Kyobashi

Home of Edo's Craftsmen



The Tokaido is the main highway between Edo and Western Japan. Here in the downtown area of the city, though, it looks like just one more busy city street. As we get closer to the center of town, the streets which cross the Tokaido become broader and the buildings that line the streets become larger and more imposing. Most of the buildings on the main roads are large stores or the homes some of the city's more prosperous merchants. Kyobashi is the general name given to a large area of low-lying land that makes up one of the key commercial districts of Edo. The district occupies the flat land immediately to the West of Edo castle, and is an important center of the city's economy.

This part of Edo is crisscrossed by canals and waterways, and the numerous neighborhoods are linked by bridges. Many neighborhoods in the center of Edo are named after the nearest bridge. for example, Kyobashi is short for "Kyoto bridge", and in addition to being the name for the entire area, it is also the name of one bridge in the center of the Kyobashi district.

The architects of Japan have become very adept at bridge-building, and some of their engineering peats are quite impressive indeed. Bridges range in size from the massive arch of Ryogoku bridge down to small arches spanning the canals that lead to all neighborhoods of the city. It is a bit surprising to someone who has seen all the bridges in Edo that there are very few bridges on the Tokaido, outside the city. However, this is because the Shogun has forbidden people to build bridges over the main rivers between western Japan and Edo, as a defensive measure. If any of the leading daimyo ever rebelled against the Shogun, they would have a hard time marching on Edo, because they would have to drag all their provisions across the rivers.

Many other neighborhoods in this area are named after bridges, such as Edobashi, Takebashi, Sukiyabashi, Takabashi, Shimbashi and so on. Most bridges have a wide square at both ends, which serves as a marketplace and a meeting place for the townspeople. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the bridges give their names to many districts.

However, the reason why Kyobashi is such an important part of Edo's economy is that many communities of craftsmen and artisans live in the area. The people who practice each type of craft tend to gather together in certain neighborhoods, and for this reason, many neighborhoods in the Kyobashi area are named after the type of craftsmen who live there. A few examples are:

Tatami-machiMat-maker's village
Oke-machiBucket-maker's village
Minami Daiku-machiSouth carpenter's village
Minami Kaji-machiSouth blacksmith's village
Teppo-machiGunsmith's village

Probably the most famous of these areas is "Ginza", the location of the Shogun's mint. Gin-za takes its name from the silver mints located in a cluster of buildings just to the southeast of the Shogun's castle. The artisans who work in these silver shops belong to one of just three authorized silver mints in the country -- one in Edo, one in Sakai (Osaka) and one on Sado island -- home of the country's most productive gold and silver mines. The area also contains many smaller shops manned by artisans from the same silver guild, who turn out silver jewelry and decorative items. A few minutes walk to the north, also bordering the grounds of Edo castle, is the gold mint or Kin-za, and further away, near the shores of Edo bay, is the Zeni-za, or copper mint. Like the Gin-za, the gold and copper mints are strictly licensed by the Shogun, and only a few exist nationwide.

The silver mint churns out a wide variety of coins of differing sizes and weights. Their exchange rate is based on the weight of pure silver they contain. This differs from gold coins, which come in only three varieties: the o-ban, the ko-ban (or ryo) and the ichibu-ban. O-ban are worth 10 "ryo" and ichibu-ban are worth 1/4 ryo.

Since silver coins come in a wide variety of denominations, it is not surprising that silver coinage is more popular with merchants. It is much easier for them to "make change". Perhaps this is one reason why silver coinage is more commonly used in Western Japan, where most of Japan's merchants and traders are based. In Edo, where coinage is more often used for salary payments, or as bullion, gold is the more popular type of currency among wealthy individuals, while common people like yourself tend to use copper coins for most purchases.

Despite the appearance of the grand buildings that line the Tokaido, the Kyobashi district is the most "middle class" area of the city. While many parts of Edo are either dominated by huge manors of the upper classes or filled with tiny "row houses" of low-skilled workers, Kyobashi is mainly inhabited by small merchants and craftsmen. As you pass from neighborhood to neighborhood, you notice that all the stores facing the street in a given district sell the same type of products: Dyed cloth is sold on one block, iron tools on the next, pots and pans on this street and bookstores on the next.

The layout of the city streets is quite complicated. Although the main avenues are fairly broad and straight, in each "block", there are dozens of little alleyways that lead between the major buildings and into courtyards behind the stores. These alleyways are lined by workshops and homes where the craftsmen live. For example, between two of the shops that that sell iron tools is an alleyway, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the clanging of a blacksmith's hammer coming from the courtyard. This neighborhood is home to people who specialise in iron work.

On the next block are stores selling oke (wooden buckets and tubs). In the alleyways and courtyards behind these shops, you can see men carving the wooden frames of large tubs, and securing them with strong strips of twine. This is the neighborhood where the okeya (bucketmakers) live.

Over here are a group of shops that sell cloth and simple cotton kimono. Let's go down this alleyway and see the neighborhood where the dyers and weavers live.

The alley leads into a wide square. This central square is the heart of the weavers' neighborhood. Apart from a few tiny shops selling vegetables, rice and other necessities, most of the buildings that face this central square have workshops on the ground floor and apartments upstairs where the craftsmen and their families live. The entire community is busy at some sort of work related to the district's trade -- dyeing cloth.

The central square in the dyer's district is a very colorful place. Some of the older men shout instructions to their apprentices, who are learning how to prepare the cloth and dyes in just the right way, to ensure that the color is vivid and even, yet does not fade too much when washed. All around the area, brightly colored strips of fabric flutter in the light breeze as the cloth is dried and the dyes set. The cloth produced in these workshops around the central square are then sold in the large stores that face the street, or they may be sold to large wholesalers (tonya) and sold in other markets around the region.

In some buildings, people are weaving the cloth using large looms. Elsewhere, workers are dyeing the cloth in large wooden vats. Everyone in the neighborhood, men women and children, take part in the work. Before the Tokugawa Shoguns set up their capital in Edo, the only people in the area were farmers and warriors. Most of the best craftsmen in Japan are from the area around Kyoto and Osaka, rather than from Edo. For that reason, people from the western part of Japan still look down on "Easterners" as slightly uneducated and not very good at business or crafts. However, the shogun has managed to convince many people to move from their homes in the western part of Japan to these neighborhoods in Edo. Even the artisans who were born in Edo usually have parents or grandparents who came from the West.

If you are interested in learning more about the different kinds of craftsmen who live in Edo, we can take a tour of some of their workshops. Or, we can continue our trip. The next stop is Nihonbashi -- the very center of Edo. What do you want to do?


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