Once upon a time, two young people lived in Edo, in a busy neighborhood now called Ameya. They had been deeply in love since their tender age and, after years of courting, their parents had finally blessed their marriage.
Kazuo, the young man, was soft spoken and hard working and Ayame, his wife, lively and beautiful. Seeing them, neighbors always smiled and sighed:
Those love birds! They make such a lovely pair!
And days passed by, quiet and joyful. As Kazuo had to leave his house everyday to make deliveries, he had asked a local artist to paint his dear wife so that he could always carry her picture with him. The portrait had made the young woman laugh:
What a lovely thought! This way, we’ll never truly be apart!
One morning, as Kazuo was tending his stall, a gust of wind caused his goods to fall to the ground. And unseen, the precious portrait went fluttering up in the sky.
The paper swirled high over the streets until it finally came to rest on the balcony of a rich merchant.
Curious, the merchant took it… and immediately fell in love:
Such a beauty. She must be mine !
The rich man had many servants. He ordered all of them to roam the streets and very soon, they found her.
One morning, after Kazuo had left for work, six people entered the young couple house. The poor Ayame yelled and clawed. The neighbors wives, alarmed by the ruckus, tried fiercely to interfere.
But, even armed with all their courage, they were no match for the brutes and Ayame was forced to follow them to the merchant’s house.
Bathed and dolled up, the young woman was settled in an extravagant room and guarded night and day.
For a week, hoping to seduce her, the Merchant came knocking every evening, arms full of luxurious gifts:
Here little dove, ain’t those candies the sweetest you’ve ever taste? Ain’t those silks the softest? And those jewels the purest?
But Ayame just kept a straight face, eyes aloof and hostile. She answered icily:
The sweetest candies are from Ameya. And the softest silks in my own home. And the purest jewel is my husband’s soul.
The Merchant was getting more and more impatient:
This shrew is truly not like her portrait at all!
Suddenly, from the shadows, rose a song. To the sound of beating knives, confectioners were parading in the street:
We are from Ameya!
Where life is as sweet as candy!
Recognizing the voices, for the first time, the young woman smiled heartily.
The merchant misunderstood her reaction:
You like Ameya’s folks that much? Just wait! I can look like I am from there too!
He quickly changed into a ragged kimono and tied a towel around his head. Ayame just laughed:
You may look like you’re from Ameya but you’ll never sing or dance like us.
The merchant was cut to the quick:
I’ll prove to you that I can!
He barked at his servants:
Open the gates you fools!
The confectioner’s parade got in. Little did the merchant know that all of Ayame’s neighbors, men, women, and children, were here.
Well, what are you all waiting for? I want to see you dance!
Smiling mischievously, the confectioners started to beat a mad rhythm with their knives. And, a soon as the music started, the merchant was dragged away in a mad dance:
What are you doing? I am a rich man! Servants, come help me!
The servants looked at each others from the corner of their eyes. The torches were making the beating knives glimmer. They finally shrugged:
Well, you are just a man from Ameya.
And soon, the mean man had all but disappeared in the night.
Under the hoorays, Kazuo and Ayame embraced each other. Looking lovingly at their many friends, the young woman whispered happily:
Life truly is sweeter in Ameya…
Bijinga (“picture of beautiful women”) is a famous art subject widely found in Japanese painting, especially in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Those images were super popular in Edo period, both among rich merchants and middle classes. All famous Japanese artists of the time have created Bijinga, including Utamaro, Hiroshige, Yoshitoshi etc.
Ameya-Yokocho is a Tokyo area, famous for its candy shops (I am not sure those were already settled there in old Edo). Ame mean “sweet” in Japanese, and could have gave its name to this market.
Tontoko is kind of candy (with a texture similar to French nougat), named from the sound knives make when they cut sugar. You can see a demonstration here.