'Out and About' in Edo Japan

Posted: Monday, 17 October 2011 - 12:00am
Edo meisho zue [Illustrated Guide to the Famous Sites of Edo]
Saitō Chōshū, Saitō Yukitaka, and Saitō Gesshin, with illustrations by Hasegawa Settan
DS896.3 .S29 1834
Edo: Suwaraya Mohee and Suwaraya Ihachi, Tempō 5-7 [1834-1836]
20 volumes; each 26.1 x 18.4 cm

Written over the course of forty years by three generations of the Saitō family, the Edo meisho zue is a window onto the world of Japan’s capital city during the late 18th and early 19th-centuries. The lively commentary and more than 600 illustrations by Hasegawa Settan offer the modern reader not only a detailed physical description of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and its environs, but a sense of the history, mythological origins, culture, and the economic and religious life of Edo’s many and varied regions.

SURUGA-MACHI

SURUGA-MACHI. One of the many street scenes in Edo meisho zue, this neighborhood of the capital was home to cloth merchants like the one seen here: Mitsui Gofukuten. This company, which began as a kimono shop in the early 17th-century is still in business today. Mount Fuji, centrally and prominently located in the background, lends an auspicious air to this bustling commercial district.

The 20-volume text of the Edo meisho zue was begun around 1791 by Saitō Chōshū (1737-1799) who wished to create a guidebook that celebrated the modern capital city of Japan, which had been the home of the Tokugawa Shoguns since the early 17th-century.

Chōshū spent eight years compiling information and writing the Edo meisho zue before he died in 1799. The project was continued by his son-in-law, Saitō Yukitaka (1772-1818) and then by his grandson, Saitō Gesshin (1804-1878), who completed the guidebook in 1834. Over six hundred illustrations by the artist, Hasegawa Settan (1778-1843) were then added to the text, before the noted publishers, Suwaraya Mohee and Suwaraya Ihachi brought the set of volumes to market in installments from 1834 to 1836. The publication of the Edo meisho zue caused a sensation in Edo and beyond, and its overwhelming popularity is credited with creating a huge market for the guidebook genre in Japan during the 19th-century. It is also believed to have inspired the famous woodblock print artist Hiroshige (1797-1858) to move beyond the depiction of traditionally famous sites and seek out lesser known places of historical or topographical significance for his subject matter in works like his print series: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-1858). These prints were then to be a major influence on Western Impressionism. 

FUKUGAWAFUKUGAWA (the farthest place visible in the Shogun’s view of Edo above) is represented by the legendary poet Bashō (1644-1694), who escaped the bustle of the city to live here in seclusion one hundred-fifty years earlier. In this scene, Bashō sees a frog jump into a pond and composes one of his most famous haiku (inscribed in the clouds above): The old pond/ A frog jumps in/ The sound of water.

FUKUGAWA (the farthest place visible in the Shogun’s view of Edo above) is represented by the legendary poet Bashō (1644-1694), who escaped the bustle of the city to live here in seclusion one hundred-fifty years earlier. In this scene, Bashō sees a frog jump into a pond and composes one of his most famous haiku (inscribed in the clouds above): The old pond/ A frog jumps in/ The sound of water.

Ultimately, the Edo meisho zue is the celebration of a city and its people. From the block-by-block tour of downtown shops (some of which are still in business today) to the bird’s-eye-view of sweeping panoramic landscapes of the city’s rural areas, we, like the 19th-century tourist or armchair traveler, are transported to a world filled with novelty and excitement. So impressive is the scope of Edo meisho zue that it makes it almost impossible for us to believe Saitō Gesshin when he tells us in his preface that the city is too vast and filled with too many things for him to be able to include all that is wonderful about Edo.

VIEW FROM EDO CASTLEVIEW FROM EDO CASTLE. This is the Shogun's view of Edo, stretching to the rising sun on the horizon. The city itself had over a million inhabitants, and was much larger than most European cities at that time. In the distance, the sun can also be seen as a rebus for "Japan" (Nihon), which means "Land of the Rising Sun."

VIEW FROM EDO CASTLE. This is the Shogun's view of Edo, stretching to the rising sun on the horizon. The city itself had over a million inhabitants, and was much larger than most European cities at that time. In the distance, the sun can also be seen as a rebus for "Japan" (Nihon), which means "Land of the Rising Sun."

 

Nicole Fabricand-Person