Foreign tourists often ask me what is really special about Tokyo. In particular when it comes to history, Kyoto has so many beautiful ancient temples, so why should I bother with history in Tokyo? The short answer is: it is Tokyo that has shaped Japan for the last 400 years! The development of Japan as we know it was orchestrated from the eastern capital since the start of the Edo period (1603-1868) when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (former name of Tokyo).
One very important mechanism used in the Edo period to consolidate power in the capital was the the policy of sankin-kōtai. This policy required each major feudal lord to reside every few years in Edo for a considerable amount of time, requiring him to build a residence worthy of his status both in Edo and his own territory. His wife and kids (the heir) had to stay in Edo all the time as hostages. This put a huge financial strain on the lord, limiting his ability to wage war.
The legacy of this policy can still be seen all over Tokyo, and also outside of Tokyo as this requirement brought with it a lot of extra travel that allowed the developement of roads connecting Tokyo with the rest of Japan (the famous ones being the Tōkaidō and Nakasendō connecting Edo with Kyoto). For example, Shinjuku was the first stop on one of these routes (the Kōshū Kaidō), which connected Edo and the Kai province (nowadays Yamanashi Prefecture).
At its peak there were about 600 of these feudal lord mansions, more than there were domains as the feudal lords used to have several mansions, a small one close to Edo castle, and then bigger ones in the city or in the outskirts of the city.
There are unfortunately no fully intact feudal lord mansions in Tokyo left. If there were, they would likely be on any tourist itinerary. However, this does not mean all is lost. Two gates and two gardens have survived. Here and there are other small elements left, but they are not that impressive as the gates and gardens. Many other places have a stone marker to remember the location, but nothing can be seen anymore.
1. Red gate at Tokyo University (1827)
One of main gates of Tokyo University has a history that goes beyond the university’s history (established as the Imperial University in 1886). Its red gate at the main Hongo campus used to belong to the Kaga Domain Edo Mansion during the Edo period (1603-1868). This mansion housed the Maeda clan lord of the Kaga Domain (Kaga was partially covering the current Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures) and the red gate was built at the occasion of the marriage of one of the lords in 1827. Read more.
2. Black gate in Ueno (ca. 1800)
The black gate in Ueno is an ominous, powerful gate reeking of authority. It is not clear when exactly the gate was built, but the concensus is late Edo period, likely late 18th or early 19th century. The black gate belonged to the Ikeda clan of Inshū province (also called Inaba province) and Hōki province (currently Tottori Prefecture). They maintained their mansion in the Marunouchi area, and the gate was afterwards moved to Ueno in 1954. Read more.
3. Korakuen garden (1629)
Established by the Mito Domain feudal lord (the domain currently associated with Ibaraki prefecture). Korakuen is a circuit-style garden with ponds and man-made hills. The garden was developed with advice from Zhu Shun Shui (1600-1682), a refugee scholar of the Ming Dynasty who also gave the garden its name. Korakuen is derived from a Chinese poem by Fan Zhongyan which means “garden for pleasure after”, signifying ”hardship now, pleasure later”. Read more.
4. Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden (1686)
Popular traditional garden in Tokyo, surrounded by buildings, bringing you the classic combination of old and modern Japan. Established in 1686 by Tadatomo Ōkubo (1632-1712), feudal lord of the Odawara Domain at that time. As many gardens of those days, many points in the garden point to famous places in China. Read more.
Next to these 4 places, Shinjuku Gyoen is also often seen as a remaining daimyō garden, however, the garden was completely destroyed during by air raids in 1945 and was rebuilt after the war.
At the time during the Edo period they were called Edo-yashiki (江戸屋敷) or Buke-yashiki (武家屋敷)
After the Edo period they were called Edo-hantei (江戸藩邸)