal city, were planning urban centers unified by a clear and rational order and building those cities on level ground that would not interfere with the plans. Edo was chosen for the seat of power because of its favorable geography and topography and then developed according to a flexible plan that took into careful consideration the existing natural conditions, including geology, vegetation, drainage, location of waterways and springs, air currents, and more. In view of this harmony between the natural setting and the urban design, it might even be regarded as a prototype of the “ecocity.” This approach to planning resulted in a cityscape rich in variety and individuality.

Ieyasu built Edo Castle on the edge of the Musashino Plateau—or rather, he rebuilt the much smaller structure established there by Ôta Dôkan in 1457. He also installed an ingenious system for circulating water through the surrounding moats.

The low area to the east of Edo Castle became home to the urban middle class, or chônin, consisting of merchants and tradespeople. This was Edo’s shitamachi (literally “downtown”), which steadily expanded as marshy areas near the bay were reclaimed. A network of canals was built to facilitate boat transport, vastly improving the area’s suitability for commerce and distribution and ensuring its emergence as a vital urban space. Meanwhile, the elevated area to the north, west, and south of Edo Castle was reserved for the ruling warrior class. This was the district referred to as yamanote (“bluff,” or “uptown”), an area of gracious residences that took full advantage of the surrounding greenery and undulating hills. In this way, Edo evolved as a city of varied and contrasting vistas.

Planning of the shitamachi and yamanote districts developed along different lines, but in both cases the basic approach was characterized by flexible and practical adaptation to preexisting natural features rather than the emphasis on symmetrical, geometrical form seen in European cities. This resulted in organic urban spaces rich in variety. The city’s designers paid due attention to the interaction between artificial human space and such natural elements as water and greenery. Moreover, in accordance with ancient Japanese tradition, nature was an integral part of the religious spaces established around the city. In the yamanote districts, Buddhist temples and Shintô shrines were situated on tree-covered hillsides and hilltops, while in the shitamachi part of the city they were built on riverbanks or near the bay. Unlike Western churches, which were located near the center of European cities in keeping with their role as the focal point of civic life, Shintô shrines tended to be situated on the periphery of populated areas, slightly apart from secular living spaces and close to mountains, forests, or bodies of water. This lent those areas a sacred atmosphere. The location of temples and shrines on high points around Edo’s periphery created a “sacred ring” that marked the city’s boundaries, serving the function that walls did in European cities. As the city expanded, the rings multiplied, taking on the appearance of concentric circles.

To some degree, the location of temples around Edo had a superstitious significance as well. Since the northeast and southwest were considered the “demon’s gates,” directions through which misfortune tended to enter, the shogunate had the temple Kan’eiji built at a site northeast of Edo Castle and Zôjôji to the southwest. As temples of the Tokugawa clan, they came to house the graves of many shôgun. In some ways the northeastern corner of Edo imitated the imperial capital of Kyoto, where the northeast was guarded from demons by Hieizan, a mountain with a large temple near its peak, beyond which stretched Lake Biwa. Mount Ueno, where Kan’eiji was built, was considered to be Edo’s Hieizan, and was thus referred to as Tôeizan (Hieizan of the East). Shinobazu Pond was intended as a smaller replica of Lake Biwa, and a temple honoring Benzaiten, one of the seven deities of good fortune, was built on the pond’s small island in imitation of Chikubu Island on Lake Biwa. With features like these, Edo incorporated a cosmology quite unlike the “ideal” Renaissance cities born of European rationalism.


Built on low ground traversed by several rivers, Edo had always been highly susceptible to flooding. To address the problem, the shôgun’s civil engineers dug a channel running from west to east and diverted the small Hirakawa and Koishikawa rivers into it to create the Kanda River, which emptied directly into the Sumida. The Kanda River was used for transport, and the huge volume of earth excavated in the course of this project helped fill in surrounding marshland, thus facilitating the development of a large urban district. Undertaken in the service of a grand vision, urban construction during the period was of high quality, and each project was designed from the start to yield multiple benefits.

As further protection from flooding, large embankments were built along the upper reaches of the Sumida River as a way to hold floodwater in the area of rice paddies along the river and prevent it from rushing down the waterway and inundating the city. It was only in modern times, when the city began to encroach on the surrounding countryside, that repeated flooding again emerged as a problem.

Other waterways were created expressly for transportation purposes. To the west of the Sumida River, the Nihonbashi River and Dôsanbori were excavated to facilitate transport of masonry and lumber for construction of the castle and the city. To the east of the Sumida, the Onagi River was created to transport salt from Gyôtoku. Canals were so numerous in the shitamachi areas of Edo that this part of town approached Venice in its dependence on water and the beauty of its watery townscapes. A legacy of this aspect of Edo is the number of important Tokyo districts named after bridges (-hashi, -bashi): Nihonbashi, Shinbashi, Kyôbashi, and so on.

In addition to transportation and drainage, the rivers and canals were valuable sources of water for drinking, washing, and cooking, as well as for agriculture. Meanwhile, the markets, temples and shrines, scenic spots, and entertainment districts that sprang up along the Edo waterfront soon became the focus of the city’s economy and culture.

But the numerous waterways penetrating into the heart of the city functioned above all as arteries for the distribution of goods. And as storehouses designed to protect those goods from fires appeared along the banks of these rivers and canals, they gave rise to distinctive waterfront vistas.

With its network of waterways, Edo, and later Tokyo, was essentially an inland port. Instead of numerous wharves jutting into the sea, as seen in newer, American-style ports, Edo featured interwoven rivers and canals extending from the bay into the city’s interior, much as in such old maritime cities as Venice, Amsterdam, Suzhou, and Bangkok. For this reason, every corner of the shitamachi districts brimmed with economic activity.


Because virtually all of Edo’s structures were made of wood, the biggest threat to the city, surpassing even that of flooding, was fire. The city’s central districts were lost time and again to such disasters, most memorably, the Meireki Fire of 1657. As a countermeasure, fire brigades were set up around the city. In the densely populated shitamachi areas, these were organized and financed by neighborhood groups. The shitamachi fire brigades, which also helped police the local streets, were lauded as “Edo’s best” and became an integral component of urban culture, depicted in kabuki plays and ukiyo-e prints. Meanwhile, the fire lookout towers that sprang up around the residences of chônin and samurai alike emerged as one of the few artificial features of the Edo skyline and another defining element of the cityscape.

Another typical Edo sight was the floating lumberyards that kept on hand the huge quantities of wood needed to rebuild the city quickly in the event of a fire. As the city developed and expanded, their location shifted toward the bay and away from the city center.

After the great fire of 1657, the shogunate had wide open spaces strategically established at the foot of bridges and around ponds to serve as firebreaks. These open spaces quickly drew human traffic and in no time were dotted with stalls and theater tents, thus evolving into stimulating sakariba, or entertainment districts. Edobashi Hirokôji (or “Edobashi Broadway”) is one of the best-known examples of a sakariba that originated as a firebreak; other famous hirokôji were found in Ueno and Ryôgoku.

The area around the bridge at Nihonbashi was one of Edo’s liveliest, and the busy concentration of commercial activity extended to nearby Edobashi, where docks and wharves crowded the banks of the waterways, and small shops and stalls lined the street. Hairdressers, teashops, and other small establishments proliferated, taking advantage of the crowds that gathered there. And if one ventured down the side streets, one could find various lowbrow entertainments, including dozens of storytellers and archery booths that employed attractive young women to fetch the arrows. In short, the spots where city dwellers gathered to rub shoulders and enjoy themselves in this waterfront city sprang up around the intersections between water and land traffic—the bridges.


Let us now take a look at daily living space in the shôgun’s capital.

The shitamachi districts where the chônin resided, an area extending from Kanda to Shinbashi, began as a planned city laid out in a grid pattern. In imitation of Kyoto, the layout was based on “blocks” measuring 60 ken, or about 120 meters, on a side. However, Edo departed from the uniform grid pattern and the north-south and east-west axes of such ancient Chinese capitals as Chang-an, on which Kyoto was modeled. To begin with, the grid was adjusted to accommodate the local topography. In addition, as new neighborhoods sprang up, the orientation of the streets gradually shifted, as if to encircle Edo castle, giving the city a more organic layout. In Suruga-chô in the Nihonbashi district, the cross streets came to be aligned precisely in the direction of Mount Fuji, providing views that became virtually synonymous with the Edo townscape.

Even in the core of the downtown area, where the streets basically adhered to the original grid pattern, there evolved a variety of organic spaces adapted to the residents’ needs. The 120-meter-square blocks were each divided into nine 40-meter squares, which were the basic modules of Edo’s urban design. Fronting the main roadways were machiya, merchants’ townhouses that doubled as residences and shops. Behind each of these, on the other side of an alley, the homeowner generally put up several nagaya, or row houses, and rented them out as accommodations for less affluent tradespeople. These alleyways, where ordinary urban dwellers lived at very close quarters, provided the backdrop for much of Edo life. Although they were modest living spaces without sunshine or cool breezes, they offered common wells, latrines, and small neighborhood shrines honoring Inari, the Shintô deity that Edoites associated with commercial success. Here the common people of the city rubbed shoulders and formed tightly knit communities. The very human relationships between the renters who lived in the nagaya and the residents of the larger machiya are a frequent theme of the traditional humorous monologues known as rakugo. In short, although systematically planned by the shogunate as a castle town, Edo was also a collection of vital and dynamic living spaces.

The wells located in the shitamachi alleyways got their water courtesy of the Kanda and Tamagawa water supply systems, part of Edo’s sophisticated infrastructure. The women of the neighborhood did not merely draw their water at the local wells but also gathered there to do their washing. Partly out of respect for the divine spirit of the ubiquitous Inari shrines, all the alleyways were kept scrupulously clean. Human waste, valued as fertilizer, was sold to farmers who came in carts and boats to pick it up. The enormous amount of waste produced by the residents of Edo thus served as a generous supply of fertilizer for the farms that fed the city. In this way, the city and the surrounding countryside supported each other and were bound to one another in a symbiotic relationship. As for other waste, Edo society recycled its materials so effectively that the amount of refuse per capita was only a tiny fraction of what today’s Japanese generate. It was deposited at designated spots in the alleyways, collected periodically, and, for the most part, transported by boat to Eitai Island just offshore in the bay. In this way, the city of Edo, planned with topographical and natural conditions in mind, also adopted ingenious recycling systems, thus achieving an ecologically sustainable urban environment.

For administrative purposes, streets were grouped into “towns” referred to as machi or chô. The entrance to each machi was marked by a wooden gate, which was closed at night to maintain order and security. Next to each gate was an office called a ban’ya, which was charged with maintaining law and order, responding to fires, calling town meetings, and handling the machi ’s administrative affairs. Thus, while Edo itself never gained the autonomy of Europe’s city-states, it was composed of numerous communities with their own administrations centered on wealthy and powerful families, and in practice these communities had considerable autonomy.


In sharp contrast to the shitamachi, the uptown yamanote districts formed a kind of garden city, with far more greenery than Westerners would ordinarily associate with an urban area. In terms of topography, the area is somewhat reminiscent of Rome, with its seven hills. The high, undulating terrain was considered suitable for residences of the samurai class, from the most powerful daimyô lords down to the lowest-ranking retainers. In Edo the social hierarchy was in fact manifested in a spatial hierarchy, creating a varied and distinctive cityscape.

Early in the seventeenth century, a set of major highways was created radiating from Edo Castle. Taking advantage of the topography, these roads followed the ridges of this hilly area. The residences of the samurai, from the daimyô estates on down, were located on the higher elevations of these hills, in places directly accessible from the ridge roads. Assemblages of temples were deliberately created around these samurai districts. Lesser roads branched off from the highways and headed downhill; even today visitors will notice that Tokyo has a remarkable number of sloping roads. In the areas along the lower stretches of these roads stood closely clustered residences and shops of the chônin. This was a zoning system that followed the local topography, and it lent an organic quality to the urban fabric.

In fact, the same zoning persists even today in its basic outline—large homes and quiet residential neighborhoods on the hills and crowded, bustling commercial areas below, representing a kind of shitamachi downtown within the yamanote uptown. The way the two zones intersect and intermesh here and there is a distinctive feature of the city, with its varied topography.

The focal points of the yamanote district were of course the daimyô estates. Under the shogunate’s sankin kôtai system, every daimyô in the land was required to reside in Edo half of the time. Furthermore, after the Meireki Fire, each of the daimyô set up two alternate Tokyo residences in addition to his main estate. Under these conditions, it was not long before the daimyô had claimed all the best sites in the yamanote districts, building on the private mansions and villas surrounded by elegant gardens that made the most of the area’s natural beauty.

The plots on which the daimyô estates were built tended to be rather free-form in response to the undulating terrain. The ideal property was located on the sunny south side of one of the ridge roads and thus sloped down toward the south. The daimyô’s personal residence would typically be situated on a flat area near the highest section of the property. Sloping land was often the site of a pond that took advantage of springs fed by water from higher elevations, around which the daimyô would create a kaiyûshiki teien, or stroll garden.

The kaiyûshiki teien, which reached their zenith in the daimyô estates of Edo, had paths that took a circular course through the garden, allowing visitors to take a carefully designed tour sprinkled with charming views. Often these views were designed to duplicate in miniature famous places in Japan. By walking through such a garden one could savor the illusion of visiting those spots, thus entering a world of highly evocative images. These gardens were one embodiment of the highly imaginative Edo culture. A typical example that survives to this day is Koishikawa Kôrakuen, a beautiful garden built by Tokugawa Yorifusa, patriarch of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa clan, and completed by the second Mito daimyô, Mitsukuni. The garden offers visitors a virtual tour that includes miniature copies of the Tôkaidô highway connecting Edo and Kyoto, the Nakasendô traversing interior Japan, various tourist spots in and around Kyoto, and even West Lake in China.


Having seen how Edo developed as an ecocity coexisting with nature, let us conclude by examining a key element of Edo culture in relation to this aspect of the city’s spatial structure. With its rich variety of urban spaces, some fronting the water and others taking advantage of the verdant hills, Edo gave birth to a unique culinary culture embodied in a large number of renowned food-specialty shops and dining establishments. Let us focus on some establishments that have survived all the way to the present.

Fish naturally figured prominently among the foods associated with the Edo waterfront area. On Tsukuda Island in Edo Bay, small fish caught in the bay were simmered down in soy sauce and sugar to make a dish called tsukudani, and tsukudani shops dating back to the Edo period can still be found in that neighborhood (now attached to the mainland). Behind the fish markets of Nihonbashi, accessible by boat from the bay, old establishments abound, including traditional seafood restaurants, restaurants specializing in eel, and shops selling hanpen, a kind of fish cake.

During the Edo period, eels and loaches (dojô) were both abundant in the Sumida River, and two restaurants from that period, Maekawa for eels and Komagata Dojô for loaches, still stand near the riverbanks. The Sumida River was also famous for the cherry trees lining the embankment known as Bokutei, and Chômeiji Sakuramochi, a confectionary selling rice cakes wrapped in cherry leaves, still operates in the area. Nearby is Kototoi Dango, a shop offering dumplings (dango); this establishment is also closely associated with the waterfront, since it gained nationwide fame in connection with the custom—revived in 1879—of floating paper lanterns down the Sumida River. The development of culinary specialties for every scenic or historical spot is typical of Japanese urban culture.

Turning to the yamanote area, we find the venerable old tôfu restaurant Sasa no Yuki in the Negishi neighborhood of present-day Taitô Ward. It seems the location of this establishment related to the good quality of water from the nearby Otonashi River, fed by the springs of Mount Ueno. Another famous yamanote establishment is Sarashina Horii, specializing in soba noodles; it was opened in the Azabu district of today’s Minato Ward to take advantage of the well and spring water there. On the outskirts of the city, the gorge of the Takino River north of Mount Asuka was a scenic spot where Edoites went to view the moon, snow, cherry blossoms, fireflies, and autumn leaves. The memory of this charming area and its amusements lives on in Ôgiya, a restaurant established in this area, now part of Kita Ward, using the fresh vegetables from nearby farms.

As this quick review suggests, nature’s prominent place in Edo’s physical layout had a role in the rise of countless fine food establishments, a number of which exist even today. Tokyo has been so altered by rapid modernization since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, not to mention the destruction of the Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombings of World War II, that precious little remains from the Edo period in terms of actual buildings and townscapes. On the face of it, Tokyo may seem like a city that has lost its heritage. However, if one looks below the surface, one soon realizes that in many ways, spanning spatial structure and culinary culture, the great legacy of Edo lives on in the Tokyo of the present day.