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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Asakusa Observatory and Todai precursor


Asakusabashi in Tokyo’s Taito ward is known nowadays as little more than a wholesalers’ town—albeit with some famous Japanese doll shops in Asakusabashi, just two stations south of the tourist center of Asakusa, and one station east of the electronics and nerd culture mecca of Akihabara.

However, until about 170 years ago, Asakusabashi was scientifically and technologically one of the most important places in Japan thanks to the astronomical observatory that used to be here, and which included offices for the study of the latest scientific literature from overseas.

Kuramae 1-chome intersection, Taito ward, Tokyo.
Kuramae 1-chome intersection - with signboard for Asakusa Observatory at foreground left
Not far from where the observatory was is a signboard, on the south-west corner of Kuramae 1-chome  intersection, which is now a designated public smoking area. The following is a full translation of the Japanese information on the signboard (which is only partially translated into English on the signboard).

Site of Astronomical Observatory

In the late Edo era, a little west of this spot, was an astronomical observatory on a road running through an area comprising the whole of Asakusabashi 3-chome 21-24 banchi, and part of 19-, 25- and 26-banchi. Besides astronomical observation, it also hosted other pursuits such as calendar-rule research, surveying, compilation of topographical data, and the translation of Western books.

The observatory was known as Shitendai or Asakusa-tenmondai, and was transferred here in 1782 from Ushigome-waradana (current day Fukuromachi in Shinjuku ward) and rebuilt. It was officially named Hanrekidokoro-goyoyashiki ("The Imperial Office of Calendar Making") which, as the name suggests, was part of the government office, the Tenmongata, for working out the calendar. Astronomical  observations were required to ensure calendar accuracy.

Asakusa Observatory signboard, Asakusabashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo.
Signboard for site of old Asakusa Observatory, Taito ward, Tokyo.
According to a historical document known as Shitendai-no-ki ("Shitendai Records"), the Shitendai observatory was built on top of an artificial hill about 93.6 meters in circumference and about 9.3 meters high. The observatory was a square building, with each wall about 5.5 meters long, access being provided by 43 stone steps. Another historical record, the Kansei-rekisho ("Chronicles of the Kansei Era") states that there were two separate flights of stone stairs, each of 50 steps, and that the artificial hill was 9 meters high.

Katsushika Hokusai was an ukiyoe painter active during the final years of the Edo era, in the 1850s and 1860s, one of whose most famous works was the Fugaku Hyakkai ("100 Scenes of Mt. Fuji") series. One of the scenes, Torigoe no Fuji ("Mt. Fuji from Torigoe") depicts the Asakusa Observatory in the foreground, with an armillary sphere on top, and Mt. Fuji in the background.

Torigoe no Fuji ("Mt. Fuji from Torigoe") ukiyoe print by Hokusai.
Torigoe no Fuji ("Mt. Fuji from Torigoe") by Hokusai
It was here at the Asakusa Observatory that the astronomer Takahashi Yoshitoki (1764-1804) revised the calendar for the Kansei era (1789-1801). One of his understudies was Ino Tadakata (1745-1818), a surveyor and cartographer known for completing the first map of Japan. Before starting his survey of the whole of Japan, Ino first set out to establish the length of one degree of latitude by working out the direction of the observatory from his house in Fukugawa and the distance between them. After Takahashi’s death, upon the advice of his son and heir, Kakeyasu, in 1811 an office for translating foreign books, the Bansho-wage-goyo (蕃所和解御用), was established on the premises. This office underwent many transformations: from Yogakusho ("Center for Western Learning"), to Bansho-shirabesho ("Western Learning Research and Educational Institute"), to Yosho-shirabesho ("Western Writings Institute"), to Kaiseisho/Kaiseijo (“Office for Opening and Developing”), to Kaisei Gakko (“School for Opening and Developing”), to Daigaku-nanko (“University Southern School”), and was a precursor institution of the current University of Tokyo.

Another observatory was built at Kudanzakaue (present day Kudankita, Chiyoda ward) in 1842, but both were abolished in 1869, in the second year of the modernizing Meiji era.

March 1999

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