Ye Olde Travel Guide: Edo 1850

A warm welcome awaits visitors to this teeming metropolis, says Lesley Downer – just don't forget to bow low before the samurai

A 19th-century woodblock print of Edo, now known as Tokyo. (GraphixaArtis/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Why Go?

Because it’s undoubtedly the greatest, most thrilling city on Earth. Not only is Edo seat of his lordship the shogun and home to 260 daimyo feudal lords and their families, retainers and servants, its streets are teeming with one and a half million people.

When to go

Spring and autumn are best. You might want to avoid the rainy seasons in June and September and the hot sticky summers. In spring the cherry trees bloom along the river Sumida, and the maple leaves make the hills fiery in autumn. Book a place on a pleasure boat or in a riverbank teahouse to watch the fireworks display over the river at the height of summer.

What to take

You won’t get far without papers and passport to get you through the checkpoints. The guards have long hooks to catch anyone who sneaks through without proper ID. And pack your most fashionable clothes. You’ll want to swagger like a son or daughter of Edo, whether you’re going to the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters or the kabuki theatre.

Costs and money

Bring plenty of strings of cash. Edo is an expensive place. If you’re from Kyoto or Osaka you’ll need to find a money changer to exchange your silver monme for the gold ryo they use here. Your copper mon will be fine.

Sights and activities

Make your first stop the Asakusa Kannon temple with its huge red lantern, one of the sights in Master Hiroshige’s woodblock prints. Waft incense smoke over yourself for health and have your fortune told.

The surrounding streets are packed with sideshows offering conjuring, acrobatics, freaks, female weightlifters and tightrope walking. Don’t miss Matsui Gensui XIII’s top-spinning act or Kikukawa Kunimaru’s juggling. The sumo wrestling tournaments are in spring and autumn. Book well in advance!

Everyone says the Yoshiwara has passed its peak, but you must see the courtesans parading on 12‑inch clogs and the women in gorgeous kimonos kneeling behind lattices waiting to be chosen. Watch out for the old ladies who try to drag you in.

According to official guidebooks there are 150 brothels and more than 3,000 courtesans. But the quintessential Edo experience is Willow Bridge, the most fashionable of the eight geisha districts. You’ll find the geisha far more elegant than the overdressed, over-painted courtesans. For ladies, the three kabuki theatres offer day-long spectacle and high drama. The actors are available after the show for a small fee.

Splendid daimyo processions regularly file through the streets on their way to the shogun’s castle.

You can stroll the hills around the castle and see the gates and high walls of the daimyos’ palaces. But remember, it’s pretty quiet compared to downtown.

Dangers and annoyances

This is a city of bachelors. Half the population are samurai, retainers of the daimyos, whose two swords are sharp enough to take your head off.

They can legally test their blades on a townsman’s neck, though – relax! – they don’t usually bother; too much paperwork if they do. But remember your place – bow low when a samurai goes by and drop to your knees with your nose in the gravel for a feudal lord’s procession.

You may have heard rumours of foreign ships hoving into view and of the great land of China being attacked by red-haired barbarians. But don’t worry: his lordship the shogun, which means ‘barbarian-quelling generalissimo’, will take care of us.

As for Downtown Edo, it’s like a big extended family. If you’re robbed, someone will take care of you, and if you have nowhere to stay, someone will take you in.

Sleeping/accommodation

There are inns and hostelries for every budget all along the main roads. The most expensive offer luxury fit for a feudal lord. Use a guidebook or rely on word of mouth.

A popular option is a teahouse. For a small fee the waitresses are always available for extra services.

Eating

Edo food is legendary. Hundreds of restaurants specialise in sushi, buckwheat noodles or eel, plus more varieties of food than you could ever imagine.

Roadside stalls offer grilled squid, sparrows or octopus, chestnuts, tofu, steamed bun, you name it. If your budget runs to it, try Yaozen or Hirasei, famous for their tea ceremony haute cuisine. Edo is a late-night drinking city. Sake is the tipple.

Getting around

You can flag down a palanquin (sedan chair) but expect to do a lot of walking. Edo is criss-crossed with waterways. There are pleasure boats, flat-bottomed ferries and boar’s tusk boats to take you to the Yoshiwara.

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Lesley Downer is a journalist and writer. Her latest novel, Across a Bridge of Dreams, was published in June by Bantam.