Saruwaka-machi by Night: Hiroshige’s Harvest Moon
Get Out and Get Under the Moon, Edo-Style
Saruwaka-machi, a small area northeast of Buddhist temple Sensōji near today’s Asakusa 6-chōme, was by the late Edo period firmly established as the city’s theater district. It was home not only to the three great kabuki playhouses of Edo—the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Morita-za (also known as the Kawarazaki-za)—but also major bunraku puppet theaters like the Satsuma-za and Yūki-za. In the name of both fire safety and public morality, the shogunate permitted actors to be on-stage only during daylight hours, and it seems that performances were held from early morning until just before sundown. With hungry and excited audiences spilling out in search of supper after the final curtain, Saruwaka-machi was known for its nightlife too.
Hiroshige’s original print is thought to be an autumn scene as it depicts the most famous full moon of the year, the chūshū no meigetsu, which rises in the middle of Hazuki (the eighth month on the traditional calendar). The shadows are drawn with superb use of perspective, and were reportedly an influence on Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night.
Scouting locations for my shoot, I found that Asakusa 6-chōme looks nothing like Saruwaka-machi in Hiroshige’s time, so I decided to set up in nearby Rokku Street, today’s theater district, instead. I returned on the full moon to find the street alive with people—some just out of the theaters, and others there simply to eat, drink, and make merry.
Because Rokku Street runs southeast from Asakusa Engei Hall, the moon was readily visible even though it was quite low in the sky, and I heard people remarking how beautiful it was as they strolled through my camera’s viewfinder. Although the lantern-shaped streetlights added a certain Edo atmosphere, it was easy to imagine how much more treasured and intoxicating the full moon would have been in the pre-electric days of Edo.
About the Location
The Mid-Autumn Moon
According to Japan’s old lunar calendar, autumn ran from the seventh month to the ninth. The fifteenth day of the eighth month was known as chūshū—literally mid-autumn—and while it did not always fall precisely on the full moon, it was never far off. The tradition of tsukimi or moon viewing is said to have begun in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), where the Mid-Autumn Festival is still celebrated today.
Like many other Tang customs, moon viewing was adopted by Japan’s nobility during the Heian Period (794–1185). Round dumplings became the favored refreshment of moon viewers around the middle of the Edo period (1603–1868). The Japanese language is full of tsukimi-related expressions, from matsu yoi (night of waiting) for the night before mid-autumn, to nochi no tsuki (the latter moon) referring the full moon of the ninth lunar month, thought to be the second best of the year. Sadly, just like the practice of sitting outside with a plate of dumplings to admire the harvest moon, these expressions are seen less and less in modern Japan.
One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Kichiya, the Ukiyo Photographer: Today’s Tokyo Through Hiroshige’s Eyes
Meisho Edo hyakkei, known in the West as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was one of ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s most celebrated works, influencing even Western artists like Van Gogh and Monet. Drawn in Hiroshige’s final years and published from 1856 to 1861, the series depicted the sights of Edo (as Tokyo was then known) through the changing seasons. Audiences around the world admired Hiroshige’s inventive use of bold compositions, bird’s-eye-view perspectives, and vivid colors. A century and a half later, “ukiyo photographer” Kichiya has set himself the task of recreating each of these views with a photograph taken in the same place, at the same time of year, from the same angle. Join us in this new series at Nippon.com on a tour of these “famous views” in Edo and modern-day Tokyo, guided by Kichiya’s artistry and his knowledge of old maps and life in Edo.