For someone interested in Tokyo history there is one tiny point of interest in the historical district of Yanaka that is unique in the whole of Tokyo: the famous mud and brick wall (築地塀, tsuijibei, with the full name of 観音寺築地塀). The wall is 37.6m long and just over 2m tall and seems to have been built in the latter part of the Edo period, which means it is most likely 200-250 years old. It is remarkable in that not only did it survive the bombing raids and earthquakes but it managed to stay out of the hands of the real estate developers as well. Today the wall is the last fragment of a wall system that must have covered hundreds of miles of street sides not even 150 years ago. Edo, as Tokyo was called back then, used to be strictly divided into zones, for artisans, government, samurai, temples, royalties, merchants etc. The better class of neighborhood the bigger and fancier the walls. Each zone would then be subdivided into yet more sub-zones, belonging to merchant companies, individual temples, clans, nobles, functionaries, factories, etc. which would all have their own walls. Between the walls would generally be the streets, which were nameless and irregular, not only to protect the capital from invading armies but also to protect the citizens from vagabonds and miscreants. Edo in this period had about 1.25 million inhabitants (according to some historians the biggest city in the world at the time) and strict rules were necessary to keep order, in an age before welfare, ID cards etc.
Out of all these walls, the (probably) only section to survive into modern times is the 37.6m here in Yanaka, facing the Kanonji Temple (観音寺). There are some other, rebuilt walls on other parts of Tokyo but this is the oldest one still in use in the capital. The wall was made with a cut stone block footing and then formed in formworks, just like modern rammed earth or cob houses are made. Workers would add a layer of mud at a time, mix in mortars, pebbles or whatever the local soil needed, and ram it or trample it hard. To give walls extra stability they would add recycled fired roof tiles or bricks that would be even stronger than the rammed earth and also help protect the wall from rain. A clay or plaster wash would then be added and rewashed once every year or so depending on the needs and status of the area the wall covered. Even recycled roof tiles would be expensive so you can tell just by looking at this wall that it must have been quite expensive! No doubt the temple it used to surround was rich enough to afford the very best. Apart from the fire wood needed to make the roof tiles and the form work itself, the entire wall would be sourced, built, and maintained using only materials from within feet of where it was located, making it perfectly sustainable and environmentally friendly. The wall would then be topped off with a projecting “roof”, just like any normal building, giving the wall solid boots (the stone footing) and a strong hat (the roof tiles), recognizable to any architect or builder from ancient Greece to the modern age.
Another reason to favor big, thick and strong walls would be as insulators from fires. If the winds were not too bad or if you had good enough fire fighting readiness, the walls would act as fire breaks in the densely packed cities of Japan at this time. The excavated ditches would serve to channel excess rain water into the nearest river and canal and help save the city from flooding.
This wall was identified in the nick of time, only in 1992 was the value it represented pointed out and it was given official protection from the city government. There are other places in Japan, like Nara, Kyoto, etc. where much longer parts of this old wall system remains. While the walls helped protect whole neighborhoods from thieves, bandits, floods and fires, they are absolutely no match for the modern tourists who arrives in mighty hordes to photograph and enjoy the remaining walls. I wonder if their builders ever imagined that their humble labor would one day help bring in millions of dollars in tourist revenue?
One of my favorite walled streets are the one in Nara. Have a look here. The oldest wall found in Japan dates from the 8th century, in Kyoto. The oldest one still standing and in everyday use is wall around Nishinomiya Shrine, right between Kobe and Osaka、247m long with a wooden frame and built sometime in the second half of the 14th century A.D.
In this post you can see the old wall on the right and the new wall on the left, which was probably built using old techniques but recently, to harmonize with the old wall.
The one area of present day Taito Ward that largely survived the fire bombings of World War II was the old Yanaka district, which is just north of present day Ueno station. Today the old town of Yanaka is quite the hit with local tourism: people from all over Tokyo is flocking to the area to sample a bit of the old time town charm that has survived. On a visit a few months ago I took these photos of old Edo period buildings, shops and temples.
Yanaka is famous outside of Tokyo as well, for its role in the a good tongue twister:
「なかなか鳴かない谷中のかなかな」Nakanaka Nakanai Yanaka No KanaKana
How fast can you say it? The sentence translates as:
The Kanakana (a type of cicada whose singing sounds like “kanakana”) of Yanaka that doesn’t really sing a lot.
Even though you can’t really tell these days Tokyo is still a very hilly city, built on many different levels of ground. One of the higher points is around the Yanaka cemetery near Nippori Station. This is one of the first stations many visitors and tourists to Japan reach, since it is where the excellent (and relatively cheap) Keisei Skyliner from Narita airport stops. It is also a good place to get a view of the Sky Tree. I took these photos a few minutes before sunset on a cold winter day.
Tokyo is filled with great little galleries scattered all across the metropolis. One gallery that is a little bit different from the others, not only in the art it puts on, but also the building itself, is Scai the Bathhouse. Housed in a Meiji era classic styled former public bathhouse with a gorgeous exterior and a very simple remade interior. Well worth a visit if you have the time and not afraid to take a little walk from the bigger more famous art museums in Ueno.