To Live and Dye in Edo: Hiroshige’s Take on Kanda Kon’ya-chō

When Hiroshige depicted Kanda’s “dyers’ quarter,” Kon’ya-chō, for the seventy-fifth of his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, he took the opportunity to add himself—and his publisher—into fashion history.

Edo Street Fashion, Straight from the Source

Kon’ya, dyers who worked in indigo, began to gather in the part of Kanda that would eventually be known as Kon’ya-chō early in the seventeenth century, when the Edo Period (1603–1868) had barely begun. Two centuries later, in Hiroshige’s time, the “dyer’s quarter” was still famous for the long strips of dyed fabric that fluttered like banners when put out to dry on sunny days.

Because most of the fabric dyed here was destined for use in chic summer yukata or tenugui hand-towels, a visit to Kon’ya-chō was said to be an easy way to see what the current fashions were. The work done by the artisans of this quarter was of such high quality and so popular that textiles dyed with indigo anywhere else came to be called bachigai, or “from the wrong place.” This is said to be the origin of the same word in Japanese today, used to describe something that is out of place or inappropriate for a given occasion. 

The dyed patterns in the original picture are of Hiroshige’s own invention. The one closest to the foreground is 魚, the character for “fish,” a reference to Totoya Eikichi of Shitaya, the publisher of One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, whose name began with the same character: 魚屋栄吉. The diamond-shaped family crest (mon) is one that Hiroshige sometimes used himself, and combines the katakana characters hi and ro (ヒ, ロ). You have to admire Hiroshige’s style, turning self-promotion into not just art but fashion too.

Textiles flapped in the breeze over Kon’ya-chō well into modern times. According to a friend who grew up in Kanda, they could be seen as late as the 1970s. Today, however, the streets are lined with ordinary buildings, with no sight of any drying fabric or dyer’s workshops. When I looked toward Mount Fuji near the Kon’ya-chō intersection on Shōwa Street, however, I did see a curing sheet on a construction site rippling in the wind, and this had to stand in for Hiroshige’s banners of indigo in my own composition.

About the Location

Kanda, Jinbōchō, and Akihabara

The area that lies today between two streets, Ōdenma-honchō to the north and Kuramaebashi to the south, was known in Edo times as Kanda. It was divided into northern Uchi-Kanda and southern Soto-Kanda (“Inner Kanda” and “Outer Kanda,” respectively) by the Kanda River, which flowed eastward through the middle. The western part of Uchi-Kanda was home to samurai mansions, while the regular townsfolk lived in the eastern end, as well as in Soto-Kanda. 

In the Meiji Era (1868–1912), a number of universities were built where the samurai residences had once been, in turn providing the clientele for a bookstore district to form in nearby Jinbōchō. (The number of students in the area surely also has something to do with the high concentration of stores from Jinbōchō to Surugadai selling musical instruments and sports equipment.)

In the early Meiji years, there was a firebreak in Soto-Kanda’s Kanda Hanaoka-chō, where a “flame-extinguishing shrine” was built to worship Akiba Daigongen, a deity of protection from conflagrations. The shrine was known as Akiba Shrine, and the area around it soon became Akiba no Hara, “Akiba Fields,” which eventually mutated into the modern place name “Akihabara .” An electronics district arose there from the postwar black markets, and over the decades this evolved into “Akiba,” the otaku-friendly district known the world over today.

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.

See More: Kichiya’s “Hundred Famous Views” Gallery

tourism Tokyo ukiyo-e One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Kichiya Kantō