December 7, 2012


Far Side of the River

Up at 4:00 AM. Into the black car always waiting in front of my house on Saturdays 4:50 sharp for a thirty minute drive east to Roppongi and the TV Asahi studios, where Asanabi (“Morning Navigator” ) is broadcast live from 6:00 to 8:30. My Wabisabinabi (Quiet-Simplicity Guide?)  round-the-town segment was 25 minutes of Shigeru, Mariko and me trekking across Fukagawa in Koto Ward, on the eastern side of Sumida River.

From where somebody living in the middle of Edo (present day Tokyo) stood, Fukagawa was way on the other side of the tracks (less the tracks of course, just miles of canals). The neighborhood grew up around still-splendid Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine, where public sumo contests are said to have begun, and boasted seven illicit brothel districts, which many guys preferred to the more rigid and pricier Yoshiwara pleasure quarters near Asakusa.

Three spots on the way really cheered me up. One was a small red-painted iron bridge  suspended over what once was a canal for transporting logs to the lumberyard area beyond Fukagawa. Constructed in 1878, Hachiman Bashi is in fact the oldest bridge of its kind in Tokyo. The canal was filled-in in the 1960s; today along its route winds a perfectly quiet pedestrian path with tons of greenery covering both sides. 

The other two spots were sanctuaries from the cold river wind. One, the Orihara Shoten, is a stand-up sake bar disguised as a toy shop (!) with dozens of great labels from all over the country served chilled or warm over a small counter in the back of the shop, along with a long list of great homemade side dishes ( The other was a casual diner called Fukagawa Juku, situated right inside the precincts of the Tomioka Shrine. The speciality of the house is fresh clam and leek Fukagawa meshi, a piping hot bowl of miso-steeped rice ( Great after walking around the grounds and checking out all the humongous sumo wrestler stone monuments that surround the Shrine. 

In the video I showed Shigeru and Mariko a really beautiful ukiyoe print triptych I’d borrowed from the Ojiya Ukiyoe Preservation Council (Ojiya Egami Hozonkai) in Ojiya City, Niigata Prefecture. Drawn by Yoshu Chikanobu and printed in September, 1888, Big Party in the Susaki Brothel District , Fukagawa depicts a few of the courtesans most in demand shortly after the Susaki quarters were expanded, following the demolishment of the midtown Nezu brothel district in June that year.