From the start, the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was no ordinary series of landscape prints. The title alone—Meisho Edo hyakkei (literally, "one hundred views of the famous places of Edo")—suggested something new, first in the curious inversion of the conventional expression Edo meisho ("famous places of Edo"), and second in the promise of one hundred separate views, a scale never before realized in single-sheet landscape prints.
Meisho is usually translated as "famous places" or "celebrated spots." However, the literal meaning—"a place with a name"—better conveys the oldest sense of meisho as an essentially literary place with conventionalized poetic attributes. Even though the names of the meisho referred to actual places in Japan, the places were less important than their poetic associations.
These "celebrated sites" tended not to be monuments connected with the rich and powerful, but rather places of relaxation and release from the strictures of a highly ordered society. Many were Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines or elaborate gardens. The major shrine and temple precincts—which included teahouses, restaurants, souvenir shops, sideshows, and even theaters—functioned much like modern public parks.
One important continuity between the classical literary meisho and the famous sights depicted by Hiroshige is the conventional association with specific seasons. Many places could be visited in any season, but most were connected with a particular time of the year. Edo was more closely linked with the seasonal life of its immediate countryside than were most western cities, where walls set the urban area apart and where it had been presumed, since ancient times, that city and country were essentially opposed.
In this series, Hiroshige was bringing to fruition a new conception of meisho. No longer was the term limited to the conventionally "famous" places—although he did not neglect these—but it was extended as well to places that, though little known, held special topographical or historical interest. Hiroshige's broader definition of meisho was based, in part, on the gazetteer Edo meisho zue ("illustrated famous places of Edo") and prefigured in his earlier work Ehon Edo miyage ("souvenirs of Edo," 1850–c. 1855). The One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was part of a broad trend in mid-nineteenth-century Edo toward the careful exploration of the geography and history of the city, reflecting both a general spirit of empirical observation in the nineteenth century and the maturity of Edo as an urban center.
The cumulative portrait of Edo that Hiroshige paints in the 118 views in this series is rich and diverse, offering not only scenic beauty but also countless references to history, custom, and legend. It is at the same time, of course, a highly selective portrait, celebrating the beauty of the city, the prosperity of its merchants, the power of its ruler, and the pleasures of its people. The bright colors of the prints also make us forget that apart from its rich greenery and blue waters, Edo was scarcely so ideal.
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