Nihonbashi, which means ‘Bridge of Japan’, is less impressive than one would imagine. As the point from which all highway distances are measured, it seems that it should stand out in the urban landscape. Instead, it has a dirty, stagnant canal under it and a rumbling elevated expressway above, adding dark shadow to a peculiar bouquet, especially in summer.
Nihonbashi of yesteryear was a lively business district and, aside from the actual bridge, it still is today. Fifty yards to the north is Mitsukoshi department store, the grandfather of Japanese department stores with roots going back to the early Edo period when the Mitsui family opened up a dry goods store, the Echigoya, in Nihonbashi in 1673. Echigoya followed the trend of Western influences in the 19th century and by 1908 when it opened a new, three-story store, it was a full department store crammed full with expensive Western items. So too today Mitsukoshi (the name changed in 1928) is a paradise for the shopper with more than a little money in pocket and an interest in quality.
Nihonbashi in the Edo period was the commercial center of Edo. Toward the end of the period, it was inhabited almost entirely by commoners, merchants, artisans and workers, as the samurai withdrew to better areas. Close to half of Edo’s population lived in scarcely one-fifth its area around Nihonbashi. Not only was it the crowded commercial center, but it was increasingly rich, for one of the trends of the period was that commerce grew and wealth passed into the hands of the commercial classes. It was also lively. Away to the north and east were the true entertainment districts of Asakusa and Yoshiwara, but Nihonbashi benefited from their reflections. Ukiyoe artists and courtesans passed over the bridge together with travelers and baggage-laden carts.
It was fitting that in the Meiji period Nihonbashi saw the rise of modern retailing like Mitsukoshi, but it also was the center of modern banking. The Mitsui family built their bank here, near their home grounds, and the Bank of Japan also went up near the bridge. Both were destroyed together with the rest of Nihonbashi and surrounding areas in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
Today, Nihonbashi still continues to combine the ultra-modern and the older. The western part of the district is modern. Here is the stock exchange, Mitsukoshi, a large Mitsui bank (but not its headquarters any longer), the Bank of Japan and headquarters of several of the large insurance and stock brokerages now famous throughout the world. The district extends nearly to the eastern side of Tokyo Station, on the other side of which is the Marunouchi district which is the corporate headquarters of the country. To the east of the bridge are boulevards and tiny lanes alike with thousands of small shops. Here is where items with a Japanese flavor are found: kimono and accessories for Japanese-style clothes, hair ornaments, split-toed white socks (tabi), rice crackers (senbei), and traditional cakes and confections. Pregnant women should go to Nihonbashi’s Ningyo-cho (‘Doll District’) to the Suitengu shrine to receive protective amulets for the unborn baby and a long strip of white cotton to be wrapped around the stomach for health and protection. There is even room for small-scale recyclers trying to supplement their pensions or public welfare. On the very eastern edge of Nihonbashi is the Hakozaki City Terminal, the main departure point for bus limousines which will take tourists and businessmen out to Narita International Airport which serves Tokyo.
The calligraphy which gives the name of the bridge is by an accomplished hand; none other than the fifteenth last Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu. After he returned his powers to the emperor in 1868, Yoshinobu led a very quiet life, but by the end of the Meiji period, everyone let bygones be bygones. The artistic taste which Yoshinobu had achieved gained permanent display here in 1911 when the present bridge was built.