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The arched bridge highlighted in the accompanying wood-cut print is Senju Ohashi on the northern perimeter of Edo City. Built in 1594 at the head of the Sumida River, close to its junction with the Ara River, Senju Ohashi was the only bridge Shogun Ieyasu allowed to be built across a major river around his city. Its name comes from the poststation town of Senju on the Oshu-kaido highway to northern Japan.

The neighborhoods surrounding the bridge thrived as distribution centers of heavy commodities shipped from provinces for consumption in the city. What look like bundles of needles on the riverbank to the right of the print are stacks of lumber transported from the Ara’s mountainous upper reaches. The timber was traded locally or forwarded to the main market downstream at Fukagawa.

Travelers, both on foot or horseback, were happy to have a permanent bridge in order to facilitate an easier entry into and departure from Edo rather than relying on the ferries or makeshift pontoons. This was a great advantage compared, for instance, with the ferry service crossing the Tama River on the city’s southern boundary (See this column, Dec. 5, 2003).

The shoguns and their envoys also crossed the bridge on their frequent visits to Nikko in present-day Tochigi Prefecture, where the first shogun Ieyasu was enshrined at the Toshogu Shrine after his death in 1616. As the route to Nikko followed the Oshu-kaido from Edo as far as Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture, the portion of the route where the roads converged was mostly referred to as Nikko-kaido.

A poet’s quest

On March 27, 1689 (May 16 in today’s calendar), Senju Ohashi was where haiku poet Basho bid farewell to his disciples when he departed on his famous journey to northern Japan. He took a boat with them from Fukagawa and disembarking at Senju, set off on a 2,400-km, 156-day trek to the forlorn provinces. His experiences were recorded in a poetic diary titled “Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North),” published in 1694.

To celebrate Basho’s first step on his journey, a group of Edo scholars erected a memorial stone in 1820 in the garden of Susano’o-jinja, south of Senju Ohashi.

This weekend’s festival

Susano’o-jinja, as honored in this way, will be bubbling with excitement this weekend as a full-scale summer festival is to be held this year. The shrine’s parade is famous for its rough style in which the portable shrine is tipped sideways so that it almost touches the ground.

This area can be reached by taking the Hibiya Line to Minami Senju Station. The road in front of the station exit leads right to Susano’o-jinja. Take a few minutes, however, to check out the old statue of Jizo, one of the most popular Buddhist bodhisattvas in Japan, at a temple hidden behind a large concrete pillar and spiraling slope in front of the station. Dwarfed by the aggressive railway buildings to the side, the 4-meter tall stone monument reflects the area’s sad history as a criminal execution site until 1873.

Leaving the temple, turn left and go straight, pass Eko-in Temple on your left and walk through a shopping street ahead.

Down, but not out

In the early 20th century when this desolate, sparsely populated area attracted factories and a town gradually formed here, the first settlers were the poorest of the poor. With courage and humor — laughing at their ill fortune — they named this street Kotsu-dori, meaning “street of skeletal remains.” Today, due to rapid industrialization along Sumida’s riverbanks, the street’s name is now proudly advertised in banners and shop signs.

Beyond the junction with the Nikko-kaido highway, a verdant grove of ginkgo and camphor trees harbors Susano’o-jinja.

If you plan to go to this weekend’s festival, try to be there Sunday at around 3 p.m. when the mikoshi returns to the shrine. The festival climaxes with a procession of lantern holders and costumed children heralding the homecoming of the deities on the portable shrine after completing their two-day parade through the parish to bestow their blessings on the local citizens.

Mystical rock, magical tree

The thick ginkgo grove is actually a sacred mound and within is a rock that is related to the myth of the founding of the shrine. It is said that the god of Susano’o manifested himself to an 8th-century mountain ascetic who witnessed golden rays radiating from the rock. The awe-struck monk dedicated a modest shrine to the mighty god and this is the story of the origin of Susano’o-jinja.

There is one gingko that stands alone and attracts mothers of babies due to its alleged magical properties.

Wooden votive tablets (ema) hang from string on the tree. According to legend they were affixed by young mothers who didn’t have enough milk to feed their babies. The old tree’s milky white sap is supposed to be able to work miracles.

The Basho memorial is the tallest of several stones behind this ginkgo. The engravings on the stone, based on a work by a master calligrapher of the time, include a quote from “Oku no Hosomichi” on the departure of Senju, including a haiku:

“Loath to let spring go, birds cry, and even fish’s eyes are wet with tears.” (Translation by Dorothy Britton).

Blue and beautiful

Having seen all of this, leave the temple from its highway side and turn left to walk over Senju Ohashi, which is now an iron structure. Built in 1927 after its wooden predecessor had been destroyed by a flood in 1885, the lovely, pale blue bridge is a Tokyo landmark, bravely withstanding the noise and fumes of the heavy traffic of today.

At the other end of the bridge, in the corner of a small park, is a map posted on a signboard that shows the route Basho took. Beyond it, Hashido Inari-jinja is another shrine which prospered in the Edo Period.

For your return, Senju Ohashi Station is straight ahead along the highway. Time and energy permitting, you could trace the route of the old Nikko-kaido, which forks out from the current highway at the Yamaha motorcycle shop. Old warehouses and shops that stand along the farther end of this long-stretching, lively shopping street give the area a nostalgic atmosphere.

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.

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