'Out and About' in Edo Japan
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.
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.
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.