Reach for the sky


Sumida Ward spans an area that has endured ruinous fires, floods, plagues, and seismic as well as economic jostlings. Residents of this battered part of the city nonetheless have always kept their pride buoyant and their spirits aloft. Even when the chips are down, residents of Sumida Ward insist that things are looking up.

Take the case of urban planning. Hemmed in on three sides by the Arakawa, Sumidagawa, and Kyu-Nakagawa rivers, and cut off from the sea by Koto Ward to the south, the only direction left to expand is upward. So up it is.

The world’s tallest telecommunications tower is slated to rise a whopping 610 meters in Oshiage, a humble little commercial district east of the ward offices. The New Tokyo Tower, or “Sumida Tower” as some prefer, will be nearly twice the height of Godzilla’s orange plaything, Tokyo Tower, in Minato Ward. Budgeted at 50 billion yen and scheduled to be completed by 2011, the tower design features two observation decks, a shopping mall, and the capacity to shift TV broadcasting from analog to digital format. An excited Oshiage train-station attendant rushed me off to the construction site. “It’s going up right here,” he said, pointing toward a fleet of concrete trucks beyond which I glimpsed Sumida’s other elevated landmark, Philippe Stark’s golden doodie — city literature refers to it as the “objet” — atop the Asahi Breweries Building.

But Sumida’s brightest skyline entertainment is a spectacular display of fireworks held each year on the last Saturday of July. An astounding 20,000 rockets bloom in reflection on the inky waters of Sumidagawa, astir with yakatabune, or Edo-style roofed pleasure boats. The official first display, according to staff at the tiny Fireworks Museum in the Ryogoku area, was in 1733. That year, plague and famine killed nearly 1 million people countrywide. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), following an ancient tradition of exorcising evil spirits from the river and also sending off mukaebi (lights to guide souls back to rest at the end of Obon festivities), lit the fuse on a national passion for pyrotechnics.

“Three centuries ago, all fireworks were red,” says Sumida cultural historian Kazuyuki Gomi. Chemical flaming agents were eventually added to create some of the world’s finest “fire flowers,” or hanabi. A video at the Fireworks Museum shows the caution and ingenuity with which the great balls of fire are assembled.

Fires have played a significant role in the development of Sumida. A bottle rocket’s flight from Ryogoku is Ekoin, a Jodo Buddhist temple built to memorialize more than 100,000 unidentifiable corpses from the Meireki Fire of 1657. The fire wiped out 60 percent of Edo, requiring many residents to relocate to Sumida while the city center was being rebuilt. “Samurai became neighbors with craftsmen, and both benefited from the resulting mixture of ideas and skills,” explained Gomi.

A bridge built to facilitate access to Ekoin allowed people to easily attend sumo tournaments held on the grounds of the temple. The beat of Ekoin’s yagura-daiko, a tower drum, summoned fans to what was the main sumo venue until the first Kokugikan was built in 1909.

Ekoin, meanwhile, became sacred to the interment of calamity victims, deceased without relatives, prostitutes, pets and even convicts. Nezumikozo Jirokichi, or “The Rat Boy,” Japan’s version of Robin Hood, rests here. Legend has it that if you chip a bit off of his gravestone, you’ll enjoy a lucky life.

The Edo Tokyo Museum is a must-see, but Ryogoku is really sumo heaven, from the Kokugikan sumo stadium to statues of wrestlers along the avenues, to chanko-nabe restaurants such as Kawasaki’s, which only serves the original chicken-based sumo wrestlers’ stew. Sumo trainees can sometimes be caught hulking around the Kyu Yasuda Teien, gardens landscaped for Zenjiro Yasuda, founder of Yasuda Bank and great-grandfather of Yoko Ono.

Nearby is the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall and Reconstruction Museum, dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of victims of both the 1923 earthquake and World War II air raids.

A stone in Ryogoku marks the corner of Sumida where writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa spent the first 20 years of his life, and it happens to be just around the corner from the manor where Kira, a principle player in the “Chushingura,” one of Japan’s most oft-told historical stories, was decapitated by Lord Asano’s 47 ronin (masterless samurai) in 1702.

Dr. Makoto Murase, otherwise known as “Dr. Rainwater,” would have every head in Sumida looking up, focusing on the value of preserving precipitation. “There is no doubt that future wars will be fought over water, so before that happens, I’d like people to make tanks for water, not war,” Murase said. His modest Rainwater Museum in the Bunka area may seem like a drop in the bucket, but Murase’s movement — encouraging all residents to use rainwater collection tanks, and legally requiring larger buildings to utilize catchments — is gaining international attention.

Walking along the Sumida River, described in a 1959 short story by Nagai Kafu as full of “melon rinds and geta [a type of sandal] floating among the refuse” reminds one of the importance of water. Today, the river bobs with chopsticks and jellyfish, and the banks smell of urine and clay, and crabs scuttle over the newly “naturalized” sections. The Bokutei, a famed cherry-blossom site, is enjoyed in the summer by salarymen, no-income dwellers, and aqua-colored swallowtail butterflies.

A highlight of walking through this neighborhood is meeting the skilled craftsmen who have long provided the economic backbone of Sumida. Master miniature kite-maker, Tetsuya Kanno, sells me a kite his father made, a nifty crow that balances perfectly on the faintest puff of air.

Carver of Noh masks Rishichi Kaneko, meanwhile, has produced beauties and beasts for more than six decades. It is hard not to look up to a ward that harbors such remarkable, gentle artisans.