OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
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Recent Comments  
  • Noel

    Thank you for all the tips. I have Terry Bennett’s books, but the story about …

  • Kjeld Duits

    @Noel: I can’t recall when I read about the episode of the letter. I just …

  • Noel

    About the Morse’s friend and the letter – is there any written source on that …

  • Kjeld Duits

    @Noel: Yes, very true, Noel. Locomotives, streetcars and other imports from the West were …

  • Noel

    Oh…the one with the Shinbashi Station is amazing. Still, most of the photographs in your …

Yokohama 1873 • Bentenbashi and Station

Bentenbashi and Yokohama Station
Bentenbashi, Yokohama, 2008
click to enlarge

Bentenbashi (Benten Bridge) and Yokohama station. The train tracks are hidden behind the buildings, but some freight cars are visible on the shunting yard on the right. The hill in the background is Nogeyama, location of Iseyama Kotaijingu (伊勢山皇大神宮), a shinto shrine, and Noge Fudo (野毛不動), a buddhist temple. At the time, Nogeyama was a popular residential area for wealthy merchants. The station was the starting point for the railroad connection to Tokyo.

Keeling’s Guide to Japan, published in 1890, shortly after this photo was taken, gives a very interesting description of the surroundings of the six stations that passengers encountered on their ride of a little over 50 minutes to the then still relatively new capital of Japan. It is fascinating to ride the same train route today and compare the situation as it is now with the description in this guide for foreign visitors:

Trains run from both places, during the day, with two exceptions, at intervals of an hour and fifty minutes.

As soon as the train leaves the Yokohama station, a fine view is obtained of Noge; on the hill will be seen a large Shinto temple which possesses some celebrity. The road over which the train is now running was once partly, if not entirely covered by the sea; but has since been reclaimed by filling it up with the clay which abounds near this locality.

Kanagawa (Metal River), is a long narrow town stretching for over a mile on the shores of the bay, and has one principal street, which is part of the Tokaido. it is celebrated as being the place originally agreed upon for a treaty port. Foreigners lived here as far back as 1858; but were afterwards requested to reside at Yokohama. The consuls did not agree to this without much controversy and dissatisfaction; as they considered it would occasion the merchants much loss to be driven from one of the highways of Japan, and isolated at what was then a small fishing village. They considered that it would be another Deshima, as, surrounded by a canal, it had much the appearance of a prison. But the merchants were quite willing to make the exchange, as they believed that the advantages of a good sea communication, would more than compensate for any inconvenience.

The Buddhist Temple, behind the Kanagawa hills, dedicated to Bukenji deserves a visit.

Tsurumi (Stork View). It is said that many storks were formerly found at this place, hence the name. The village lies to the right of the road. Many rice fields will be noticed on either side, with the farmers, at the proper seasons, busily at work.

At Namamugi, near this place, is the tea house of “Blackeyed Susan,” often visited by foreign excursionists from Yokohama, being near the place where Richardson was killed.

Kawasaki (River Point) is next reached. It is a small town situated near the Rokugo river (Tamagawa). This is spanned by an iron railway bridge, built by foreigners, and completed a little more than eight years ago. There is also a bridge of native construction, for horses, vehicles and foot passengers. On the right before crossing the bridge, will be seen a grandly decorated shrine. Hundreds of people come from far and near on the 21st of every month, to worship here Kobo Daishi, the inventor of the Japanese syllabary. Many foreigners make this town a retreat for spending their Sundays and other holidays. The Mme yashki at Kamada near kawasaki is worth visiting about the middle of April for its plum blossoms.

The train rattles over the iron bridge at good speed, and generally passes there the down train from Shimbashi.

Omori (Large Forest), has not many trees at present; but it appears to have been, many years ago, what the name implies.

Professor Morse, formerly of the Tokio Dai Gakko, has enriched science with some very valuable and interesting curiosities brought to light at this place. He discovered extensive “Shell Mounds,” and considers them similar to those found in New England, Florida, Denmark and other parts of the globe. They lie at the distance of about half a mile from the shores of the Bay of Tokio, and have been cut through by the railroad. They are remarkable for vast quantities of pottery of many shapes and “an almost infinite variety of ornamentation.” Implements made of deer’s antlers, bones of man, monkey, deer, wild boar, wolf and the dog, and possibly of a large ape occur with the other remains. The professor comments on the paucity of stone implements, and notices a total lack of arrow-heads, spear-heads and flint utensils. he finds evidences of cannibalism, of which there is no record or tradition in Japan. Those desiring further information on this subject will do well to consult; “Memoirs of the Science Department, University of Tokio, Japan, Vol. I, Part I, Shell Mounds of Omori.”

Ikegami (Upper Lake). on the left of the railway, about 1½ mile from the station is the village of Ikegami where is found a famous temple dedicated to the worship of the eminent Buddhist priest Nichiren sainted now these 600 years.

His ashes are enshrined on the temple grounds, on the spot occupied by the house in which he died, in a large circular tower place upon a stone base, formed of lotus leaves, cut in in grey sandstone. This tower is covered with bright red lacquer and surmounted by a square canopy. It is about twenty feet in diameter. In it is a table that rests upon the bodies of eight large tortoises, the table being in the form of the lotus flower. There is also a glass jar that contains his ashes and a tooth that once was his. There are extensive burial places upon the grounds, and many elaborate monuments. Conspicuous among these is a monument erected to the memory of the sainted man. It is a shaft of gray sandstone of cylindrical shape, on which is placed a pyramid, surmounted by a globe, the base being two lotus flowers.

These grounds are most beautifully situated and of very great extent, containing quite a number of temples and shrines, and are surrounded by extensive groves of stately and ancient trees, the various avenues and paths leading into and through them being beautifully picturesque. They occupy the crest of a hill that overlooks a wide expanse of cultivated country, much of which is tributary to the priests of the temple, as it has been presented to Nichiren by a daimio who was one of his followers. All the surroundings are charming, and the little village which nestles at the base of the hill is one having every appearance of thrift and comfort. “Tambaya” is the best inn.

Among the various temples and shrines and shrines there is one devoted to the worship of the god Daikoku, one of the seven gods of good fortune. There is one very large temple where the priests are daily engaged in reciting the formula of their creed. The floor matting is their sitting-place, where they plant themselves in rows of five, facing each other. Before them are lacquered tables or rests, upon which are put the scrolls from which they read. On these grounds there is a five-storied pagoda with highly ornamented exterior. There is also a temple dedicated to the Pole Star, under the name of Mioken.

The largest temple among them all, however, is the one built in commemoration of Nichiren. At the return of the annual celebration at these grounds, which take place on the 13th of January, to mourn the death of the saint, the crowd is immense, it being a popular place of worship.

Shinagawa (Merchandise River). Numerous fishermen reside at this place, who carry large quantities of fish to Tokio every day. A view of the bay is obtained here, with the forts in the distance. They were built by Japanese, under the direction of French engineers, and were intended for the defence of Tokio, but are now dismantled. Excursionists sometimes go there to gather oysters and other shell-fish, which are found in great abundance. Ships belonging to the Imperial Navy are seen at anchor beyond.

At the end of November this town ought to be visited as at that time the maple trees are at their prettiest. After leaving Shinagawa, the train makes a long curve, and passes several villages, which are so connected with Tokio as hardly to be distinguished from it. The last of those is Mita (Three Fields). Many temples are seen on the left surrounded by pleasant groves of trees. The train stops, and we are at Shimbashi (New Bridge) in the Capital.

It is interesting to see that several mistakes crept into this description. For example, it mentions a buddhist temple dedicated to Bukenji. The correct reading is Bugenji, and this was the name of the temple. Tsurumi is translated as Stork View, while it actually means Crane View. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful and rare description of a train trip between Yokohama and Tokyo as experienced by foreign visitors during the middle of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

The station was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake and today only the remaining waterway reminds of the situation on the photograph. For more information about the station, see Yokohama 1900s • Yokohama Station.

Map of Yokohama 1890
1890 (Meiji 23) Map of Yokohama: 1. Isezakicho-dori; 2. Yoshidamachi-dori; 3. Miyakobashi; 4. Nogemachi-dori; 5. Yoshidabashi; 6. Yanagibashi; 7. Nishikibashi; 8. Oebashi; 9. Yokohama Station; 10. Bashamichi; 11. Bentenbashi.

1 Farsari, A. (1890). Keeling’s Guide to Japan. Kelly & Walsh Limited: 50-53.

Photographer: Kuichi Uchida
Publisher: Kuichi Uchida
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number: 80115-0011

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Posted by • 2008-05-03
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I’ve been into Japanese antique photography for about 10 years, but I’ve just recently noticed that I haven’t seen even one photo of a train taken in the 1880s or 1890s. I mean, the first lines started operating in the 1870s, however all we’ve got are photographs of either train station or railway tracks, but not the train. I was just wondering what might be the reason behind that.

# Noel · 2016-04-02

Noel: Thanks for commenting. There are quite a few images of trains, I even have some photos of Japanese trains in my collection. The oldest photo dates from 1873-74. It must have been hard for photographers, though, because exposure times were long. So it was difficult—initially impossible—to photograph moving objects.

# Kjeld Duits · 2016-04-03

Oh…the one with the Shinbashi Station is amazing. Still, most of the photographs in your collection date 1900 and later. I know the exposure times were quite long, however you can always take a photo while the train awaits at the station. Locomotives were quite popular theme in the Meiji Period ukiyo-e, as they represented modernisation and technological development of Japan. In my opinion it’s odd that they were not included as much in the photography, which served a similar purpouse as the prints – to show a modernised Japan to Western people.

# Noel · 2016-04-03

@Noel: Yes, very true, Noel. Locomotives, streetcars and other imports from the West were a very popular topic in ukiyoe.

Actually, photography was mainly used to show a traditional Japan to foreigners, while ukiyoe was used to show a modern Japan to a Japanese audience.

Partly because ukiyoe was affordable to most Japanese, while photography was an expensive luxury article. But mostly, because the majority of Westerners—who were the main buyers of photos—were not so interested in seeing a modern Japan. They wanted to see the mysterious country that had been closed off to the world for over two centuries. Many foreign visitors to Japan lamented the vanishing of Japan’s traditional aspects in books, diaries and letters.

From the late 19th century on, Westerners had an enormous lust for exoticism and photographers in Japan smartly catered to that need. This is an aspect of Yokohama Shashin, as photography of Japan of the late 19th century is often called, about which whole books have been written by curators and researchers. The hand-tinted photographs showing a traditional Japan were, together with Japanese pottery and lacquerware, a major export item.

Interesting tidbit. When Edward S. Morse—who visited Japan during the 1870s and 1880s—was writing his book Japan Day by Day (published in 1917), a friend wrote him a letter saying he should write more about his experiences of old Japan instead of modern Japan. Also, because old Japan had long gone by the time he was writing his book, of course.

# Kjeld Duits · 2016-04-03

About the Morse’s friend and the letter – is there any written source on that story? In the summer I might be doing a lecture on Meiji photography and how it portraits Japan, so I’m in the process of looking for both visual and written materials on that matter.

# Noel · 2016-04-03

@Noel: I can’t recall when I read about the episode of the letter. I just did a quick search on it, but was unable to find any information. it may have been Mark Twain who wrote the letter, but I don’t have much confidence in that part of my memory…

That Yokohama Shashin were geared towards the foreign market and that the photos focused especially on traditional Japan is well-known. I assume it is mentioned in books like Bennett’s Photograpy in Japan, Art & Artifice, Japanese Photographs of the Meiji Era and Japan At The Dawn Of The Modern Age: Woodblock Prints From the Meiji Era.

# Kjeld Duits · 2016-04-03

Thank you for all the tips. I have Terry Bennett’s books, but the story about the letter would be a nice addition to my resources.

# Noel · 2016-04-04

Textile help

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