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History Special 7: River of Life

This map of Edo was published in 1813, just one year before the time setting of Miss Hokusai. Considering the shapeshifting nature of the city, it is a fairly reliable source to individuate the locations of the events occurring in the film, and it helps to understand how everything happened away from the castle, and along the banks of the great Sumida River.


1. Yoshiwara. Edo's infamous legal brothel district. Established in 1617 when the Tokugawa government issued an official license to a group of brothel houses located in Nihonbashi Ningyo-cho, it was moved among rice fields behind Asakusa after the Great Fire of Meireki of 1657, although not as a direct consequence of the disaster. It was a walled area that could be accessed only through what was known as the Great Gate, and since women living there were forbidden outside, temporary female visitors were admitted upon the issue of a special entry permit, as seen in the film. Here O-Ei meets the much-rumoured courtesan Sayogoromo.

2. Mimeguri Shrine. This very popular and visually distinctive shrine is the set of the snow sequence. Read more details here.

3. Sensoji Temple. The Asakusa district formed, along with Honjo and Fukagawa, the core of Edo's Lower Town, or the area of the city where commoners were allowed to reside. Its urban role and importance was comparable to the market square in mediaeval European towns, and like European cathedrals, the Sensoji Temple, with its distinctive giant-size lantern placed at the so-called Thunder Gate (Kaminari Mon) made it an important religious spot for seasonal festivals and the traditional New Year's first pilgrimage. Here, Kuninao awkwardly attempts to date O-Ei.

4. Okawa Bridge. Literally meaning "Great River Bridge", after the naming Edo people used to refer to the Sumida River, it later became known as Azuma Bridge, as it was standing near the popular Azuma Shrine. It was completed in 1774 after five years of work, and was the last of the five bridges on the Sumida River erected during the Tokugawa administration. It was free to cross for members of the warrior caste, but a toll was required to commoners. Azuma Bridge proved the strongest of all bridges on the river, withstanding the rage of floods that would otherwise severely damage its counterparts. However, an overwhelming flood in 1885 crippled the bridge beyond repair, and it was therefore rebuilt in iron and wood two years later, in 1887. The wooden part burned down in 1923 during the Great Kanto Earthquake, and after being temporarily repaired, it was replaced by the current bridge in 1931.

5. Sumida River.

6. Kanda River.

7. Ekoin Temple. This Buddhist temple was originally erected in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Meireki, to give rest to the souls of the more than 100,000 victims from the disaster. However, starting from 1768, its ground was used for sumo wrestling matches, held regularly twice a year for ten consecutive days from 1777. Following this tradition, eventually Ekoin became the official sumo arena of all tournaments from 1833 until 1909, making Ryogoku the cradle of modern professional sumo. According to Hokusai's biographer, Iijima Kyoshin, it was on the ground of this very temple that, in a public performance, Hokusai painted a giant-size portray of Hotei (a legendary Buddhist monk known in his native China as Bùdài), and soon after, two sparrows on a rice grain, then reportedly addressed his audience: "How do you like that?"

8. Honjo. Originally a separate village, Honjo saw increasing development from the end of the XVII century in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Meireki, fulfilling the housing needs of the ever-growing population of Edo. Here Hokusai was born, and here he was living in 1814. Honjo suffered extensive damages during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and burned down to the ground following the United States firebombing of March 10, 1945. Today Honjo is known as Sumida Ward.

9. Ryogoku Bridge. Completed in 1659 or 1661, initially it was simply known as Ohashi, or Great Bridge, as it was the second and largest bridge across the river. However, when a third bridge was opened in 1694 (quite unimaginatively named New Great Bridge), the name Ryogoku Bridge was adopted, meaning "Bridge between two Provinces", as it connected the provinces of Musashi (the west bank with the city of Edo) and Shimosa (the Honjo district on the east bank). A fee was required to commoners until 1807, when the tragic collapse of Eitai Bridge during a festival urged the authorities to make Ryogoku toll-free. Read more details here.

10. Nakamura Theatre. In 1814, the famous Nakamura Theatre, established in 1624, was located in Sakai-cho, now known as Nihonbashi Ningyo-cho 3. It was one of the three great kabuki theatres in Edo officially recognized by the government. O-Ei heads here hoping to meet Hatsugoro.

11. New Great Bridge (Shin Ohashi). Built in 1694, it was the third bridge across the Sumida River after Ryogoku Bridge, and also the most prone to collapses and fires (amounting to 20 accidents of various nature throughout the years), to the extent that the government decided to abandon its maintenance only a couple of decades later. However, the citizens were determined to preserve what they saw as an invaluable infrastructure to their daily life, and from 1744, they raised the necessary expenses by donations and self-taxation. Shin Ohashi was rebuilt as a Western-style wooden bridge in 1885, and then replaced by an iron structure in 1912. The current bridge was built in 1977.

12. Eitai Bridge. Completed in 1698 to celebrate the 50th birthday of the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. It was the most downstream bridge across the Sumida River. On August 19 of 1807, however, this massive bridge collapsed under the weight of the crowd that had gathered for the festival of Fukagawa's Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, causing 1400 victims. In 1897, Eitai Bridge was rebuilt in iron approximately 100 metres downstream. Damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake, it was rebuilt one last time in 1926.

13. Fukagawa. The district south of Honjo was called Fukagawa, and it is known today as Koto Ward. When Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo in 1590, this area was nothing more than wild grassland, and a Fukagawa Village was first founded in 1596. It was the birthplace of Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), the most successful novelist of the late Edo period, who often collaborated with Hokusai. It is in Fukagawa that O-Ei meets male prostitute Kichiya.

14. Edo Bay. What it is known today as Tokyo Bay, apparently had no specific naming during the Edo period, when it was sometime referred to as "internal sea" as opposed to the open ocean.

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(7 - to be continued)

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© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura•MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners



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