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The Shibuya River starts at Shinjuku Gyoen. Running southward, it makes a big horseshoe curve near Ebisu and heads north to Roppongi. At Ichi-no-hashi, it abruptly bends east to eventually pour into Tokyo Bay. The river’s upper reaches are now culverts, but water emerges just south of Shibuya Station in a concrete conduit. In its lower reaches the river (mentioned in this column Oct. 7, 2005) has a different name — Furukawa.

Along the middle reaches — in the Harajuku, Shibuya and Hiroo areas — the waters used to be abundant and were used to run mills, a crucial source of power in preindustrialized Japan. In this region on the border between Edo City to the east and farming villages to the west, mills were important for grinding grain into flour or in removing the hulls of harvested rice. As just about everyone ate steamed rice as their staple food three times a day, preparing kome for the daily dinner table was a profitable business.

The accompanying woodcut print, titled “Hiroo Mizuguruma (The Hiroo Mill),” depicts the largest mill along the Shibuya River. As the mill house is half hidden behind trees, the viewer might be attracted first by a lively bunch of people just about to walk over a bridge. Carrying fruit and bottles tied to a pole are two men, one of whom is looking back and finishing off a joke, with the others bursting into laughter. The clumps of susuki grass growing near the bridge suggest the season is autumn.

A short distance upstream on the left is a dam. The water is guided between white-walled buildings to reach the mill — which has a thatched roof — and hits the wheel at its bottom. Afterward, the water returns to the river via a drain.

Installed in a corner of a spacious garden facing the handsome tile-roofed building, the 7-meter-in-diameter mill turned out hefty profits for its owner, Tamagawa Kinzaburo, who had 10 employees to tend to the almost 100 pounding pestles that were linked to the powerful wheel.

As of 1888, 34 mills existed along the Shibuya River, and they were later applied to new uses, such as cotton-spinning, but all disappeared by the turn of the 20th century when electricity was perceived as a more efficient power source. The depicted bridge, called Yamashita-bashi, still exists, but it fails to remind you of things past.

When you start your walk, go from JR Ebisu Station’s north exit (or Hibiya Line Ebisu Station, Exit 1 or 2). Go under the elevated rail tracks by the station. Turn right at the second stoplight and follow Meiji-dori till the road veers to the right. Pause to look for a small playground off to your right and then turn right just before the stoplight there to find Yamashita-bashi, now in drab concrete. From the bridge’s other side, the wooded park is vaguely reminiscent of Tamagawa’s garden without the mill.

Back at the stoplight, cross Meiji-dori, bear left to cross another street and turn left. At the next stoplight, go right, passing by Rinsen Elementary School, the third oldest public school in Shibuya-ku, founded in 1879 by local volunteers.

In the wake of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, enthusiasm ran high among citizens for the introduction of modern school systems. The decree of universal education had been issued in 1872, but with its implementation being delayed owing to budgetary and other reasons, concerned citizens took the initiative for school construction in their respective locales once issued with a license from the mayor of Tokyo. The first elementary school in Shibuya-ku was built in 1875 near the present Shibuya Station with funds raised extensively by local leaders, including Hachiroemon Mitsui, the head of the Mitsui financial and industrial conglomerate. Mitsui paid for the personnel and maintenance expenses, too, with funds from a mill house he had at what is now Tokyu Department Store until the municipal budget became ready several years later.

Tamagawa Kinzaburo’s own involvement in Rinsen Elementary School is not known; though, he is likely to have supported the school in his village as well.

The construction site was farmland owned by the nearby Shoun-ji Temple. The temple donated half of the 305 tsubo (about 1,000 sq. meters) of land and leased the other half. Much expanded since then, the school continues to stand at its birthplace.

Shoun-ji, too, remains in thick woods on your right. To reach its front gate, turn right at the T ahead and follow the road hugging the stone-buttressed edges of condominium compounds and the Sacred Heart University campus. At the crossing with a shopping street, turn right to pass through a roofed wooden gate and then left to find Shoun-ji at the end of the lane.

The unassuming temple is a quiet center of Zen Buddhism. It was patronized by prominent daimyo lords in Edo. It was founded by Lord Kuroda Tadayuki, daimyo of the Fukuoka domain, in honor of his father, Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623), who had contributed greatly to Japan’s unification under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tadayuki designated Shoun-ji as the burial place for the Kuroda family, and the Kuroda’s branch families followed suit. As a result, an amazing village of quaint tombstones make up the cemetery to this day. Nagamasa’s tomb is a plain stone slab, housed in a fenced-in shed at the far end of the cemetery.

Leaving the temple grounds via the roofed gate, walk straight to reach Hiroo Station on the Hibiya Line. Nearby is Kato Gallery & Framer, which is famous for contemporary prints and paintings. Time permitting, extend your steps to visit the lovely Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park, originally a daimyo’s suburban residence. Backtrack to Hiroo Station to return.

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