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GOING NORTH IN TOKYO

Unlocking the secrets of Kita

by Kit Nagamura

To keep Tokyo high and dry, management of local river and water resources has been always been a key concern, and to this key, Kita Ward holds the locks. Sluice-gate locks, that is.

Residents of the Kita area once built mizuya (homesteads perched on flood mounds) and surrounded their yards with bamboo fences to retain any belongings or family members that might otherwise float away when the Arakawa (“wild river”) surged with rain. Edo folk living downstream, in quarters too close to make flood mounds practical, were periodically deluged with mud, left homeless and injured, or worse.

After one catastrophic flood in 1910, which displaced over a million people, the government decided that the Arakawa should be tamed. Construction of a massive drainage canal began, and a lock system was designed to control the water levels of the Sumida River, protecting the city to the south. Kita Ward’s Akasuimon (Red Sluice Gate) at Iwabuchi was completed in 1924, just above where the Shingashi River joins, and marks the current day starting point of the Sumida River. Designed by Akira Aoyama, who drew on his experience as a Japanese architectural consultant (and the only one at that) on the Panama Canal a decade earlier, the brilliant red lock is one of the ward’s most compelling sights.

Where the Arakawa traces the northern border of Kita, it is treated like a riparian raptor caged behind high, concrete walls. Arakawa Museum of Aqua, near Akasuimon, illustrates what has been gained by containing the river, and nearby Ryokuchi Park, one of the few access points for riverside relaxation, shows what has been lost. A flood-level indicator, many meters above the heads of fishermen and picnickers enjoying the boardwalks, says it all.

From Nakanoshima, a tiny island in the Arakawa accessible by walking across Akasuimon, the new blue floodgates that replaced Aoyama’s structure in 1982 are visible, poking up like four alien eyeballs on stalks. The island, planted with a few trees and decorated with a rusting sculpture of what looks like a lighthouse and is titled “Piercing the Moon,” was deserted and slightly spooky the weekday I visited.

“That’s understandable,” said Taiji Tanabe, 43, and a lifetime resident of Kita Ward. A licensed diver, Tanabe has sometimes been called upon to plumb the black waters of the river near the Akasuimon, where among the debris and stray golf balls from the several riverside courses upstream, he discovers the occasional tragedy. “I’ve been called out to recover corpses, and some were suicides,” Tanabe admitted.

So is Nakanoshima inhabited by restless spirits? Tanabe accepted it was possible.

In the world of spirits, Tanabe is an expert. When not diving in murky waters, he uses some of the purest water available in Japan to produce sake at the only brewery in Tokyo’s 23 wards, Koyama Shuzo.

Founded by Shinshichi Koyama in the late 19th century, the brewery once used spring water originating from the Chichibu Mountains. These days, to avoid ground contaminates, the brewery draws from its own dedicated well 130-meters deep. Visitors can schedule a tour of the facilities, and sample the product, which tends to be of the karakuchi (dry) variety, with a clean finish.

The former estates of industrialists and the horticultural playgrounds of the well-to-do provide Kita with many of its parks today. An Oji resident and founder of a Web site for families with kids in Japan (www.japanwithkids.org), Cornelia Kurz recommends a visit to Asukayama Park. “It’s one of Tokyo’s best,” she says, pointing out the two-story castle slide, giant locomotive and extensive splash park.

The hillside of Asukayama drew the attentions of eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, who envisioned the elevated land as a perfect getaway spot for Edo-ites. In the early 1700s, Yoshimune planted hundreds of cherry trees and maples, and to this day, the site is renowned for blossom ogling.

Asukayama also features three museums. The Kita Ward Asukayama Museum gives a great overview of the area, from the Yayoi Era pit-dwellings to Utagawa’s artistic woodblock depictions of Kita’s Edo days, to evocative pre-World War II tinted photos. Next door, the Paper Museum commemorates the first production of Western-style paper in 1873 by Oji Paper Company. Hands-on workshops add to the attraction of this four-floor celebration of pulp non-fiction. Interesting to note that some of Japan’s most coveted paper — printed yen — is manufactured in Kita Ward at the National Printing Bureau.

Eiichi Shibusawa, a different kind of moneymaker, is honored at an eponymous memorial museum. Viscount Shibusawa is credited with building the foundations of capitalism in Meiji Era Japan, serving as the initial CEO of Daiichi Bank, overseeing the U.S.-Japan exchange of friendship dolls in 1927, and providing funds and support to hundreds of industrial enterprises.

One recipient of Shibusawa’s support was Ichibei Furukawa, whose impressive home was designed in the Taisho Era by Dr. Josiah Condor. Furukawa’s fortune came from copper mines, which provided essential foreign income for the nation, and also spurred one of Japan’s first pollution battles. Patinated remnants of copper can be seen on the roof of Furukawa’s residence and on some of Kita’s older buildings.

In addition, the Furukawa Gardens, on land originally the homestead of Meiji politician Munemitsu Mutsu, provide a green oasis to the public, in two distinct styles. The lower Japanese section hides a heart-shaped pond at its core, and the upper Western-style rose and azalea beds blaze with color each spring. The 90 varieties of roses and the residence will be lit up at night for the public, from May 19 to 28, with live concerts 6:30-7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

At Furukawa gardens, I met Momoe Ito. She’s 67 and her family, eight generations back, tended the first crops of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees. “We are friendly, unpretentious people here,” she said.

I saw a great deal of Kita Ward, from the massive muscle of train lines bunched up in the southeast end yards to the Otonashi Shinsui park near Oji, to Ukima pond in the northwest corner, but it is the overwhelming friendliness of Kita people that is locked in my mind.