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Kyoto was the formal capital of Japan for over a thousand years, from 794 until 1868. Formally, the shōgun’s government in Edo was acting on behalf of the emperor, but in reality the emperor had no power at all: even his meals were strictly rationed. Aside from the Imperial Palace, Kyoto hosted major temples and sanctuaries, which attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the country to the city.

Travelling around the country became a habit of the Japanese, who generated travel-related works of art: guides, travelogues, notes and maps, some even drawn on fans. Tōkaidō Road, the main transport artery of Tokugawa-era Japan, connecting Kyoto and Edo, became one of the most inspiring routes.

Tōkaidō Road was a place where one could meet itinerant actors, leisure travellers, pilgrims, huge processions of the daimyo - feudal lords heading to Edo for their traditional annual mandatory travel. It was for the comfort of regular journeys of that kind that shōgun Ieyasu Tokugawa ordered the building of the Five Routes leading to Edo. The eastern road of Tōkaidō became the busiest of them all. The road had 53 post stations and, by mid-19th century, about 800 hotels.

Manzai performers will serve as our guides on this road. Our pair of narrators, typical of Japanese comedy, will perform lines of characters well-known to Europeans — a dumb man and a slightly smarter one. One could meet such a pair of misfits, for instance, in Jippensha Ikku’s novel Footing It along the Tōkaidō Road, which was extremely popular in early 19th-century Japan.

— We’ve hit the trail, and for the road
It would be fit to partake of the katsudon.

— Agree. So long as we don’t catch
A sea bream in it, although
It could bring luck.

Katsudon (かつ丼) — rice with a pork cutlet, the name of this dish sounds like the word “to win” (勝つ, katsu). Even today, for instance, Japanese students follow the superstition of eating katsudon before an exam for good fortune.

Sea bream (鯛), pronounced as tai in Japanese, is a lucky fish. The name of this ‘fortune fish’ is consonant with the word medetai, meaning “happy” or “festive”.

One of the ways travellers could learn they were approaching Edo was by seeing Mount Fuji in the distance. One could enjoy seeing it every day from the new capital. One could hardly name a single famous painter of the Edo period who has not created at least one work related to Fuji in one way or another.

In the beginning of the 17th century, as domestic tourism was on the rise, the cult of Fuji gained popularity among urban dwellers. Some would join groups to walk up the mountain while ringing bells and reciting sacred poems. Females were not allowed to ascend Fuji until 1912, and the ascent was simply too difficult for children and the elderly. For them, artificial miniature copies of Fuji were erected as a consolation.

In popular beliefs, Fuji is a symbol of well-being. There is still a custom of predicting the future based on one’s first dream of the new year. Seeing Fuji is one of the best possible omens. Only a falcon or an aubergine promises as much happiness.

— Yūjo Egawa is like a sakura.
She blossoms as if it was not April,
But May now.

— Naïveté is good for spring,
However, in autumn your words are like sugar
In tea.

“Women of easy virtue” were metaphorically referred to as sellers of spring. The beauty of Egawa has probably already faded as sakura in May: sakura’s bloom usually occurs in April.

Amai (甘い) — is a homonym meaning both “sweet” and “naïve, silly”. The Japanese never drink tea with sugar in principle, so this idea can indeed appear absurd.

Keisai Eisen

Kuwana Station and Courtesan Egawa from Maru-Ebiya

— Your turn has come:
Compose a pair of lines,
Beholding a peach garden,
Inhaling its aroma.

— I’ll miss my turn, sorry,
Not at this station,

Hodogaya is the fourth station on the Tōkaidō Road; the words “four” (四, shi) and “death” (死, shi) sound identical. The number four is considered unfortunate in Japan, some buildings even don’t have a fourth floor, and the third floor is followed by the fifth.

No-no is sometimes just a No-no.

Ike no Taiga

Peach Blossom Spring

The area of Edo, literally “river estuary”, was not very developed in the early 17th century, although it was very favourable for human habitation. In 1603, Ieyasu Tokugawa became shōgun and this city where his residence was located rapidly started to thrive.

The dominance of the provincial daimyō and their subordinate samurai made Edo a city with quite a grim and strict ambiance. Edo’s female population was small: in 1733 there were two men for every woman. This gender imbalance, among other things, caused an incredible rise in the popularity of the pleasure quarters.

Many picturesque images of Edo are related to Shitamachi (“low town”), an area populated by low-rank samurai, tradesmen and artisans. They established a new estate — chōnin (“urban dwellers”), and gradually became the core around which Edo’s mass culture was formed, with Kabuki theatres, sumo wrestlers, courtesans, itinerant actors, self-publish presses of the sort and other amenities of city life.

Following the great fire of 1657, which lasted for three days and claimed the lives of 100,000 people (a quarter of the population), Edo was rebuilt virtually from scratch. While areas were previously populated according to the occupation of its residents, the new Edo disregarded this principle, intermingling various inhabitants. No wonder its contemporaries used to say: “Edo wa tanka no hakidamari” (“Edo is a rubbish heap under the sun”).

The backstreets of central areas were turning into slums, mostly inhabited by bachelors who came to Edo to seek work. Edokko, rare third-generation indigenous residents of Edo, derisively referred to these visitors as mukudori (“hillbillies”).

In the early 18th century the new capital became the most populous city in the world, with the number of inhabitants reaching 1.3 million.

— Some long for cities,
But nothing is dearer to me than woods,
Shika zo sumu.

— Under a maple my friend is yearning,
And what would you be doing under a pine,

Shika zo sumu (しかぞすむ) means “well, that’s how I live”, but “shika” also means “deer”, so one can also read this expression as “where deer live”.
Matsu (松) “pine” also means a feeling of waiting or longing, engulfing those who are separated from their beloved.

Kaburimono (被り者) literally means “hat”, whereas in the Edo period it designated various types of runaways — deserters, star-crossed lovers etc.

Sakai Hoitsu

A deer under a maple

Unknown author

Views of Kyoto and its outskirts

Yosa Buson

Itinerant Manzai Actors

Keisai Eisen

Procession of Courtesans Paired with the Stations of the Tōkaidō: Kuwana and Egawa of the Maruebiya

Keisai Eisen

Procession of Courtesans Paired with the Stations of the Tōkaidō: Goyu and Nanahito of the Sugataebiya

Utagawa Hiroshige

Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Highway: Mariko

Katsushika Hokusai

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Summer Showers Beneath the Peak

Katsushika Hokusai

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa


The Japanese have always been noted for their neatness, meticulously cleaning their homes and maintaining strict personal hygiene habits. In the 17th century, communal baths gained widespread popularity in Edo. Houses were very cramped, their residents had to save on everything, and the urban supply of fresh domestic water took some time to be established.

As in other cultures, bathhouses performed not only the role of communal washrooms, but also of clubs of sorts. These were public sitting pools with very hot water, by European standards. The design of the bathhouse buildings ensured that lighting was dim. As well as this, men did not take off their waist-cloth while in the water, and women kept their undershirts on. In any case, the dense vapour filling the washrooms obscured the gender of one’s fellow bather, as well as the cleanliness, or otherwise, of the water.

Katsukawa Shunshō

Woman with Fan after Bath

Eitabashi Bridge

Edo emerged from a fishing village situated in the estuary of the Sumida River, which is why the element of water affected all aspects of the city’s life. Its economy was intertwined with the network of canals used for transporting merchandise. River banks hosted the construction of piers and quays where trade was conducted, and bridges were also actively being built.

Eitabashi was the largest bridge across the Sumida River, built in 1698. Since sea ships entered the river estuary, the bridge’s bearings were tall. Floods would frequently destroy the bridge, while its maintenance was so costly that the government was planning to remove it altogether. However, local residents protected the bridge, keeping it operational by charging fees from travellers. Samurai, Buddhist and Shintō priests were exempt from payment.

At night, locals would catch so-called icefish in this area. The shōgun personally commissioned fishermen from Osaka to catch icefish. These fishermen settled in the Tsukudajima village and would oversee the adjoining territory after fishing hours.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Tsukudajima (Tsukuda Island)

A fan peddler

The Japanese climate is hot, humid and rainy. This explains the peculiar shape of roofs with large eaves for water drainage, the abundance of lacquered housewares, and umbrellas — without which it was unthinkable to leave the house. Umbrellas could even be rented free of charge. The first such service appeared in Edo as early as the 17th century. However, as strange as it may seem, the principle of “one umbrella per family” was common until the middle of the 20th century.

Fans were much easier, and everyone was carrying them during the Edo period. Initially they were not folding fans as we know them today. These were simple sheets of paper or cuts of silk, glued into bamboo frames on a stick. Fans were meant not only for cooling, but also for protection from mosquitoes and the sun, as well as for concealing women’s faces from unwanted looks and even for chasing away evil spirits.

Okumura Toshinobu

A fan peddler


Theatre became one of the main urban entertainments. Theatre schools abounded. Using contemporary language, some offered performing arts, while others were at the intersection of theatre and standup comedy. It was Kabuki that became the most popular form.

In 1603, when shōgun Tokugawa started ruling in Edo, all eyes in Kyoto were fixed on dancer Izumo no Okuni. Her performances caused a sensation, and just a year later she had established a troupe and had a permanent stage built on the territory of the Shintō shrine of Kitano. Thanks to the troupe’s tours, the genre of Kabuki (“skilled singing and dancing”) had spread across the entire country.

Samurai would fall in love with actresses and arranged duels in attempts to win over their hearts. In 1629, the shogunate banned women from participating in any performances, suggesting that they were weakening society’s moral foundations. For some time, young men replaced women, however, they seemed to evoke a similar response from the samurai and also ended up banned from the stage in 1652. Thus, only adult men remained in Kabuki.

Equality set in, at last: while men were collecting prints with images of seductresses from the pleasure quarters, women were buying woodblock prints of their favourite actors from the Kabuki theatre.

Katsukawa Shunshō

The Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V in the Dressing Room


The samurai depicted on the portrait was serving one of the daimyō in the middle of the 18th century and enjoyed high social status. However, at that time, samurai who would lose their master had little opportunity to earn a living. They could join a monastery and become a komusō (literally “monk of the void”), play the shakuhachi flute and beg for alms. Alternatively, they could become manufacturers of weapons or musical instruments, or weave baskets and cicada cages. Their high social status prevented them from stooping to commerce and living by the rules of the merchant class.

Although vagrancy was banned in the Tokugawa period, many samurai would become rōnin wanderers (“wave men”) upon leaving the service and would willingly join local conflicts. Initially, life in Edo was not much calmer than in the Age of Warring States. The ex-samurai were actually robbers, although noble ones. They preferred to think of themselves as street knights of sorts. They gathered in so-called kabukimono (“the crazy ones”) — criminal gangs, recognised by their extravagant costumes and behaviour. According to one hypothesis, yakuza (Japanese organised crime) originated from the kabukimono.

Watanabe Kazan

Portrait of Takami Senseki


Sumō wrestling had been mentioned in written sources as early as the 7th century. In the Middle Ages, sumō was a part of the Shintō prayer ritual for abundant crops. Later it was used in military training. During the Edo period, sumō attracted townsfolk, and professional wrestlers emerged. However, the social standing of wrestlers was extremely low as exposing one’s body was considered to be humiliating. The status of sumō wrestlers started rising only in the late 19th century, when Europeans became familiar with Japanese culture.

A strict hierarchy of wrestlers was eventually established, and a rating system introduced. Tanikaze, who is depicted on the woodblock print, was one of the most famous sumō wrestlers of the second half of the 18th century. In terms of popularity, he was only second to young Daidōzan who, at the height of 120 cm, weighed around 80 kg. Major hopes were placed upon him, but during his adulthood he proved a mediocre wrestler.

Katsukawa Shunkō

The Sumo Wrestlers Tanikaze, Edogasaki, and Kashiwado

Nihonbashi Bridge. Merchants

The Nihonbashi bridge crossed a canal between one of the castle moats and the Sumida River, and held major significance for the city. It was here that all commercial activity was concentrated and the five main roads of the country began, including Tōkaidō. Japan did not have a tradition of building urban squares as such, which is why the area around the bridge became Edo’s de facto town square.

It is logical that merchants settled exactly in the Nihonbashi area along the waterway leading to the harbour. The new city attracted able people from all over the country to cater to the needs of the head of state’s vassals. The most entrepreneurial merchants came on their own, while some others were brought in from provinces by shōgun Ieyasu himself. Cooperation with the shōgun’s court provided a considerable reputational privilege to trading houses.

Torii Kiyonaga

Merrymaking on a Boat on the Sumida River


In a city mostly inhabited by itinerant men, it was hardly possible to do without a pleasure quarter. In Japan, there was no prejudice against this: none of the religions placed restrictions on one’s private life.

Having obtained a licence from the shōgun for opening the quarter, a group of enthusiasts embarked upon draining a swamp in an area marked for building. They replaced the first character of the word Yoshiwara, literally meaning “reed valley”, by its homophone — “pleasure”, and in 1618 the quarter received its first visitors. Thirty years later, it contained over ten brothels. As well as brothels, shops and teahouses were opening in Yoshiwara, and entire infrastructure was formed.

At different times, between two thousand and three thousand women worked here. Girls would arrive at a tender age. Since human trafficking was prohibited, parents executed a kind of a contract for the lease of their daughter. On average, it took girls about ten years to pay off the debt, after which some managed to leave the quarter. The workers of Yoshiwara included both yūjo prostitutes (literally “women for pleasure”) and geishas (“people of art”), who assisted yūjo by entertaining customers with songs, dances and stories. There were also the oiran (literally “prime flower”), who combined both of these functions.

Those who were not able to afford a visit to the quarter could buy woodblock prints with the images of its celebrated workers. Yoshiwara was open right up until 1958.

Kitagawa Utamaro

Tooth Blackening

Nihonbashi Bridge. Craftsmen

Edo quickly became Japan’s largest centre of consumption. However, the city produced very little to start with, and the bulk of goods were hauled from Kyoto and Osaka. At the same time, merchandise produced outside the capital was called “kudaran”, or literally “worthless”. By the end of the 19th century Edo had overtaken Kyoto in terms of production.

Artisans settled near merchants to the north or to the south of the Nihonbashi bridge. At the outset, each area was supposed to be inhabited by fellow representatives of the same trade. Quarters had gates that were locked at night, while local residents grouped into associations of five courts and took turns in the night watch.

Kuwagata Keisai

Craftsmen at Work


As many other things, tea was imported to the Japanese islands from China, where it was initially used as medicine. Hard-brewed tea was in particularly high demand among Buddhist monks as it helped to fight drowsiness during meditation. A legend about the origins of tea has it that the founder of the Zen school, Daruma, accidentally fell asleep during meditation and, upon waking up, was so infuriated that he tore his eyelashes out and threw them on the ground, where the first tea bushes subsequently grew.

Together with tea, the Japanese adopted the culture of tea ceremonies. However, in the Edo period teahouses provided opportunities not only for drinking tea. The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter counted twice as many teahouses than brothels — it was in teahouses that negotiations with middlemen were conducted and advance payments were made for the services of prostitutes. At this stage, one could also arrange additional services, such as the work of geishas. Geishas (“people of art”) assisted prostitutes by entertaining customers with songs, dances and stories. It is a little-known fact that men served as the first geishas.

Kitagawa Utamaro

Okita of Naniwaya with Cup of Tea

Project Team

Author: Daria Donina

Editor: Alexander Bychkov

Creative producer: Vladislav Vazhnik

Designers: Olga Ivakova, Ekaterina Sedogina

Developers: Andrey Goroshevsky, Pavel Shugaev

Translator: Nikolay Murashkin

TASS expresses their gratitude for assistance in the preparation of this project to Kirill Agafonov, Anastasia Borkina and Ainura Yusupova.

The project used reproductions of paintings and woodblocks from the collections of the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, Chiba City Museum of Art, Itabashi Art Museum (Tokyo), the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Moscow) and the State Museum of Oriental Art.

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News agency TASS (media registration certificate № 03247 issued on April 2, 1999 by the State Committee of the Russian Federation for the Press). Some publications may contain information not meant for audiences under 16 years of age.


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About the project