Sumida River: More than just a famous waterway
New York has the Hudson, Washington D.C. - the Potomac. London is highlighted by the Tames, while the Seine flows under the Paris sky.
Rivers form an important part of most large cities throughout history. In Japan, the Sumida River flows through Tokyo.
Aka Ookawa (literally, large river), this 15-mile long river, branching from the Arakawa River, runs in the eastern part of Tokyo, through Asakusa, Ryogoku, Nihonbashi, Tsukiji, and flows into Tokyo Bay. Not only is it a transportation route, the river also serves as a place of relaxation. From the banks, people enjoy the view throughout the four seasons - cherry blossoms in spring, fireworks in summer, full moon in autumn and snow falling in winter. Visitors can also cruise the river on a wooden boat called yakatabune.
The river has been a symbol of unique traditional culture of Tokyo and Edo (old name of Tokyo) throughout the ages. Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, Hanabi, Sumo and most of other traditional pop cultures were developed around the river.
With its first display in 1733, the longest running fireworks show in Japan continues along the river to this day. The show is enjoyed on the last Saturday of July, and has only been stopped for earthquakes or war.
While Kabuki offered a popular pastime for townspeople when a theater was built in Asakusa in 1841, many famous Ukiyo-e artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Toshusai Sharaku and Kitagawa Hokusai created their art and lived near the river.
Although much of the area around the river was completely destroyed during the Allies’ air raids at the end of World War II (1939-45), remains of the Edo culture can be found on each corner of reconstructed streets, temples, arcades, shops, stalls and gardens along the river.
I often enjoy my riverside stroll from Aduma Bridge (Asakusa) through Ryogoku Bridge, after enjoying the center town of Asakusa. It is really fun of strolling along the river while indulging in thoughts of people who lived in the Edo era.
Asakusa, riverside town, home to traditional pop culture
Situated on the left bank of river near Aduma Bridge, Asakusa provides the perfect place to start a Sumida River stroll.
I often begin my stroll at the Kaminarimon (thunder gate) of Sensoji Temple and walk through the long and narrow avenue called Nakamise-dori, which is surrounded by various food and souvenir shops. One treat offered is Ningyo-yaki, a tasty doll-shaped cake at Kimura-ya, one of the oldest shop in the avenue. Some of the shops, including Kimura-ya, have been run by the same families for more than 150 years.
Passing through another traditional wooden gate, Hozomon (treasure gate), the main hall of the temple appears in front of me with a five-story pagoda on my left.
Here, I stop at a huge bronze incense burner located in front of the main hall, and bathe my head in the smoke, which is believed to ward off illnesses and misfortune, while making you smarter and healthier.
After making a wish at Kannon (statue of Bodhisattva of Mercy) in the main hall, I usually go to a temple shop to pick an omikuji, a fortune slip to see if Bodhisattva has heard my wish. (See Omikuji story on the next page.) To do this, pick up a bamboo stick from a wooden container nearby and give it to a young lady in white kimono and red pants. Be sure to ask her for English-written slip, which will tell you the current condition of luck.
There are a lot of izakaya bars or teahouses around the temple. I often enjoy cold beer while watching various street performers, acrobats, jugglers and strolling musicians performing for tourists.
Along the Sumida River
After exiting the temple from its Nitenmon Gate, straight along the street is the Sumida Park. This area is filled with numerous cherry trees, and is known as one of the best hanami (cherry blossoms viewing) spots in Tokyo. The park offers a great location to take a photo of the river with the backdrop of the 2115-feet high Tokyo Skytree, as well.
From the park, I walk through a stone paved sidewalk, called “Sumida River Terrace.”
There are 16 bridges that cross over the Sumida River, each with a unique form and color. The distance between bridges is about a 5-10-minute walk, and it would take about 2 hours walk to the end.
I usually finish up my stroll around Ryogoku Bridge, where the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Kokugikan (sumo hall) are located.
In Edo-Tokyo Museum, you can scan the 400-year history of the capital city with various exhibits from the 590,000 collected items. Here you can compare the view of the Sumida River now as opposed to that of the Edo period. A fascinating ukiyo-e printing process with various woodblocks and drawings is also on display.
In the Kokugikan, woodblock prints of sumo wrestlers, the aprons worn during the ring-entering ceremony, along with various calligraphies, pictures and works are on display. The hall holds grand sumo tournaments in January, May and September.
Another unique attraction is the waterbus at Hinode Pier, located at the corner of Sumida Park. The hour-long ride on the river costs 620 yen ($6), and travels to the Hamarikyu stop (Tsukiji).
Be sure to explore the Sumida River the next time you visit Tokyo. Much like a river meanders through a city, a walk along the Sumida is like a stroll through Japan’s long and storied history.