Hey everyone! Did you know that this year (2018) actually marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern-day Tokyo? That’s right! It was just a mere century and a half ago that the Tokugawa shogunate’s stronghold of Edo was renamed to Tokyo. While bygone eras can often seem historically quite far removed from day-to-day life, only a few generations separate us from those who ushered in end of the Edo period (1603–1868). When put in this light, it’s shocking just how much the city has changed in only 150 years.
How the present day Tokyo came to be is certainly a tale for the history books. The long and the short of it is that up until 1868, the city of Kyoto was technically the capital of the nation. Despite this, actual power often resided in other locals such as Kamakura or Edo. Though all political actions were always allegedly carried out in the name of the emperor, the reality was quite different in practice. For example, for nearly 250 years, the Tokugawa shogunate exerted ironclad control over all the land despite the fact that the emperor technically continued his reign back in Kyoto.
All seemed fine and well with this system until a certain American barbarian by the name of Matthew C. Perry appeared off the coast of Tokyo Bay in 1853. The commodore’s black gunships set off a panic that ultimately lead to the Tokugawa shogun’s authority being completely undermined. Under the banner of “sonno-joi” (revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians), supporters of the imperial family rallied and overthrew the Tokugawas in the late 1860’s. While simplified historical overviews will claim that this happened in but an instant, in truth, resentment of the shogunate had long been brewing.
What happened afterwards is well known to the world. Seemingly overnight, Japan managed to modernize itself and begin the process of catching up with the west. What is rarely understood though is that many of the seeds of this miracle had been planted throughout the Edo period (1603–1868). While most people have the image of Japan being a medieval backwater during this time period, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Edo was one of the largest cities on the planet and its leaders were vigilantly keeping an eye on western developments, even during Japan’s period of total isolation. For example, one of the first things asked of the Americans was who won the Mexican War.
OK, let’s go back to the topic of Tokyo’s 150th anniversary. The return of control the emperor (at least in name) ushered in the aptly name Meiji restoration. As part of this, the former shogunate’s base, the thriving city of Edo, was officially made the capital and rebranded as Tokyo (lit. “East Capital”). Though the megalopolis has experienced many ups and downs over the last century and a half due to wars and natural disasters, it has evolved into a mind-blowing phenomenon unto itself.
If you’re itching to learn more about Tokyo’s past, I cannot more highly recommend the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku. It’s one of my all time favorite museums!
Anyway, as might be expected of a city celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been pulling out all the stops in 2018. Throughout the year there have been many events and festivities that honor Tokyo’s intriguing history. In some ways, it’s felt a bit like a non-stop party, assuming you know where to look for the right information. Just one such event that I recently had the chance to partake in was the awesome Monozukuri — A Celebration of Japanese Artisanal Techniques. Though 2018 was by no means the first year for this expo, the government really stepped up its game this year. From traditional handicraft to the latest robotics, this year’s event had it all!
Of course, one of the absolute best allures of Monozukuri — A Celebration of Japanese Artisanal Techniques is that it has many opportunities for experiential activities that travelers rarely have the chance to partake in. Visitors can study how to make a variety of authentic goods or learn how the hell historical architects were able to erect their masterpieces without the use of a single nail. This year, there was even a stage with numerous live performances that included a spectacular fashion show. In addition to these attractions, the Monozukuri expo even has a sideshow dedicated to a host of artisans from all around Japan.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for my dear readers to take part in this year’s Monozukuri — A Celebration of Japanese Artisanal Techniques which was held from August 8–10. Instead, you’ll need to check out one of the other events going on this year. Hopefully the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will do a better job generating awareness in advance next year so that more visitors from abroad can partake. Despite my best efforts from behind the scenes, by the time foreign tourists catch wind of the expo, it’s often times already over or too late to alter travel plans. Nevertheless, it’s a unique glimpse at Japanese craftsmanship so if you’re visiting in August, I encourage you to do a little digging in Google.
In closing, there’s but a mere two years left until Tokyo will host the world’s best for the 2020 Olympic games. The past year has been a really great one for this megalopolis and as you might imagine, things are really starting to get hype over here. Looking forward, I can only imagine what the next 150 years have in store for my favorite city on the planet!
Until next time travelers…