The Nihonbashi district is the home of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo and the financial centre of Japan. But beyond the skyscrapers lies a fascinating past, for this is the birthplace of modern Tokyo and the legacy of merchants from the Edo period still thrives today

Edo artist Ando Hiroshige’s woodblock print, depicting a mid-19th-century street scene in Nihonbashi

Edo artist Ando Hiroshige’s woodblock print, depicting a mid-19th-century street scene in Nihonbashi

Kimono-clad merchants from across Japan once streamed across the curved wooden bridge and into the crowded walkways lined with open-front stores, selling paper, rice, medicines, fans, silks and sushi. Fast forward several centuries, and the exact spot in central Tokyo appears a little different: there are still the crowds, but they are now mostly salarymen and shoppers, rushing between gleaming skyscrapers and elegant department stores before pouring into the subway.

The lobby of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, directly overlooking the Nihonbashi district

The lobby of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, directly overlooking the Nihonbashi district

Scratch beneath the shiny metropolitan surface, however, and a glimpse of the area’s cultural legacy soon shifts into focus – in particular, the centuries-old family businesses which continue to flourish, trading in goods such as lacquerware, kimonos, seaweed and fans.

Welcome to Nihonbashi, a district as unique in its atmosphere, colour and purpose as, say, the technology hub of ‘Electric Town’ Akihabara, Ginza and its upmarket department stores, Shibuya, renowned for neon lights and teen crowds, and Aoyama, the destination for designer boutiques. Pieced together like patchwork, Tokyo is a sprawling contradiction of a city. And Nihonbashi – where Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo opened its doors in 2005 – has long been recognised as a leading financial and commercial district in the capital of the world’s third largest economy. But there is another dimension to its identity: it was also the foundation and birthplace of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) and today it remains the symbolic and history-rich heart of the city.

Ema plaques in a Nihonbashi temple from women wishing for a good husband

Ema plaques in a Nihonbashi temple from women wishing for a good husband

Reiko Sudo, the acclaimed textile designer behind the beautiful Japanese furnishings at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, describes the unique qualities of Nihonbashi. ‘Nihonbashi has a river, unlike Aoyama or Ginza or other environs, so it’s one of the few areas in Tokyo where one can enjoy the sound of flowing water. Nihonbashi also has many respected shops that are more than a century old. One can find bits of old Edo just by walking around.’

It was more than four centuries ago, in 1603, that the new shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, changed the course of Japan’s history by unveiling ambitious plans to create an entirely new city. Until that point, the nation’s focus, politically, culturally and financially, had been confined to the imperial courts of Kyoto, or the heavily protected Osaka Castle, both in western Japan. However, Tokugawa’s vision for a new eastern capital had no limits. First, he built Nihonbashi Bridge and, true to its name (meaning ‘Bridge of Japan’), it was officially referred to as the centre of the country – even today, all distances in Japan are still measured from the Nihonbashi Bridge – and was the starting point of five highways.

The MO Tokyo fan, made by Edo-period fan makers Ibasen

The MO Tokyo fan, made by Edo-period fan makers Ibasen

Where there was once water, Nihonbashi gradually took shape: merchants from across the country arrived, with the promise that any land they reclaimed from the sea could be their own. Canals were soon formed among the Kyoto-inspired grid layout and a fish market was established along the riverbanks, leading to the invention of perhaps Japan’s most famous modern export, sushi, a popular snack sold at that time in the streets.

Nihonbashi was a very modern place, even in the Edo period. It was a time of change

Professor Makoto Takeuchi, a leading historian and general director of the Edo-Tokyo Museum – who also grew up in Nihonbashi – paints a vivid picture of the city’s creation. Poring over books and maps in his office, he says, ‘Tokugawa created a very organised and well-planned new city – and in the heart of this new city, Edo, was Nihonbashi. He centralised the people, the goods and the money… He chose this area as it was strategic for water transportation, and he lived on higher ground above it in his castle. Soon, the city was very crowded, full of merchants. There were no theatres or pleasure districts, just merchants and banks.’ Such a scene is captured in detail on the official fan of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo – a detailed golden image of merchants, the bridge, cherry blossoms and a ‘hovering’ castle.

‘Nihonbashi developed quickly because there were very few taxes and it had a self-governing system among residents. Within a century, Edo’s population was one million and it had become the biggest city in the world,’ says Takeuchi. Seventeenth-century Nihonbashi was clearly a hotbed of entrepreneurial talent, as famously embodied by the Mitsui family, founders of the Mitsukoshi department store.

The view of Nihonbashi and beyond from the Michelin-starred Sense restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

The view of Nihonbashi and beyond from the Michelin-starred Sense restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

In 1673, 10 relatives travelled from their hometown in Mie prefecture to Nihonbashi, where they set up the kimono company Echigoya. It soon became the first place to serve customers in a store, rather than the kimono merchant visiting customers, as was then customary. This was one of a string of ‘firsts’; it also became the first to take cash payments (as opposed to credit, collected twice a year), launching the catchy 17th-century slogan ‘cash down and no markups’, and its success eventually led to the establishment of Japan’s first department store, Mitsukoshi, in 1904.

‘Nihonbashi was a very modern place, even in the Edo era,’ explains Satoshi Matsuzawa, a Mitsukoshi spokesman and historian. ‘It got bigger and bigger, with merchants coming to find the latest trends. It was a time of change.’

Geishas, in 1946, celebrating the replacement of statues on the bridge after the war

Geishas, in 1946, celebrating the replacement of statues on the bridge after the war

At that time, rows of black and white fabric noren curtains hung at the entrance of the wooden store, while customers were served tea and shown kimono fabrics in the tatami-mat-floor interiors. Today, the Mitsukoshi flagship department store in Nihonbashi has a slightly grander presence, from its Renaissance-style façade and bronze lion statues to its expansive ‘kimono salon’ – one of the biggest collections in the country.

Another Edo-era survivor is Ibasen, a company behind centuries of exquisite paper and bamboo fans (including Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s annual zodiac fans, presented to guests on special occasions such as Chinese New Year). Ibasen’s founding ancestor set up a successful bamboo and paper business when Nihonbashi was founded, before focusing exclusively on fans decorated using traditional woodblock print techniques. Sipping green tea in the Nihonbashi head office above the store, the president of the company, Nobuo Yoshida, says, ‘Nihonbashi was the centre of the business world and there was a big demand for fans. They were sold in kabuki theatres [traditional Japanese theatres with their origins in the Edo period] and images of famous actors were very popular.’

The culture and spirit of Edo-era Nihonbashi still live on among residents today

A shrine on the rooftop of the historic Mitsukoshi department store

A shrine on the rooftop of the historic Mitsukoshi department store

Centuries of fires and earthquakes have led to the destruction of Edo’s wooden architecture, with the bridge also rebuilt many times, most recently in stone in 1911 – and currently partially hidden by an overhead expressway. But Yoshida insists that traces, of a sort, remain. ‘Nothing structural may remain, but the culture and spirit of Edo-era Nihonbashi still live on. For businessmen in Edo, it was not just about making a profit, but also about living and sharing among the community. And that continues among residents today.’

Women dressed in kimonos in a parade to promote modern-day Nihonbashi

Women dressed in kimonos in a parade to promote modern-day Nihonbashi

Ibasen is one of a string of Edo-era merchants selling traditional wares in Nihonbashi today, albeit in a modern 21st-century setting. Others include confectioners Eitaro Sohonpo, whose bean paste kintsuba sweets were once sold in the fish market, the 17th-century lacquerware company Kuroeya, and the traditional paper store Ozu Washi, which is famous for its rainbow-bright papers as well as gallery and workshops. There are more old established family businesses in the sleek new Coredo Muromachi development, including Kiya, a company that produces kitchen accessories and is revered for its handcrafted Japanese knives with cherrywood handles and steel blades. Next door is Ninben, specialising, since 1699, in dried bonito fish flakes – a vital ingredient in many Japanese dishes – complete with a takeaway fish-stock soup counter and a window where staff can be seen creating the delicate flakes.

While Edo-era merchants may have been able to stand on Nihonbashi Bridge and look directly at the perfect symmetrical form of snowcapped Mount Fuji in the distance, today the skyscrapers block such a view from ground level. However, stand in the lobby of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, facing west on a clear-blue-sky day and the iconic mountain can still be seen. And there, from the vantage point of the 38th floor, it’s possible to take in a sight witnessed daily by crowds of merchants crossing Nihonbashi Bridge many centuries earlier – and see precisely how far one of the world’s most modern cities has grown since then.

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