Unlocking Tokyo’s history one step at a time with guided walking tours


Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo has never had a reputation for being walkable.

About 80 percent of trips in the city are made on public transport, according to Reuters, and the sprawling metropolis is renowned more for its safe and punctual public transport system than for pedestrian-friendly streets.

Other centers, such as New York City and Mexico City, and smaller cities such as Melbourne and Kyoto, have been classified by local travel experts Insides Guides as being “best explored on foot,” so why has Tokyo missed the grade, and how can walkers make the best of the city’s highlights? Joining a walking tour is a surefire way to start.

“Kyoto really wears its history on its sleeve: You can see and feel it in the buildings as you walk around, but history has not been kind to Tokyo,” says Paul Tierney, tour leader for tour operator Walk Japan. To get a feel for Tokyo, one needs to scratch beneath the surface, as much of its tangible history was destroyed in World War II.

“But the more you find out about the city, the more interesting it becomes,” Tierney adds. “It’s like peeling layers off an onion.”

While Tierney admits pedestrians can find interesting sights by simply exploring places such as Akihabara — once the home of traders, low-level samurai and commoners — he says many of the signs for tourists do not offer sufficient background information in English to bring the history to life.

“There are plaques in Kuramae explaining that it was the site of the shogunate’s rice granaries, but this won’t mean much without the understanding that samurai were paid in rice,” he says. “Kuramae was an important area because rice wholesalers changed rice into coin for the samurai so they could buy things.”

Before setting out on a walk, Tierney recommends that people research their destination area online or bring a guide book. And, in addition to a map of the streets, he says a map of Tokyo’s subway system is his tool of choice for unlocking the city’s past.

“Tokyo’s history is in its place names,” he tells our group as we assemble for a Walk Japan-supported charity walk from Tokyo Station. Rapt, we listen as he points out key concepts on the metro map.

Places with the suffix bashi in their name indicate a bridge, of which there were about 700 across the city during the Edo Period (1603-1868), while mon reflects places that were once the site of gates to Edo Castle (apart from Onarimon, which was the gate to Zojo-ji Temple).

Likewise, Okachimachi was the town of the shogun’s okachi (bodyguards) and Ochanomizu was given its name because a spring found there was so pure it was used for ocha no mizu (water for tea) for the shogun. Sotobori-dori, which means “outer moat street,” runs along the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station. It’s another nod to the city’s past — the moat was filled in to form the street after World War II as a way of getting rid of large debris.

Setting off, we explore the commercial district before heading to Nihonbashi bridge, the starting point of the five walking routes that connected the capital to the provinces and the point from which all distances to Tokyo are measured. Although overshadowed by an elevated expressway, much of the bridge’s historical features can still be seen, including a monument detailing distances to places across the country and the zero kilometer marker in the center of the bridge.

Tierney uses ukiyo-e prints dating from the 17th to 19th centuries to show how the site has changed over time. What was once a bustling mercantile center became the site of a fish market (the predecessor of Tsukiji) and, later, Japan’s predominant financial district.

By visiting elements in the ukiyo-e prints that remain today, such as bridges, buildings, steps and natural features, Tierney believes walkers can have a more complete and enjoyable experience of places in Tokyo.

“Ukiyo-e allows you to walk through time and space. There are sometimes hundreds of images of the most famous places in the city, each offering a slightly different perspective, so they allow us to tie in the past and present,” he says.

Meanwhile, Adam Fulford, founder of inbound walking tour service Walkshop, is using walking workshops to bring about harmony between the present and the future. “Coping with unpredictable change is what we have to do as humans, so we are trying to help people be as good as possible at doing it,” he explains.

As our Walkshop group moves along the path to Meiji Shrine, Fulford encourages us to be mindful of our basic needs, such as water and shelter, and of our ancestors’ interactions with nature. He wants us to think of how the exchange of ideas has led to the development of the area we’re walking through.

For Fulford, the forested area, which was chosen as the site of Meiji Shrine after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, represents human potential. The 120,000 trees growing there today cover over 70 hectares, and were planted by hand over a period of just five years. Some 365 species were donated by people from all over Japan to create the forest.

Fulford gives us postcards bearing kanji characters. One shows omoi, meaning an urge or wistful thought, which is formed from the characters of tree, eye and heart. It is evidence, he says, that Japanese people’s strong awareness of others is deeply embedded in the language and national psyche. “We examine the physical world (tree) with the help of our senses (the mind’s eye). The heart then responds to value perceived in what we observe: a path forms, and we move in the direction of our heart’s desire,” he says. By drawing on such kanji, Fulford aims for his tours to offer a better understanding of the cultural identity of Japan — something to think about while walking around one of Tokyo’s sacred sites.

There are also opportunities to learn about the city’s geography by walking through it, thanks in part to the work of architect and topography expert Norihisa Minagawa. In partnership with Hajime Ishikawa, he founded Suribachi Gakkai, a group of amateur historians and city walking enthusiasts.

Of particular interest to Minagawa are the Edo Period residential practices whereby samurai lived on the high ground (yamanote, “mountain hand”) to the west of the city, while commoners lived on the lowlands (shitamachi, “lower city”) to the east. There were small valleys within the yamanote area, too, where commoners settled. The result is distinct shitamachi-style communities in the yamanote parts of the city, a distinction Minagawa points out on his tours.

In fact, topography informs the reasoning behind the shape of the JR Yamanote Line: to skirt the outer limit of the high ground. A trip along the line as it travels through Nippori, Tierney says, is one way to make this divide tangible.

Another journey, traveling east along the Chuo Line from Iidabashi by foot, offers views of the castle’s outer moat, which is today part of the Imperial Palace. The ravine between Suidobashi and Ochanomizu was completed between 1620 and 1624 to help prevent flooding and easy access to the castle. By alighting at a station in the area, walkers can explore in more detail.

Hitting your stride on Tokyo’s streets provides ample evidence of the dramatic flux the city has undergone in its four centuries of history. As our Walk Japan tour wound to a close, we found ourselves at Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji. The tourist hubbub and kitsch that surrounds is not a product of modern tourism, Tierney explains. Rather, the temple has been a haven for residents and travelers alike seeking shops, eateries and entertainment since about 1720, the only difference between then and now being the products sold.

As the sun sets, stall staff pack up their bargain goods, extinguish their sources of heat and, in the light of the lanterns, it is just possible to imagine the Tokyo of yesteryear.

For more information on walking tours, visit www.walkjapan.com/tour/tokyo-tour/ and www.walkshop.org.