Arakawa Ward snuggles like a puzzle piece in the bends of the Sumida River. The third smallest of Tokyo’s 23 wards, it has an intimate, unpretentious atmosphere that matches the attitude of many of its residents. Asked what makes Arakawa special, locals and even city officials tilt their heads in thought, as though the question has never occurred to them before.
Bordered by Adachi Ward north of the river, and to the south by the wards of Kita, Bunkyo, Taito and Sumida, Arakawa is steeped in Edo history and claims official shita machi (old downtown), status.
Locals seem to appreciate their temples and shrines, but happily single out an electric streetcar as Arakawa’s must-see feature.
“We have the last existing tramline in Tokyo, the Toden Arakawa,” pipes up lifelong resident and section chief of Social Education in the Arakawa Ward Office, Tadashi Abe, aged 41. The tramline was established by Oji Electric Rail Limited in 1911, and bought out by Tokyo Metropolitan Electricity Bureau in 1942, joining a complex web of 42 lines throughout the city.
As trolleys gave way to other forms of transportation, the last remaining two lines were combined into the current-day Toden. The chin-chin densha, or “ding-ding train,” a moniker derived from the bell rung twice at crossings, “suits a place where time runs slower, things are cheaper, and the pace is friendly to older people,” Abe notes.
The Toden cars thread through tight rows of homes and brush past lush rose gardens tended by residents living alongside the rust-toned tracks. Younger passengers offer up their seats to the elderly, and the conductor patiently explains that a single 160 yen ticket (kids are half price) will take you as far as you wish to go in either direction. It’s not widely known, however, that it’s possible to rent one of the green-and-cream trolleys for a private party or wedding (13,820 yen for a one-way 50-minute trip).
Near the trolley’s westernmost stop in Arakawa is Tokyo’s only ward-run amusement park, Arakawa Yuenchi. It’s ideal for tots; no G-force rides or haunted houses here. Opened in 1950, the rarely crowded Arakawa Yuenchi benefits from breezes off the nearby Sumida River, and features a mini coaster, Ferris wheel, animal-petting zoo, splash area, pony rides and a fishing pond.
A few stops east of the park lies the real-life stage of the story made internationally famous by Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film “Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses).” The Ogu neighborhood where Sada Abe castrated her lover Ichida Kichizo in 1936 is a five-minute walk south of Miyanomae Station. The Masaki love hotel where the two gave a whole new meaning to the word “breathless,” has been refashioned into a private home, but small factories in the area, stained with reddish oxidation, inadvertently evoke the gory end to the lovers’ naked obsessions.
Walking Arakawa Ward, it is impossible to miss the plethora of cavorting naked women in the form of public sculptures. But to be fair, Arakawa has worked hard to keep its warm-blooded citizens clothed. The Senju Woolen Manufactory, just north of the trolley’s penultimate stop, opened in 1879 as part of the Meiji Era effort to acquire Western technology. Only a thick brick wall survives today, but during World War II, Senju Woolen produced uniforms and caps for the Imperial Army.
The area around Nippori in the southwest corner of the ward has for decades been a hub of wholesale textile merchants. Colored bolts of felt, leather, silk, and printed cottons unravel in shop displays, but because fewer people are inclined to make their own clothing these days, some purveyors have turned to hawking discount clothing instead. I couldn’t resist a charming T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Girly Pig” for 400 yen.
Just north of the Toden’s Minowabashi terminal is the site of the former Great Senju Bridge, constructed in 1594 and the first to span the Sumida. With the advent of the Edo Period, Senju became one of four post stations on the Nikko Kaido, offering travelers lodging before they crossed the river that marked the northern boundary of shitamachi.
In 1689, Haiku poet Matsuo Basho began his journey to northern Japan as chronicled in his poetic diary “Narrow Road to the Deep North” from this spot, and the nearby Susanoo Shrine harbors a tablet carved with one of the master’s poems.
Aside from enjoying brisk trade in fresh produce, Senju and its environs attracted Edo Period craftsmen specializing in portable tools and goods. Even today, the hands of “intangible cultural assets” produce beautifully designed scissors, brushes, and metal bowls, as well as paper lanterns lettered in a unique Edo writing style and doll heads painted white with a mixture ground from Sumida River oysters. A rare opportunity for the public to view deft artisans of “traditional technology” at work is offered for free at the Arakawa Sports Center next week, Sept. 8-10.
The southeastern knob of Arakawa, Minami Senju, has long suffered from issues of identity, in some part because of its northeastern orientation vis-a-vis the perspective of Edo rulers. In Buddhist belief, northeast is kimon, or the direction from which evil forces come. As a result, at least in part, Minami Senju came to include a corner of the impoverished day-laborers’ warren of Sanya; the Nagekomi-dera at Jokanji, a temple where Yoshiwara prostitutes were interred; the Edo execution grounds known as Kozukappara where criminals were punished with decapitation, burning, or even crucifixion; and what is still locally known as Kotsu Dori (“Bone Avenue”), where severed heads of the executed were displayed on poles.
Minami Senju’s present struggle for identity is all about new high-rise condominiums, sweeping parks, and shopping centers popping up in the place of old neighborhoods. According to Shinta Miyagawa, a hip burrito bundler at Taco Time in the new Lala Terrace complex, the development in the area exudes “a young feeling, with lots of families and kids.” Impressed with the “refreshing breezes and great views” of Minami Senju, Miyagawa never plans to move. It begs the question, of course, where those displaced by gradual gentrification will go, and whether there isn’t something irreplaceable lost as communities of close, cramped even, quarters disappear.
Walking along the banks of the Sumida, I found within 10 minutes of each other the oldest of Arakawa’s shrines, the venerable Ishihama (A.D. 724), and a brand new Shioiri Metropolitan Park paved with recycled materials and sprinkled with children from surrounding condos. On a back street, camera in hand, I glanced at a group of day-laborers taking a break. “Take my picture,” one called out. To his surprise, I agreed. He and his friends had come from Hokkaido in search of employment, he told me, but when I tried to ask his name, he and his friends ducked away, chased by an unremitting hot wind blowing from the Sumida River.