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, says Danielle Demetriou
Photography by Brooklyn Museum/Corbis; George Apostolidis; Yuriko Nakao (Japan Society); Ap Photo/Charles Gorry; Asian Art and Archaeology, inc/Corbis; Geoff a Howard/Almay; Mark Parren Taylor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.