Walking on waters that were

Tsukiji, now famous as home to the world’s biggest fish market, was reclaimed from the sea in the 17th century. Its transformation from seabed to seashore came after the magnificent first city of Edo, designed by Shogun Ieyasu in 1603 and completed around 1650, was destroyed by a fire in 1657. Then, with rebuilding going on everywhere, the Tokugawa Shogunate determined to expand the city on its eastern and southern margins, building bridges across the Sumida River and filling in sections of Edo Bay. Tsukiji, meaning “constructed land,” was added south of Ginza in this process.

Much of the newly created land on the riversides and along the bay was allocated to daimyo lords for their villas and storehouses. Here, in a two-part 1830s woodcut print by Hasegawa Settan of Unemegahara, in what is now Ginza 5-chome in Chuo Ward, we can see an interesting contrast between bustling commoners’ activities and the hushed silence of one of those large daimyo residences.

The horse track in the print was originally the site of a daimyo mansion that was razed in a fire in 1726. Soon after, a savvy townsman by the name of Chubee was given permission to open a rent-a-horse center on the vacant lot for the equestrian training of low-class samurai who could not afford their own mounts. Combined with refreshment and entertainment services, Chubee’s business thrived, attracting crowds of people from all walks of life.

A long stretch of plastered wall on the left of the print borders the residence of a daimyo called Okubo Tadamasa, which an 1828 map of Edo shows occupied about the same area as the horse track. Beyond it, many large, tiled roofs suggest more daimyo residences with wooded gardens, while the road leading toward the steep-roofed Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple is now Harumi-dori. The present-day fish market is off to the right of the picture.

The coastal villas of daimyo had gardens with ponds fed by the water of Edo Bay or the Sumida River. The daily ebb and flow of the waters in these ponds inspired many garden designers to create similar tidal ponds that became a distinctively Edo style of landscaping. These ponds, with the changing views they offered according to the state of the tide, were typically large enough to be used for fishing — to the great surprise of Imperial envoys from Kyoto when they were entertained in these daimyo gardens.

Nowadays, the best example of one of these tidal-pond gardens is the Hama Rikyu (Detached Palace) Garden adjacent to the fish market — which itself occupies the site of Yokuon-en, a similar garden owned by Lord Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829) that became a victim of Meiji Era modernization. Though less impressive, Shiba Rikyu Garden in Minato Ward is another example in the same style, as are Kiyosumi Garden in Koto Ward and Yasuda Garden in Sumida Ward.

To explore this area, the best starting point is probably Higashi Ginza Station on the Hibiya subway line, whose Exit 4 is now at the left-hand corner of the horse track in Hasegawa’s print — while the Kabukiza theater on the other side of Harumi-dori is where the Okubo residence once stood.

Terraced arboretum

Straight ahead from Exit 4, Man’nen-bashi — the wooden bridge in the illustration, now of concrete — spans not the canal, but traffic roaring along the Shuto Expressway below. Turning right just before Man’nen-bashi, cross another bridge, the arched Uneme-bashi (named after Unemegahara) dating from 1930 that has recently been nicely refurbished with decorative metal railings and a pocket park planted with cherry and fruit trees.

From there, on Shin Ohashi-dori ahead, turn right to reach the Asahi Shimbun building, with its terraced arboretum. Passersby can follow a zigzag path up through its great variety of evergreen and flowering trees in stepped beds, many labeled with their Latin names. Among these, you will now find a multitude of lovely tosa mizuki (spiked winter hazel, Corylopsis spicata), whose small, yellow catkins are brightening the right-hand corner. Also in bloom now are camellia, flowering peach, quince and magnolia kobus. Star magnolia, cherry and dogwood will soon open, and the mass of azaleas there will be brilliant in May.

Continuing on, a few minutes’ walk brings you to Hama Rikyu Garden, whose luxuriant verdure is in a stark contrast to the new Shiodome high-rises rearing above it.

Although a fuller description of this garden appeared in my “Flower Walk” column on Dec. 6, 2001, it is worth mentioning that a spring visit there will be amply rewarded by the sight of its sato-zakura (double cherry blossoms) flowering in shades of pink and white, and even pale yellow and green.

Meanwhile, if you opt to explore the fish market instead of the garden, try to extend your steps just a little further to take in a tour of the exotic, Thai-like, Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple designed by Chuta Ito (1867-1954), whose other works include the traditional Heian-jingu and Meiji-jingu shrines. Exiting from the left side of Hongan-ji, turn left at a small bridge ahead to enter Tsukijigawa Koen, a linear park created by filling in moats that used to border samurai residences.

Here, rows of shidare yanagi (weeping willow, Salix Babylonica) gently sway in the breeze like fresh-green gauze curtains, while in a second section of the park about a dozen hana-no-ki (Acer pycnanthum) are now bearing clusters of tiny, deep-red flowers packed at the tips of their gray-barked, bare branches. A species of maple native to the Kiso River valley in central Japan, hana-no-ki thrive in moist earth, and can grow as high as 15 meters.

Finally, follow the map to return to Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya subway line — though before heading home you may wish to stop off at Tatsumi Sushi, close to Exit 4, which serves reasonably priced, tasty sushi. (Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. on weekdays; 11 a.m.-2.30 p.m. on weekends and holidays, except for two Sundays a month.)

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner