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Arakawa River: In search of a bygone ‘water city’

by

Special To The Japan Times

For much of its history Tokyo was known as city of water. Like Venice or Bangkok, canals were the arteries of commerce, and life was lived in close proximity to rivers and creeks. But that legacy was, for the most part, hidden under concrete in the rushed development leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

There are still places where Tokyo maintains a connection to its aquatic past. The 173-kilometer Arakawa River, which forms part of the border between Saitama and Tokyo, is one of them.

The Arakawa is no longer the wild, flood-prone river it once was. Its destructive potential has been mercifully, if not beautifully, tamed by Japanese engineering. Today, the tall reinforced banks that border the river provide a space for Tokyoites to gather, exercise, paint, drink, relax and reconnect with the “water city” of the past.

Grass and concrete: A man relaxes near the Iwabuchi Water Gate. The surrounding area is a popular space for cycling, fishing and picnics.
Grass and concrete: A man relaxes near the Iwabuchi Water Gate. The surrounding area is a popular space for cycling, fishing and picnics. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

Walking along the Arakawa in Saitama on a Sunday morning, I see a young baseball team carrying plastic bags and picking up trash they find as they wander in the opposite direction. I approach the coach and ask if they’re being punished. He laughs.

“No, they’re not in trouble,” he says.

“Winter season is less demanding, so we have the boys pick up trash after practice to maintain discipline. Our team uses this space, so we have a responsibility to clean it up.”

The boys gather around us as we talk. The coach barks at them to get back to work. They attempt a few cheeky hellos, mug for the camera and quickly return to their task.

Painted landscape: Toshiyuki Hakuno displays his watercolor of a bridge along the Arakawa River. LANCE HENDERSTEIN
Painted landscape: Toshiyuki Hakuno displays his watercolor of a bridge along the Arakawa River. LANCE HENDERSTEIN

I follow the river, walking southeast toward Kita-ku in north Tokyo. Clouds move slowly overhead, pushed along by a strong wind. Cyclists zip by at high speeds. Elderly couples walk dogs. Golfers tote carts and head for nearby courses.

As I approach the Omiya Kenpo Grounds, a massive set of community sports fields, a man waves to me as he climbs the hill from the riverside to his truck. His name is Toshiyuki Hakuno. I ask him about the area.

“The river used to meander back and forth all the way down to Tokyo Bay,” he says.

“But they straightened it out, added these high banks. It’s still has some beautiful areas though.”

He heads to his truck and pulls out a watercolor he painted of a nearby bridge. There are stacks of canvases in the rear seat and he seems proud of his work.

“I’m going to 80 years old next year. I can’t climb mountains to paint anymore. But the river is close, so I come here instead. I suppose we’re lucky to have it.”

 A baseball team picks up litter.
A baseball team picks up litter. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

Further along the path, near the Arakawa Sports Park, a riverside athletic area, I hear the crackle of a radio and see Mikihiro Matsura, a 49-year-old radio enthusiast. He’s adjusting the dial on an amateur radio on the roof of his van. I stop and ask who he’s talking to.

“Someone in Okinawa.”

Okinawa is more than 1,500 kilometers away.

“Well, you have to come to this area to get a signal. In the city the buildings get in the way, but near the river it’s wide open. On a clear day you can reach Okinawa or even farther,” he says.

“Of course, everyone can just use the internet now, but I prefer the radio and real life for human connection.”

Human connection may be the greatest benefit of the Arakawa. Walk in any direction along the paths that line it and you’ll soon meet people. It’s one of the city’s true “third spaces,” where people can enjoy the natural beauty of their city together without high cost or the stress of crowds. The Arakawa challenges the image of Tokyo as a cramped, fast-paced metropolis.

In preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Games, construction companies such as Obayashi are calling for a return to the city’s aquatic past, with talk of resurrecting old canals, beautifying existing rivers and ensuring the water security of the city. The Arakawa is a preview of how a modern version of the old “water city” could improve the lives of Tokyoites in the future.

Left: A man fishes near the former Iwabuchi Water Gate. Right: Amateur radio enthusiast Mikihiro Matsura adjusts 
his radio.
Left: A man fishes near the former Iwabuchi Water Gate. Right: Amateur radio enthusiast Mikihiro Matsura adjusts 
his radio. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

The Arakawa can be accessed by a number of Tokyo stations, including Nishi-Urawa, Akabane and Kita-Senju.