Five sites for exploring Edo-era Tokyo

Technology and fashion might be the first things that come to mind when you think of Tokyo, but even the city's most cutting-edge characteristics are framed by a past when 'Edo' (the pre-1868 name for Tokyo) was the world's biggest city and military Shogun ruled the country. While the US has its Wild West, Italy the Renaissance and Egypt its era of pharaohs and pyramids, the Edo period similarly defines what we think of as traditional Japanese culture. Many people head to Kyoto, the ancient cultural center that better survived World War II, for a taste of old Japan, but Tokyo holds some surprises that stand out beautifully against the modern backdrop.

Want to take a trip into Tokyo's history? Here are our top five destinations.

Stone walls, guardhouse, and moat of Imperial Palace, Otemachi, Tokyo, Japan. Image by Alexander Clayton / Photolibrary / Getty Images. Stone walls, guardhouse, and moat of Imperial Palace, Otemachi, Tokyo, Japan. Image by Alexander Clayton / Photolibrary / Getty Images. 

1. Edo-Tokyo Museum

Start here for an excellent overview of traditional Tokyo from its humble beginnings as a small fishing village in the late 1500s to today. A highlight here are the (often elderly) guides whose enthusiastic stories and recollections can lead them and their guests to shed a tear. Cross the replica of Nihonbashi Bridge to enter the exhibition hall and don't miss the incredibly detailed models of Edo and the cultural performances on the kabuki-style stage.

 2. Kawagoe

Thirty minutes from central Tokyo on the Tobu Tojo Line Express Train, this town in Saitama Prefecture is often called 'Little Edo' and is by far the area's best taste of the era within close range of the capital (see www.koedo.or.jp).

Start along Kashiya Yokosho, 'Penny Candy Alley', to pop in to creaky 19th-century candy shops along a stone-paved lane where artisans craft colourful hard sweets (they cost more than a penny nowadays but are still delicious and affordable). The lane meets Kurazuki St and its row of two-storey brooding black warehouses (some dating from the late 1700s) that are often decorated with contrasting sheer purple fabric for a truly artistic look; today many of the buildings house traditional Japanese restaurants. Just off this main drag you'll find (or hear) the Toki no Kane bell tower that's been ringing its bell on the hour since the early to mid 1600s.

A 15-minute walk from the warehouse district brings you to Honmaru Goten, the Lord's residences and offices and only remaining structure of Kawagoe Castle. While the castle dates to 1457, this building was added to the old structure in 1848. Today it's more like a museum. Explore the large wooden-floored rooms where you can get a taste of life for the residence from the toilets to meeting halls. The traditional, tree-filled gardens are equally lovely.

Tokinokane (bell tower), Kawagoe by arditpg. CC BY 2.0Tokinokane (bell tower), Kawagoe by arditpg. CC BY 2.0

3. Hama Rikyū Garden

Now surrounded by high rises this feudal-era garden was once used as a falconry site for Shogun families. Today it shows a stunning contrast between old and new. Wander the pathways that meander around tidal ponds that were once used as wild duck hunting sites. The best time to visit is from mid-February through March when the yellow rapeseed fields and pink-and-white plum trees are in bloom. An excellent way to get to here is by the Sumida River, on which traditional commerce used to flow, aboard the public suijo-bus (water bus) that runs between Asakusa to Central Tokyo and on to Odaiba.

Kokyo Gaien park in Tokyo, just by the Imperial Palace. Image by Miemo Penttinen - miemo.net / Flickr / Getty Images.Kokyo Gaien park in Tokyo, just by the Imperial Palace. Image by Miemo Penttinen - miemo.net / Flickr / Getty Images.

4. Imperial Palace East Garden

Check out the moats, entrance gates and foundation of the castle tower in the only public area of the Imperial Palace, home to Japan's emperor. A Japanese-style garden with ponds, trees and little bridges is at the base of a hill where the secondary circle of defence once stood. Although Edo-era folks probably walked or rode in ox carts, today you can take advantage of free bicycles here on Sundays (on a first-come first-served basis between 10am and 3pm). On Saturdays there are free walking tours with an English-speaking guide from 1-3pm.

Japanese style garden by TANAKA Juuyoh. CC BY 2.0Japanese style garden by TANAKA Juuyoh. CC BY 2.0

5. Rikugi-en Garden

This classic early-18th century strolling garden reproduces 88 scenes from history and Japanese waka (31-syllable poems) and was built for the fifth Tokugawa Shogun; it's considered one of the city's most beautiful walking areas.  The gardens are especially stunning in late November to early December when the many maple trees turn colours from gold to red. Paths crisscross the ten-hectare landscape that centres on a moss-green pond full of orange and white carp. Views from the artificial hill over the forested areas and the pond's islets feel like visual poetry. Stop at one of the several teahouses on the pond's northwestern shore to rest your feet.