Nihonbashi no Kashi

The Nihonbashi Pier District

The huge square on the west bank of Nihonbashi bridge is filled with an enormous, bustling crowd of people. This is one of the largest wholesale markets in the city, and from sunrise until late in the evening it is thronged with people shopping, selling all sorts of seafood and other produce, or just out to watch the comings and goings of Edo's citizens.

The town area around Nihonbashi was one of the first to be settled by townspeople after Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his capital here in 1590. The Shogun built his castle on the nearby hill, and his daimyo and other retainers built their main estates on the many hills and plateaus nearby. The flat land of Nihonbashi, however, has always been the center of daily life for the common people, or shomin. Most of the people in the lower classes live in very small houses. A single room in a naga-ya (literally "long house"; a type of apartment building) is often the home to a family of seven or eight people. Because of the crowded living conditions, people spend most of their time away from home. The large public squares in each district are important centers of their daily life.

The great square beside Nihonbashi bridge is even more important than other public squares in the city, because it is also located next to one of the biggest kashi (pier districts) in the city. Most ocean-going ships bringing goods to Edo unload their products onto smaller barges and takase-bune in one of the main ports, like Shiba or Tsukiji. The products are then carried up the rivers and canals to specific pier districts. Each district specializes in receiving and selling a different kind of product, since this is more efficient and allows merchants to control the market more easily. Fruits are unloaded and sold to wholesalers in the Kanda pier district (Kanda no kashi), while cloth and clothing is taken to another kawashi in Suruga-machi. The Nihonbashi pier handles seafood, and the nearby public square is home to a vast fish market, selling every type of seafood you could possibly imagine.

The Nihonbashi Uo-ichi (fishmarket) is located at a main crossroads of roads and canals, and it is definitely one of the busiest squares in the city. The Tokaido begins in this square, and the main road north from Edo -- The Oshu-kaido, begins on the opposite side of the Nihonbashi canal, an important waterway that links the Sumida River to the moat surrounding Edo Castle. On the far side of the square, spanning the canal, is the bridge that gives Nihonbashi its name. Nihonbashi literally means "Japan Bridge", and it is probably the most famous bridge in the country. There are many other bridges that are larger and more impressive.

However, the reason why this bridge has a special importance is that it is officially the "center of Japan". When the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, set up an official agency to supervise the road system in Japan, he needed to choose a starting point for the network of mileage markers. All of the major roads have markers every few kilometers, telling the distance to the next town, as well as the distance to the major cities. In 1603, Ieyasu had just completed work on Nihonbashi, and he decided that this bridge would be used as the center point for all mileage markers in the country. Since then, Nihonbashi has been the "official" starting point for the Tokaido, the Oshu Kaido, Nikko Kaido and Mito Kaido. It also is used as a "zero" point to calculate distances on all the other roads in Japan. The bridge at Nihonbashi has had a symbolic importance for Edo citizens ever since.

Beside the bridge are the piers where the fish is unloaded from barges and small boats. Several stone steps lead down to the water's edge, and strong men make their way up and down these terraces carrying large baskets of seafood from the boats to the wholesale shops in the square. You watch the comings and goings of the people for a long time. Many of the people in the square are wholesalers who have come to buy large loads of fish or other produce. They will carry it back to their small stores in each part of the city and resell it to the local residents. Others are purchasing large volumes of seafood for their restaurants or for the residents of a large estate. The estates of major daimyo may be home to several hundred people, including family members, samurai, retainers, advisors, craftsmen and servants. The cooks who prepare food for a daimyo household may buy more food at one time than the owners of some of the largest chaya (tea houses).

There is one more group of retailers who buy large amounts of produce at the main wholesale markets and then resell it in local neighborhoods. These are the "door-to-door salesmen" of Edo. In the morning, these salesmen will buy a large amount of food at one of the wholesale markets, and put them in baskets suspended on a long pole. With the pole on their shoulder, they will start walking through their local neighborhood singing in a loud voice to announce what product they are selling. They may sing out: "tofu for sale!", or "fresh fish!" or "baked yams! stone-baked yams". Each salesman has a special song that people in the neighborhood recognize, and when they hear the song of their favorite salesman, housewives will come out to buy food for dinner.

These salesman are known as bote-uri, or furi-uri. The word "Uri" means "sell" in Japanese and "bo-te" means "pole-hand". In other words, bote-uri literally means:"the salesman with a pole on his shoulder". Furi-uri is more of a slang term. In Japanese, the word "furi" means "swinging". Since the baskets of food swing back and forth on the pole as these salesmen walk through the neighborhood, they have come to be known as furi-uri , or literally, "swinging salesmen".

Furi-uri are very important to the economic life of Edo. They sell nearly every sort of product imaginable, from fruit and vegetables to umbrellas and newspapers. Some of them simply sell fresh produce for people to cook at home, but others carry an entire "sidewalk cafe" with them from place to place, and cook meals for passersby to eat. These food sellers offer cheaper prices than most restaurants, and they are ideal for the busy laborers of Edo, who may not have time to stop work to get a meal at a chaya.

So . . . . now that we have reached the center of Edo, what would you like to do next? I could take you back to the manor where my employer, Lord Matsudaira, lives, and show you what domestic life is like for the upper classes in Edo. Or, since we are near Edo Castle, we could also stop there for a visit. Which would you like to do?

Visit Matsudaira manorGo to Edo Castle
Go to main map of Edo