Honjo

Sightseeing in the Eastern Suburbs of Edo



On the east bank of the Sumida River, a short distance north of Ryogoku bridge and directly across the river from Asakusa, lies the quiet working-class neighborhood of Honjo. The Honjo neighborhood is one of the most recently built shitamachi (downtown) districts, and was not officially considered a part of Edo until 1719, after the Ryogoku bridge had been built and small craftsmen and labourers began to move into the area in fairly large numbers. Originally, the area was the site of a few "second houses" or shimo-yashiki maintained by some of the leading daimyo as places where they could go occasionally to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, or where guests and retainers from the provinces could stay when they came to town. Even now, much of the area is still dotted with shimo-yashiki, as well as many shrines and temples. As a result, the area is greener and more open than other blue-collar areas of the city.

All the same, the majority of the people living in Honjo nowadays are craftsmen and labourers. Because the district is in a convenient location between the lumber yards of Kiba and the homes of lower-ranking samurai in Kanda and Surugadai, Honjo has attracted a lot of woodworkers and carpenters who have built their lumber yards and crafts halls along the major canals through this neighborhood. Their workshops are probably among the best-known of the crafts districts in this area. After the Ryogoku bridge was built, more and more people moved into the area. Some were craftsmen, others were small food merchants or boat pilots who make their living by ferrying goods and people from the rich farmland east of the river to the downtown areas of Edo.

Because it is relatively green and open, but is not too far from the center of Edo, Honjo has also become a popular recreation district for the working classes. The restaurants and chaya (teahouses) in this area are not quite as popular and as crowded as the ones in Ryogoku, nearby, but they tend to attract slightly wealthier customers. Many of the most famous ryori-chaya (literally "food teahouses") are located in Honjo. People often travel several hours from distant suburbs in order to eat at these restaurants, which serve sumptuous meals with as many as six or seven courses. The bakufu government tries to discourage people from spending too much money on expensive clothes and entertainment -especially the samurai, who get paid by the government. There are strict rules on the number of courses in a meal that each class of people are supposed to eat. For example, simple laborers are never supposed to have more than one type of soup and three types of side dish with their rice. Such a meal is called ichiju-sansai (one soup, three vegetables). However, in practice most restaurants that are away from the center of the city will turn a blind eye to a person's class as long as they have enough money to pay for the meal. Besides, there are also plenty of less expensive and less fancy chaya in the area as well.

To the north and east of Honjo, a vast, low-lying area of marshes and rice fields crisscrossed by several large rivers and hundreds of man-made waterways stretches away into the distance. Small villages dot the area, but much of it is still wild and unsettled. In fact, the rural nature of the landscape just outside the town area of Honjo is part of its charm. In the evening, you can often hear the yapping of kitusne (foxes) and tanuki (racoon dogs) coming from the nearby woods and marshes. In Japanese legends, both of these animals are believed to be very clever tricksters who can change their shape to fool humans. Many of the stories about the Honjo area involve people who are tricked by kitusne and tanuki.

On the fringe of these vast stretches of farmland, in the green and pleasant districts neighboring Honjo, are many famous sightseeing spots that are popular with samurai and townspeople alike. Immediately to the east of the main residential area, a five or ten minute boat ride down Tatekawa canal, is the Kameido Tenjin temple. This temple is dedicated to the god of knowledge, and many students come here to pray before taking their exams. However, that is not the main attraction of the temple. On the banks of a large reflecting pond in front of the temple are hundreds of wisteria vines, which have been carefully tended over hundreds of years, growing on trellises that hang over the still green water of the pond. In late May, when the wisteria are in full bloom, the entire area is a sea of purple blossoms. The long, dangling wisteria blooms reflected in the greenish water make a very picturesque topic for artists; some of the most famous ukiyoe prints depict the gardens at Kameido Tenjin. Incidentally, Kameido literally means "turtle well". As the name suggests, the pond at Kameido Tenjin is filled with hundreds of turtles, though the temple has been around for so long that no one is sure whether the temple was named after the turtles in this pond, or whether the pond was built to match the name of the temple.

To the north of Honjo is an area known as Mukojima. The name literally means "the island on the other side". It probably got this name because, if you look across the Sumida river from the temples at Asakusa, this low hill on the east bank of the river really does look like an island, rising out of the rivers and marshes. Mukojima is another popular sightseeing area. The eighth shogun, Yoshimune, is well known for his efforts to create nice parks and recreation areas for the citizens of the city. He was responsible for planting many groves of cherry trees in various parts of Edo, to provide places where the city dwellers could go for picnics. One of the largest of these cherry groves is in Mukojima. In early April, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the whole hillside looks like a huge ball of cotton candy. The quiet, grassy fields of Mukojima are suddenly filled with a crowd of sightseeers from the city wandering among the trees or sitting in groups on large rush mats, enjoying a picnic lunch or drinking and singing songs to pass the afternoon.


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