Tokyo began life as a fishing village called Edo approximately 800 years ago. The Edos turned the village into a defensive fort and 150 years later built Edo Castle. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu adopted Edo as his base of operations in the 1590s. After the turn of the century, Edo became the shogun’s official capital. Edo grew rapidly under the shoguns and by the year 1868 was home to a population well in excess of one million.
The young emperor Meiji moved from the former imperial capital of Kyoto to Edo in 1869. In accordance with customs at the time, Edo was given the name of Tokyo which in English translates as eastern capital. It was officially named as a city two decades later. Allied bombing in WWII wrought widespread destruction to Tokyo’s old neighbourhoods. After the war a huge reconstruction programme planted the seeds of the bustling city we know today.
While Tokyo might be modern, its customs and traditions originated centuries ago. Its eclectic annual festival calendar is ample evidence of this wealth of heritage. Asakusa Temple sets the stage for Sanja Matsuri every May and is a veritable reflection of Japanese customs.
Traditional dances with the artistes clad in beautiful costumes and music played on old-style instruments are the chief draws for the average 1.5 million people who file through Sensoji’s Kaminarimon Gateway during the three days of the festival. Chiyoda District’s Hie Shrine is the venue for June’s Sanno Matsuri Festival and is a celebration of Shinto rites. The famed Shinkosai parades are staged on alternate years.
The Shishimai lion dance festival is a perennial favourite held at Nagasaki Shrine in Toshima every May. This month also sees Kanda Matsuri take place at Kanda Myojin Shrine. The grand finale of this festival comes with a parade towards the shrine. The list of festivals seems almost never-ending and it is a good idea to check with local tourist bureaus for up-to-date details.
Not all Tokyo’s festivals are steeped in history. Scheduled festivals are held to pay tribute to the beauty of sakura cherry-blossom trees, azaleas and wisterias. Fuji Matsuri is staged at Kameido Tenjin Shrine in honour of the wisteria while Nezu Shrine sets the stage for the azalea themed Bunkyo Tsutsuji Matsuri. The Sumida River Fireworks Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival provide ever more reasons to visit Tokyo.
A Kabuki show at the Kabukiza Theatre or visits to heritage themed museums are other means of delving into Tokyo culture. Fukagawa Edo Museum offers an enlightening visit with realistic recreations of scenes from the mid-nineteenth century. Shinjuku’s Samurai Museum is also an excellent facility showcasing these warriors from days of old.
The Tokyo National Museum is situated in Ueno Park and one of the premier spots to gain insightful knowledge about the city. The museum collections are spread over several buildings. With 24 halls, the Honkan Gallery is the largest and boasts sculptures, lacquer ware, ceramics and swords among its bountiful exhibits. The Horyuji Temple collection comprises more than 300 objets d’art which are 1,200 years old.