Tokyo, as the story goes, was a small fishing village called Edo which grew steadily until the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (reign 1603–1605), chose this city to become his new military capital in 1603. This marshland was not the best place to live, and a lot of engineering and land reclamation was necessary to establish the city. Thanks to the status as de facto capital of Japan, merchants and craftsmen flocked to the city and displayed their economic and cultural vitality.
In 1878, the core structure was established with 15 wards (visible in the map below). Many of the wards we know today, were split into multiple areas. For example, Taito-ku was divided in Asakusa-ku and Shitaya-ku, Minato-ku was divided in Akasaka-ku, Shiba-ku and Azabu-ku. It is interesting to note that many of the contemporary famous areas in Tokyo, such as Shinjuku or Shibuya were not included in these 15 wards.
Map of Tokyo before the great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 (map public domain)
It was only in 1932 that the city saw a large expansion, absorbing several outlying districts, including Shibuya, Nakano, Meguro and many more, so that there were 35 wards in total. A small expansion also took place in 1936 adding the west-side of Setagaya-ku. In 1947, the current familiar structure of the Tokyo metropolitan government was formed, by merging the smaller districts near the city centre into larger wards.
The Tokyo expansion in 1932 (left) and the current administrative structure from 1947 (right). I added in orange the main areas where you can still find Old Tokyo today. Adjusted from Tokubetsukukyougikai, see original map in Japanese
This bring us to the question, which timeframe do we consider when we talk about Old Tokyo? If we take into account that the name Tokyo was only introduced after the Meiji restoration in 1868, I would reckon that it is most appropriate to talk about Old Tokyo from that time onwards. Considering that the first large expansion took place in 1932, I consider Old Tokyo as it existed between 1868 and 1932.
Since 1932, many of the neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, except the odd building here and there that has survived the disasters and modern development. The Tokyo air raids during World War II destroyed a lot of beautiful places, but luckily, some pockets of the atmosphere of how people lived are still with us.
Areas where you can still find Old Tokyo
- Yanesen: Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi.
- Ueno: Ueno park and surrounding areas such as Iriya and Shitaya.
- Asakusa and Mukōjima: While Sensō-ji is a replica, the surrounding areas have retained a traditional feeling.
- Central Tokyo: Nihombashi/Ningyōchō and the former Edo Castle.
- Fukagawa: the area between Kiyosumi-Shirakawa and Monzen-Nakachō.
The above areas still have a lot of history connected to them. Of course, old buildings and places can be found all over the city, but not in context of a whole area that breathes history. Honourable mention for Shibamata, which was outside of Tokyo’s borders before 1932.