The 1830s wood-block print below depicts hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) on the banks of the Sumida River. A group of young women and girls are on an excursion, and, with their elaborate hairstyles and fancy, uniform kimono, it appears they are apprentice geisha from licensed quarters nearby. Like teenage girls on a school excursion, they look to be too busy chattering and laughing to pay much attention to the flowers.
Meanwhile, the playboy son of a wealthy merchant is enjoying a party with his own group beside large cherry trees in the foreground. A pipe nestled between his lips, his demeanor is that of a dilettante appreciative of the classical elegance of flower-viewing as he nods to a bald-headed male entertainer. The man’s geisha girlfriend has been distracted by a little boy shouting from beneath the branches of a tree while a servant unpacks food and drink to prepare a picnic.
Of all the famous places in Edo for hanami, the Sumida River’s east bank, called Mukojima (or Bokutei) was the most popular. The area was easily accessible by boat from central Edo and was open for merrymaking day and night.
Cherry and willow trees first planted in the 1720s by the orders of the eighth shogun, Yoshimune, were carefully tended by local villagers, and hundreds more were planted over the years. The trees and their overhanging branches formed a long tunnel and one could pass beneath admiring a “sky” of white, pale pink and yellow blossoms. It was celebrated as a place of exquisite beauty; crowds would gather every spring and poets composed verse in praise of the petals that showered the boats that sailed up and down the stream.
The avenue of cherry trees in Mukojima was the source of inspiration for planting such trees in Washington D.C. early last century. Eliza R. Scidmore, a Japanophile travel writer who advocated the planting of Japanese flowering cherry trees then little-known in America, often refers to Mukojima in her work. The Japanese Consul General in New York, Koichi Mizuno, encouraged creating “a second Bokutei” in the U.S. capital in his reports to the Japanese foreign minister, including pleas that the minister should persuade Mayor Yukio Ozaki to make an arboreal gift. Eventually, a batch of 3,000 trees was shipped from Yokohama in 1912 for a gala planting in Potomac Park in March of the same year.
Back in Mukojima, however, the fabled cherry-lined avenue crumbled away in 1923 when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated the area. Subsequent floods, wartime bombings and postwar developments combined to destroy the beautiful scenery.
Finally, in the late 1970s, concerned local citizens on both sides of the Sumida appealed to their respective local authorities for remedial action. Their voices grew louder, they gained extensive public support, and a new pedestrian bridge was built in 1980-85. Named Sakura-bashi, the low-spanning bridge with tree-planted terraces at its approaches was the precursor to an entire riverside refurbishment.
Our exploration of the Sumida riverside starts at Sumida Park near the boat station, or close to Exit 5 of Asakusa Station on the Ginza Line. Walk through the narrow cherry-lined park to its northern end near Sakura-bashi. Around the Sports Center beyond the greenish blue Kototoi-bashi, a row of magnolia kobus bloom in early March, their white flowers resembling small piles of snow on bare trees.
As you cross Sakura-bashi over to Mukojima, notice the refurbished banks. The stairways and benches there make this an ideal place for strolling in a relaxed atmosphere. In late March crowds gather here for the Bokutei Cherry Blossom Festival and enjoy picnics and street performances, and in the evenings rows of lanterns are lit to conjure up a nostalgic atmosphere.
For now, however, pass under the expressway ahead, and turn left toward the tile-roofed Kofukuji Temple. Shortly after there is Chomei-ji Sakuramochi, a Japanese sweet shop specializing in a bean-paste cake wrapped with salt-preserved cherry leaves. Sample its delicate flavor with green tea.
Leaving the shop, walk around the garden at the corner of the shop and turn right at the second stop light to arrive at Kofukuji. The temple is a stop on the pilgrimage to the Seven Gods of Good Fortune and attracts crowds during the New Year holiday season.
Continuing on the main road, you will see a number of elegantly designed buildings near the next traffic lights. These are exclusive restaurants, reminiscent of the once prosperous Mukojima licensed quarters here.
Further ahead, Mimeguri-jinja is another attractive shrine and is also on the good-luck pilgrimage. It has a mysterious atmosphere — probably because of an affiliated Inari shrine, with statues etc. relating to the magical abilities of foxes.
Exiting from the front gate of the shrine, go right, cross the large intersection and turn right, then left to visit Ushijima-jinja just before Kototoi-bashi. A villa of a prestigious daimyo lord once stood in the lovely landscaped garden in front of the shrine, but the area is now part of Sumida Park.
across the garden and head toward the riverside. Here are high-rises including the head office of Asahi Beer Co. A stopover at the three-story Asahi Annex microbrewery pub might be a good way to end the walk before returning to Asakusa Station across the bridge.
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