Squeezed between the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, sliced with canals, and facing Tokyo Bay, Koto Ward is sometimes known as the “Venice of Tokyo.” While the comparison is a considerable stretch — many of the canals have been filled in or obscured by buildings and highways, and you certainly won’t spot a gondolier — the water features of Koto are integral to its past and its future.
In the Edo Period, canals were the main thoroughfares through the low-lying terrain east of the Sumida. Teeming with choki-bune (small boats), owai-bune (nightsoil barges), ferrymen, salt vendors, floating lumberyards, and mizu-bune (boats which carried barrels of potable water from the city center to the sea-level region) the waterways played a vital part in the urban commerce of shitamachi (the old, downtown area of Tokyo).
Hiroyuki Deguchi, cultural historian at Koto Ward Office, noted that even a visit to Tomioka Hachimangu (1627), a shrine dedicated to the god of war, used to be made by boat. “People would dock right in front of the torii gate,” he said. Once on the waterfront, the shrine later became accessible by canal, but even that canal doesn’t exist today.
Indeed, much of Koto itself didn’t exist a century ago. The oldest section of the ward, Fukagawa, was designated part of Edo in 1878, and the Joto neighborhood to the west joined Tokyo City in 1932. Combined, these two areas account for more than half of the current Koto Ward. The other half emerged from Tokyo Bay as reclaimed land built on garbage depositories and canal dredgings, a process that began in the 1600s and continues today. Until recently, some parts of Koto were practically islands in a marsh.
“When it rained, the first floor of my home was underwater,” says Kiyoshi Kogure, recalling his childhood in Koto 35 years ago. “There were turtles everywhere.” This might explain, he added, why many places in Koto use the kanji for “turtle” in their names.
Walking through the flatlands of Fukagawa, it’s tricky dodging the flocks of cyclists, but impossible to avoid the cultural highlights. Tomioka Hachimangu, impressive in itself, boasts Japan’s largest mikoshi (the sacred portable shrine paraded through streets on festival days). The dazzling 4.5-ton structure is on permanent display at the shrine, but has had only one public outing (when it was donated), perhaps because the gilded phoenix riding on top is reputed to wear 2,010 rubies in its plumage, and a 7-carat diamond tongue-stud. Better to keep that bird caged.
Off to the right of Tomioka is an area filled with stone monuments to the yokozuna and ozeki of sumo. From 1684, 150 years of sumo tournaments were held in an area now occupied by a schoolyard just behind the monuments. Jinmaku Kyugoro, the 12th yokozuna of Japan, had his stone erected in 1895, and all yokozuna since have had their names carved in stone here. Several sumo stables are still active in the area, not far from the famous Kiyosumi Gardens.
Believed to once have been the residence of magnate Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, and later the home of Edo Lord Kuze Yamatonokami, the garden grounds were eventually bought in 1878 by Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro to entertain his guests.
In the rear of Kiyosumi nestles a stone tablet bearing what may be the world’s most famous haiku poem, about the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond. The stone was originally located much closer to the site of a fisherman’s cottage on the Sumida River, where the poet himself once lived. A gift from a friend, a basho (Japanese banana) plant, grew so beautifully in the marshy soil by the cottage that the poet named his home Basho-an (banana hut) and procured from it his now famous pen name: Basho.
Basho’s hut burned down in the huge fire that swept through Edo in 1683, and people lost track of its exact location, but a tidal wave in 1917 uncovered a small frog-shaped stone that Basho once cherished, and the site now features the Basho Memorial Museum, where poets gather to work.
As might be expected for an area at sea level, Koto Ward is famous for asari (short-necked clam) dishes and dojo-nabe (loach hot pot). Those with more landlocked taste buds head to Minoya, one block from Morishita Station, where sakura-nabe, or a savory and sweet horsemeat stew, has been the main fare for five generations. Minoya’s atmosphere is pure Meiji, but the building is of postwar construction; much of Koto Ward was obliterated by firebombing in World War II.
Even Kameido Tenjin in the northeastern-most corner did not survive the fires. Lovingly reconstructed of more durable materials, the shrine dedicated to the god of knowledge once again boasts an extensive trellis of wisteria vines set to bloom in April.
As the ward’s profile extends further and further out into Tokyo Bay, the sense of being grounded in history recedes. Kiba, as the kanji imply, used to be the “wood place” of Edo, but now is home to the elegant Museum of Contemporary Art. Shin-Kiba, or “new wood place,” warehouses Tokyo’s lumber on reclaimed land. Lumberjack Takashi Kishimoto doesn’t mind the remote location. “The job is good money, and there’s the sea nearby with fresh breezes, which feels good,” he notes. And he’s right. Not far from the timber docks, just past Tokyo’s heliport, lies the meeting of the Arakawa river, Tokyo Bay, and the Pacific.
Nevertheless, the reclaimed islands of Koto have a slightly sterile feel as though over-sanitized to suppress the refuse that provides their foundation.
The skyscape of buildings such as Tokyo Big Sight, Ariake Sports Center, Palette Town’s big ferris wheel, and occasional wind turbine generators add to the oddball feel of the new land. But Koto seems to hold to the notion “If you build it, they will come.” A lot of the land has been dedicated to recreational pursuits. Yumenoshima, or “dream island,” completed in 1957, features a tropical botanical garden and a spa, both heated by an on-island incinerator. Wakasu has golf and cycling courses that sidle up to a camping area on the edge of Tokyo Bay. Eventually, housing and commerce will follow. The fish market that made Tsukiji (also reclaimed land) famous is slated to move to reclaimed land in Koto’s Toyosu area by 2007. High-rises are dotting the area, and as long as the infrastructure is solid, the sea’s the limit for Koto Ward.