The Many Literary Landscapes of Tokyo
From the City of Samurai to the Gardens of Nobility
Outsiders invented the place that became Tokyo.
In ancient poems and tales, Kyoto’s aristocrats always wrote about the eastern regions as uncivilized, desolate wastes. At first the stories were true: in the late sixteenth-century Edo (as Tokyo was known until 1868) was only a few hundred houses, “a straggling town, hardly more than a village.” Beyond was the vast Kantō Plain, “where the moon rose and set in the grass, with never a peak to hide beyond.”
But the region was changing. In 1590, the great lord Ieyasu Tokugawa traded his ancestral lands in western Japan for eight provinces in the east; he governed these territories from Edo castle. After winning the battle of Sekigahara in 1603, Ieyasu became shogun, ruling not just the Kantō Plain but all of Japan. Although Kyoto remained the capital until 1868, Edo was the centre of Tokugawa power.
The Great Peace had begun, and the austere verses of the medieval Warring States era gave way to a poetry of languor; to ghost tales and samurai vendettas of the Kabuki theatre. A constant theme was the fragility of existence, as earthquakes, floods and fires erased the city again and again. In the twenty-first century, that sense of the fragile still holds, though it is real estate development, rather than natural disasters, that alter the landscape. Many neighborhoods I first saw in 2001 have transformed almost past recognizing.
But the Tokyo I once moved through, and other Tokyos I arrived too late ever to know, still exist in the city’s rich, complex literature. When I’m homesick for Tokyo, I return to its books. Kafū Nagai on the Sumida’s eastern bank before the 1923 earthquake; Yukio Mishima’s nostalgic take on the early twentieth-century Belle Époque. Yasunari Kawabata’s elegant novels written when the United States occupied Japan. And other Tokyos I haven’t seen yet – Hideo Furukawa’s Dream Island made of compacted trash, or one of Haruki Murakami’s landscapes, with its vacant lots, closed-off alleys, dry ancient wells.
I can go forward and I can go back. In the books, nothing is lost.
I. SENGOKUHARA: THE PLAIN OF GRASSES
Today a bird’s-eye view of Tokyo and the surrounding plain, from one of Mount Takao’s cable cars, or the SkyTree observation platform, reveals wave after wave of concrete buildings, asphalt roads, traffic lights and streetlamps. Hideo Furukawa, in the novel Slow Boat, quips: “How far does Tokyo go? A solid two hours by train from home—and I’m still in Tokyo?”
The city and its urban sprawl are so vast that roads and buildings blur and disappear into infinity. As David Spafford once wrote, it takes an act of will to imagine what the Kantō Plain, once called “Musashino,” would have looked like before the mid-17th-century. Its shallow valleys and river deltas were wild, quiet, unpeopled: the space where Tokyo now was field upon field of rippling grasses. Medieval letters and chronicles describe the plain as a place of entrances, of fluctuating borders. Every journey was a crossing.A 21st-century traveler who wants to experience this primeval landscape of ancient poems will find it in Sengokuhara, northwest of the city.
In one famous story, two eloping lovers escape into a thick screen of pampas. When the men chasing them set fire to the brush, the girl cries out (in perfect verse, of course): “Do not burn Musashino today! / Tender as young grass / My husband is hiding here / I am hiding here.”
A 21st-century traveler who wants to experience this primeval landscape of ancient poems will find it in Sengokuhara, northwest of the city.
II. GARDENS OF THE NOBILITY
Japan’s most brilliant tea-ceremony masters, artists, and philosophers designed fantasy landscapes throughout Edo, as Tokyo was known until 1868. Some of these gardens—belonging to temples, and to the nobility—were vast, existing alongside almost a thousand smaller “stroll” gardens. Nineteenth-century European visitors loved the city’s myriad green spaces, though many lay untended and ruined after the last shogun left Edo. The British diplomat Ernest Satow singled out such gardens for special praise, remarking that they helped make it “one of the handsomest cities in the Far East.”
Yukio Mishima, in his Sea of Fertility quartet, describes the beauty of one of Tokyo’s grand estates. In the first volume (Spring Snow) its garden is vast, with maple hills reflected in a great lake; it has elm groves and waterfalls and zigzagging stone bridges. Runaway Horses describes the estate’s decline in the 1920s, as its grounds are divided into tiny lots, the great lake filled in, the low mountain leveled. In The Temple of Dawn, the house burns during the 1945 firebombs, but the charred expanse strangely reveals the original grandeur: “The estate had been restored by the ruthless, impartially destructive bombing,” reacquiring after the fires “the grand scale of bygone days.” The quartet’s final book, The Decay of the Angel, reflects Mishima’s own experience of 1960s Tokyo—a landscape of civil unrest and prefabricated buildings. Love hotels cluster over the garden’s filled-in lake, its mountain, its leveled groves. The landscapes come to stand in for Mishima’s view of Japan itself: The classically elegant garden is an incline… The shadows gather. The light dies.
Mishima ends The Sea of Fertility in a temple courtyard: “Beyond the veranda burned the green of a small tea garden, alive with cicadas. A beating of wings seemed almost to strike the wall. A sparrow flew in from the gallery and on again, its shadow wavering against the white walls.”
Mishima was often an acid writer, a cynical one, but this closing passage of his quartet is generous: for those willing to search them out, small paradises still exist. In northern Tokyo, Rikugi-en preserves the atmosphere that Mishima evoked in Spring Snow: its name means “Six Laws Garden,” and refers to the rules governing classical Chinese poetry. Hidden-within Rikugi-en’s labyrinth of walks are allusions to famous verses, in-jokes for the cultured. Mishima would have known all the poems, and could even have added his own.
III. THE CITY OF SAMURAI
The poet Bashō (a pen name that means “banana tree”) moved to Edo in 1672. He recorded the city’s transition from obscure frontier town to great metropolis. The future author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North described Dutch embassies visiting the shogun, early Edo’s pleasure quarters (“Boundary Town”), and moon-viewing poetry gatherings. Bashō’s Edo was still a rustic world of tea plantations and brushwood gates.
Bashō lived on the Sumida River’s eastern bank, in Fukagawa; he wrote his most famous haiku (“the old pond – /a frog jumps in, /splash”) here. Today a museum preserves Bashō paraphernalia, a tiny shrine commemorates the frog, and a banana tree stands on a site where Bashō himself might once have lived. The Narrow Road itself opens in Edo, with Bashō leaving his old house: Mount Fuji in the distance, Bashō’s friends lining up to watch him until he disappeared from sight.
From the same era, but wildly different in its tone, is the Chūshingura, or Treasury of Loyal Retainers. A play based on historical events, the Chūshingura is perhaps the most famous, and most often performed, in the Kabuki repertoire. It was the work of a team of authors, rather than a single man; Donald Keene once wrote that the play represents the ultimate playing out of samurai ideals—the concept that true loyalty must always be unconditional.
In 1701, Lord Naganori Asano was provoked into drawing his sword against a court official, Yoshinaka Kira. Because violence was explicitly forbidden in Edo Castle, the shogun ordered Asano to kill himself. Before dying, Asano ordered his family’s samurai retainers to avenge the trickery that had led to his disgrace and death. Two years later, forty-six of these samurai invaded Kira’s house and cut off his head, which they carried across the city and left on Asano’s grave. The shogun then ordered the forty-six to commit suicide. The men obeyed.
It is still possible to visit Kannon-ji, the northern temple where the loyal samurai plotted to avenge their lord’s death; its beautifully layered clay and tile tsuji-bei walls stand in one of the city’s most interesting and best preserved old neighbourhoods. Across the Sumida, one wing of Kira’s mansion still exists. In the Chūshingura, it is “a magnificent palace, where great and minor lords in brilliant robes of state gathered,’ ‘brilliant as the stars and moon at night.” Today the site includes a little shrine to Kira’s spirit and an old well. To the south is Sengaku-ji, the austere Zen temple where Asano and his samurai are buried. Every December, tens of thousands of Tokyoites observe the “Ako Gishi” festival here: celebrants retrace the samurais’ journey carrying Kira’s severed head across the city.
Man lasts only one lifetime, but his name for all eternity.
IV. FLOWER TOWNS & THE LOW CITY
The writer Kafū Nagai was once married to a geisha; his novel Rivalry chronicles life in early 20th-century hanamachi (“flower towns”), as the geisha districts are still known today. For centuries these quarters drew in all that was finest in Japanese music, dances, arts and fashion. In 2019 Tokyo has six, with the most vibrant in Asakusa—just south of the historic Yoshiwara district.From the end of the Tokugawa through the early postwar era, Tokyo’s writers mourned the city’s transformations.
This walled city of brothels and teahouses, once a few hours’ walk from the central city, allowed escape from Edo’s rigid social conventions. Under the Tokugawa shoguns, a man’s birth dictated not just his profession and where he lived, but also the clothes he might wear, what he ate, and who his friends could be. In Yoshiwara’s Five Streets, all these rules were suspended: men from all classes could meet and intermingle as they could not anywhere else—master carpenters and tobacconists with actors and rice merchant millionaires; candy-makers and pawnbrokers with feudal lords and the era’s greatest literati. Money was the great equaliser, although brilliance—in painting, in literature, in style—could finesse gold.
In poems and novels, “Yoshiwara” often stood in for Edo: it reflected the city in an upside-down mirror. Parodies and criticism of the ruling elite, impossible beyond Yoshiwara’s Great Gate, was allowed within the Five Streets.
In one satire, Harumachi Koikawa described a future, upside-down world: summer is cold and winter hot, male courtesans walk Central Boulevard wearing gorgeous kimono, courtesans reject clients rather than the other way around, and trashy visitors pass themselves off as sophisticates. The writer Kisanji Hōseido took this parody even further, and invented an entire geography devoted to irreality: Geppon Koku, Land of the Rising Moon. In Geppon Koku, women are revered and men despised. Women have the power to break off relations with men whenever they want, and the women-rulers accomplish everything through consensus rather than force majeure.
But Kafū’s preferred genre was elegy, not satire. As well as the glamorous demimonde, Kafū recorded the shabbier corners of Tokyo’s so-called “Low City,” the Shitamachi: he was a master at depicting the beauty of lost paradises, the remnants of the shoguns’ world. “From the distance came the sound of a candy-seller’s flute. The weird, low strain, unexpected in these back alleys, added a touch of sadness, mysterious and quite beyond description.”
V. CITY OF CHANGE
From the end of the Tokugawa through the early postwar era, Tokyo’s writers mourned the city’s transformations. Earthquakes, firebombs, and runaway real estate development erased not just buildings but entire landscapes. As Yasunari Kawabata wrote of a Tokyo garden that was open to tides from the bay: nothing is unchanged except the seagulls and the smell of water. And after World War Two, he said: from now on, I will write nothing but elegies.
Since the 1970s, though, the city’s novelists have described the disappearance of landmarks and rivers in neutral, rather than nostalgic, language. The emphasis is not on loss, but on one thing transforming into another. In Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, an old housing barracks and its ancient gate is remembered “as in a dream or a movie.” The housing complex is razed; it becomes an embankment covered with flowers. In Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat, the narrator ends up on Yume-no-shima, Dream Island, “a man-made island that dates back to the sixties. A landfill made out of surplus soil. An island made of trash—for keeping even more trash… The place is a park now. It has everything: baseball diamonds, soccer fields, an archery range, a gym, an indoor pool, a bike path. There’s even a tropical greenhouse…” And in Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, space is further distilled until the entire city shrinks to fit the light-filled box of a Smile Mart: the setting could be anywhere and everywhere. Smile Mart is not just Tokyo, not just Japan, but the world.
Haruki Murakami is perhaps the greatest chronicler of late 20th-century Tokyo and its changing landscapes. Murakami makes visible all the places and landscapes we train ourselves not to see: anonymous offices, district railway lines, apartment blocks. In novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, department stores crowd alongside “garishly decorated porno shops,” movie theatres, and “the hushed precincts of a Shinto shrine.” Plazas, glass-clad skyscrapers, Dunkin’ Donut shops. Billboards and unisex hair salons. Walking through Aoyama, the narrator notices “several new buildings I had never seen before,” without expressing either pleasure or displeasure at their appearance, or describing what the buildings replaced.
Murakami’s huge novel 1Q84 begins with a traffic jam on the Shuto Expressway, the 180-mile elevated road network that weaves through the city. The Shuto is the best example of a structure that we look at without really noticing: yet its road network links Tokyo together—old and new, hill and embankment, all points on the compass with the centre.
Like the ancient Musashi plain, the Shuto too is a place of entrances and exits, of shifting borders. And as in the ancient Ise Stories and its poem about the runaway lovers, every journey here is a crossing.
Anna Sherman’s The Bells of Old Tokyo is now available from Picador.