GO TOKYO

Main content starts here.

HOME > History and culture of water tourism

History and culture of Tokyo as a "city of water"

History and culture of water tourism

How many of you know that Tokyo flourished as a city of water since the premodern Edo period?
In the early 17th century, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu built waterways that not only transported goods and people but also gave birth to a culture of waterside entertainment.
The water areas of Tokyo retain a unique charm today.

Nihombashi: Snowy Morning, Keisai Eisen

Little known charms of Tokyo

Tokyo is a "city of water"—this may come as a surprise to many. True, with its modern buildings and network of highways, Tokyo today evokes the image of a city of land. But more than four centuries ago, Edo (the former name of Tokyo) was a vast marshland where reeds grew toward the sea. As the first shogun of the Tokugawa clan that ruled from 1603 to 1868, Ieyasu reclaimed the land and created a network of waterways for transporting goods and people.

Edo—the Eastern "city of water"

Venice is a well-known city created from reclaimed marshland. Tokyo is also a city of water with much the same history. Diaries and travelogues dating back some 150 years, between the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the arrival of the Meiji period of modernization, show that foreigners were amazed and moved by the resemblance between the Western European city of Venice and Edo-Tokyo.

53 Stations of the Tokaido: Nihombashi, Ando Hiroshige, ukiyo-e woodblock print

Flourishing around waterways

Commodities came from across Japan to the city of Edo by sea. From there, they were transported deep inland by way of the Ieyasu's network of waterways. At each pier, they were unloaded at places called kashi, which became an ideal hub of business for warehouses, wholesalers, and markets. The area around this naturally attracted shops and restaurants for serving the many workers at the kashi. And so Edo flourished around waterways and grew into a buoyant city home to more than a million residents and workers.

Thriving economic and cultural center of Nihombashi

Yakatabune and the cool of the evening—the culture of waterside entertainment

Traveling by boat to visit houses of worship like Sensoji Temple. Chartering a yakatabune houseboat, playing the shamisen, singing songs, and eating and drinking. And in summer, strolling along the banks in a yukata gown or watching the fireworks display above the river. The people of Edo discovered great joy in the waterside entertainment.

Reflection of the Sumidagawa Fireworks in the river

Vestiges of Edo and a fresh angle on present-day Tokyo

Today, Tokyoites and visitors alike continue to travel the rivers and canals of Tokyo by boat. The cool breeze, the murmur of the traffic along the banks, and the vigorous calls of the workers maneuvering the boats offer a glimpse of the vestiges of the lively and energetic Edo. The waterways also provide a fresh view of the beauty of present-day Tokyo lined with modern buildings.
Don't miss the opportunity to hop on a boat and experience Tokyo—the "city of water."

Traffic on the Sumidagawa River today

View from the water of Hama-rikyu Gardens, a classic feudal lord's garden from the Edo period

Return to top of page