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All at sea in Shinagawa

by Kit Nagamura

In Edo Period Shinagawa, popular footwear included geta (traditional wooden sandals) perched on meter-high, box-frame stilts weighted down with large stones. A fashionista freakout? Not exactly. Turns out these uberplatforms, a pair of which are on display at the Shinagawa Historical Museum, were designed to keep feet high and dry while collecting nori (seaweed).

Shinagawa developed a reputation for its tasty nori, once harvested just offshore. Fishing was a second source of income, and Shinagawa regularly supplied seafood to Edo castle. By the 1960s, though, Tokyo Bay had grown too sullied to support aquaculture.

The lodging and entertaining of travelers was a third, and more durable, business, one that continues in Shinagawa’s many hotels today. It has its roots in a time when Tokyo was known as Edo, and travel in and out of the city was strictly regulated. Five major highways exited the city, and shuku (post stations), were set up to monitor traffic. Of these, seaside Shinagawajuku was the popular party stop on the heavily trafficked Tokaido highway linking Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara.

The Historical Museum’s detailed diorama depicts travelers enjoying a bounty of teahouses, lodgings and hitching posts. Miniature palanquins park at inns, high-ranking officials and thumbnail-size nimpu (foot couriers) scurry up and down the town’s main road, and one tiny figure even tumbles backward off the tatami of a casual watering hole.

Woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603-1867), and the current annual oiran-dochu (courtesan parade) in Kita-Shinagawa, make clear what the diorama decorously does not — that evening accommodations here were as likely to feature flesh as futon.

It is possible to walk the Tokaido where it once passed through Shinagawajuku, today a short distance from Kita-Shinagawa Station; now, the area bears little resemblance to its past. Ironically, only when shop and pachinko parlor owners close up shop at day’s end does one get a reminder: the metal shutters on some stores bear painted scenes or silhouettes of Edo Period post-town images.

Ambitious landfill projects have largely obliterated the seashore landscapes that gave Shinagawa’s historical sites appealing vistas and cool breezes. This doesn’t upset 75-year-old Yukitsugu Fukuya, who tends Tokaiji Oyama (built 1638), a once-impressive Zen temple now surrounded by a tangle of freeways and train tracks. “I just rake the leaves here,” Fukuya says quietly, his old-fashioned mosquito-coil carrier hanging from his hip. “And I find the trains make a kind of music if you listen carefully.”

Fukuya nonetheless produces a full-color guide to his temple’s graveyard, lest anyone forget the celebrities buried there. Soho Takuan (1573-1645) is one. The famous priest tutored young Musashi Miyamoto in the art of swordsmanship, and is credited with concocting a pungent yellow pickle that bears his name, takuan. Another is the “Father of Japanese Railways,” Masaru Inoue (1843-1910).

Defying Tokugawa isolationist decrees, Inoue and four colleagues — in a group known as the Choshu Five — sneaked away to study at the University of London. Inoue brought back with him admiration for England’s railways, and participated in the construction of Japan’s first line, between Shinbashi and Yokohama, which started running in 1872. Inoue’s terminal resting spot is, somehow appropriately, at the clattering intersection of the Tokaido Shinkansen, Yamanote and Keihin Kyuko Lines. In 1877, the newly built Tokaido train, a project overseen by Inoue, carried U.S. zoologist Dr. Edward Sylvester Morse from his laboratory in Enoshima on the Kanagawa coast toward Tokyo. En route, Morse is said to have spotted layers of shells poking out of a hillock near Omori. This led to his excavation of the Omori Shell Mounds, which yielded Jomon Period pottery, bone tools, and a nascent passion for archaeology in Japan.

Both the historical museum and, 5 minutes south on Ikegami Avenue, the Omori Shell Mound Monumental Garden, commemorate Morse’s then advanced archaeological classification system, as well as his deep appreciation of Japanese pottery, lifestyle and customs.

Centuries-old trees and a generous land allotment shield nearby Kashima Shrine, fragrant with incense-infused wood, from the incessant hum of traffic. Not so the Suzugamori Execution Ground (1651) on its precarious strip of land between two busy streets in Minami Oi. Stone bases used to hold stakes for burning and crucifixion serve as grim reminders of capital sentences meted out to approximately 100,000 convicts here, until the site was closed in 1871.

From here, I caught faint whiffs of Tokyo Bay, which was once roadside but is now more than a kilometer off. Shinagawa’s most ambitious modern developments have clustered around the Keihin Canal, dug in 1913 to facilitate industrial transport and to provide soil for land reclamation.

The canal and the new islands it spawned have for nearly a century partitioned residents of Shinagawa from the waterfront, supplanting them with thermoelectric power plants, industrial wharves, and freight terminals.

Developments on landfill areas point to a renewed interest in access to the waterfront, exemplified by Sea Fort Square, the Shinagawa Aquarium, and numerous new eateries including the Crystal Yacht Club, a canalside restaurant with a 46-meter party yacht, the Lady Crystal, docked in front.

Fort Square reveals why more landfill is likely on the horizon. The East Shinagawa Garbage Collection Center compacts approximately 225 tons of unburnable garbage, daily, into containers.

This waste, generated by merely four of Tokyo’s wards, is hauled by barge to landfill preparation sites in neighboring Ota Ward. Onsite manager Yoshio Shimada, 54, notes how difficult it is to handle the volume.

“We really need to reduce our waste, fast,” he said, “so please tell people to buy reusable chopsticks and shopping bags — it’s a start.”

If the sea still calls you, skip across the bay to the Maritime Museum. Also situated on reclaimed land, this ship-shaped museum offers tours of the permanently-berthed Antarctic ice-breaker Soya, and outsize displays such as a propeller from a 50,000-ton ship, and various cadmium-yellow submersibles.

Back inland, the Gotenyama slopes of Shinagawa, where Edo visitors once viewed cherry blossoms against the seascape, still offer lovely views thanks to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art and Jade Museum, minutes from one another.

The remodeling of the 1938 Bauhaus-style Hara residence has resulted in a museum building as intriguing as its collection of Japanese modern art. The museum’s Cafe d’Art features champagne evenings on Wednesdays, and serves up an “image cake,” a sweet designed to mimic one artwork from each exhibition. At the Jade Museum, the highlights are a mosaic that required six years and 100,000 bits of jade to create, and a bathroom with tub and walls entirely of jade slabs that resemble rushing waves. Museum owner Nobuyuki Tsurumi is considering allowing visitors to take a dip — it may be the cleanest seascape you’ll encounter in Shinagawa.