Tokyo is synonymous with sci-fi cityscapes and pop culture. But this hyper-modern image only reflects one of the city's many layers. To truly understand Tokyo, you have to start with Edo – the name for the city under the Tokugawa shoguns. This older city and its culture form Tokyo's foundation – parts of which are still accessible today.

In the Edo period (1604–1868), when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan, Edo was the country's political centre (Kyoto remained the official capital until 1868). A lot of what we think of today as quintessentially Japanese – like kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling and woodblock prints – are rooted in the culture of Edo.

With trees on either side and a balustrade in front, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, stands beneath a blue sky, painted white with ornate eaves
Tokyo's Imperial Palace includes remnants of the Edo-era castle that once stood here, such as the stone embankments and the keep, Fushimi-yagura © Tooykrub / Shutterstock

Visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Before the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, chose Edo for his power base, it was a small, coastal castle town. Edo means 'estuary', a name taken from its location where the Sumida-gawa meets the sea. For a crash course on how this marshy place gave rise to one of the world's greatest cities, start with a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the city's history museum.

See the city through ukiyo-e

Edo was an ephemeral city, built largely of wood. It burned often, and very few structures from the period remain. Old maps and bureaucratic records give historians a good understanding of the city’s layout but our best understanding of what Edo looked like comes from ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), a popular art form at the time. Artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige set down their impressions of the city in brilliant colour. Hiroshige's series 100 Famous Views of Edo is particularly illustrative – and iconic.

The Ukiyo-e Ōta Memorial Museum of Art holds the city's best collection of works by the masters of the form. The Sumida Hokusai Museum, located not far from Hokusai's birthplace, has exhibitions on the artist's life and work.

A mirror-still, straight canal in Tokyo, Japan, above which is an archway of tree branches which are heavy with spring cherry blossom
Tokyo's Meguro Canal, in the full bloom of spring. The city's canals offer a glimpse of the Tokyo's storied past © YP_photographer / Shutterstock

Take a river cruise

Though it's hard to picture today, Edo was a city on the water, criss-crossed with canals like Venice. Back then, boats were the principal form of public transportation. Public waterbuses still run up and down the mighty Sumida-gawa, Tokyo's main river, between Asakusa and Odaiba, where the river gives way to Tokyo Bay.

Many of the canals have since been filled in (the city's highway system runs over many of them), but a few remain. Nihombashi Cruise runs open-top barges along some downtown canals. It's a unique way to see the city, below street level and passing beneath both the modern elevated highway and several historic bridges.

Explore the ruins of the old castle

Where the Imperial Palace now stands, Edo-jō – the castle of the Tokugawa shoguns – once stood. At its peak, Edo-jō was the world's largest fortress, a whole city within the city protected by a great spiral of moats. All that remains of it today are some of the stone foundations, a couple of watchtowers (like Fushimi-yagura), gates (like Tayasu-mon) and parts of the moat.

There's a good view of the watchtowers from Kokyō-gaien Plaza and you can climb on the ruins of the old keep inside the Imperial East Garden (it's a pretty garden, too). The most famous section of the moat is at Chidori-ga-fuchi.

Kabuki actors onstage clash with swords
Kabuki actors fight © Kazunori Nagashima / Getty Images

Catch a kabuki performance

A day at the kabuki theatre was a favourite past time for edokko (literally 'children of Edo' – how the local townspeople referred to themselves). Society in Edo-era Japan was strictly hierarchical, with the lords and their samurai retainers on top and the artisans and merchants at the bottom. In reality, as the Japanese economy became increasingly mercantile, merchants could become incredibly wealthy. It was their tastes for the dramatic and the extravagant that defined kabuki, then an emergent style of performing arts and now Japan's most widely recognised one.

This form of drama, characterised by bold costumes, exaggerated movement and the twang of the accompanying shamisen (three-stringed instrument), is still performed almost daily at Kabukiza, Tokyo's dedicated kabuki theatre. Lineage is important in kabuki and many contemporary actors are descended from ones active in the Edo period.

Two sumo wrestlers, their hair tied in top knots, grip one another in a standoff as the referee, clad in a yellow robe, oversees them, at the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament, Japan
Ancient battles: sumo wrestlers engaged in a fight at the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament © Juergen Sack / Getty Images

See a sumo tournament

Sumo's history goes back centuries; it's believed to have originated in ancient harvest rituals. But the sumo we know today – with its top-knotted wrestlers and pageantry surrounding the yokozuna, the top-ranked stars of the ring – is rooted in the culture of the Edo period, when the sport was another of the grand diversions of the ascendant merchant class.

Tournaments are held in Tokyo three times a year, in January, May and September, at Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the national sumo stadium. Outside of the tournament seasons, see a practice session at Arashio Stable.

Stroll through a garden designed for lords

The townspeople had their culture while the lords had their own, befitting their rank (though they may have secretly enjoyed the likes of kabuki and sumo). While the merchants and artisans lived cheek-to-jowl in the Sumida-gawa river basin, the lords lived in sprawling highland villas. Within these villas, strolling gardens served both as retreats for the lords and as showcases for their wealth, status and artistic acumen.

Three such Edo-era gardens remain in Tokyo. Rikugi-en, considered the prettiest, is full of references to classical poetry. Koishikawa Kōrakuen, in the middle of the city, was first commissioned by a son of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Finally Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien was once used as falconry site for shogun families.

Japanese men wearing grey and green shirts carry an ornate shrine on their shoulders, beneath a decorative archway, in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, Japan's capital city.
The Sanja Matsuri festival fills the streets of Asakusa, Tokyo, much in the same manner that the festival unfolded during the Edo period © Marvin Minder / Shutterstock

Catch a festival

Nothing brings old Edo to life like a matsuri (traditional festival). These annual events have been taking place since the early days of Edo. Participants trade their modern dress for happi (short kimono jackets) and loincloths (like those worn by sumo wrestlers) to parade through the streets, chanting, dancing and carrying heavy mikoshi (portable shrines). Spectators often wear colourful cotton kimono known as yukata.

The two most important matsuri of the Edo period – the only two permitted to enter the castle grounds – were the Sannō and Kanda festivals. They're both still held today, at Hie-jinja in June on even-numbered years and at Kanda Myōjin in May on odd-numbered years, respectively. Today, Tokyo's largest and most popular festival is Asakusa-jinja's annual Sanja Matsuri. There are also many, many smaller neighbourhood matsuri; most are held during spring or summer.

First published in May 2013.

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