Home to approximately one tenth of the total citizenry of all of Tokyo’s 23 wards, Setagaya houses 800,000 people, the same figure as the population for the entire island of Oahu, Hawaii. At both places, people seem to have come in waves.

Thirty thousand years ago, give or take a millennium, Setagaya’s first wave brought late Paleolithic inhabitants who hunted and gathered in this biologically diverse area. Stratum excavations in the upper banks of rivers have yielded some ancient stone tools. Even today, suburban Setagaya’s embankments offer up a Paleolithic feast of mushrooms, sweetfish, trout, eel, chestnuts, persimmons, rabbits, tanuki (raccoon dogs) and wild wasabi.

“A healthy environment is one of Setagaya’s best features,” says 36-year-old Midori Masumoto, born and raised in the ward. “Everyone wants to live here, and once they do, they never leave,” she said. I tried to ignore the irony of our conversation taking place at the base of Setagaya’s huge Noge Otsuka Kofun, an early fifth-century burial mound, with its surrounding replicas of totemic haniwa (clay sculpture) vessels.

Toward the end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), it was discovered that the tomb contained several swords, pieces of armor and gems. Local legend claims that tomb-robbers had met gruesome deaths and caused the burial hole to spout blood. Though the mound was damp on the day I visited, the only blood in evidence was mine, drawn by mosquitoes breeding in rainwater pooled in several haniwa.

Strolling the path through the evocative green depths of the Todoroki ravine, two minutes from the eponymous station on the Tokyu Oimachi line and a lovely route to the Noge Otsuka Kofun, it’s easy to see why later waves of people came to Setagaya.

Dogwood trees bending over the Yazawa River, a tributary of one of Japan’s largest rivers, darken the path even at midday, and it eventually opens onto the broad expanse of the Tama river floodplains.

Today, the Tama banks swarm with strollers and sunbathers. Also, lovers channeling their stone-age predecessors use the river rocks as tools to declare their affections by painting upon them.

Popular with foreigners enticed by nearby international schools of Seisen and St. Mary’s and the open space, real estate in the southwest quadrant of Setagaya is pricey.

“Cross the river to Kanagawa Prefecture and you can get the same place for half the cost,” quips Aiko Ishii, who purchased a condo beside the river six years ago. But, Ishii suggests, as people increasingly recognize the pleasures of living near environmentally sensitive greenbelts such as the carefully tended Tama levees, prices on both banks are expected to rise.

There is much to see along the Oimachi train line. Near Kaminoge, the elegant Gotoh Museum is a hidden gem. If tea bowls or gardens don’t thrill you, train magnate Keita Gotoh’s private collection also includes stunning e-maki (picture scrolls) from the epic 11th century novel, “Tale of Genji.” A new exhibition opens this week (through Dec. 3) featuring treasures from Kamakura’s Enkakuji temple.

In the easternmost prong of Setagaya, Okusawa shrine is famed for its 150-kg, 9-meter long daija, or shrine snake, draped over the torii gate. Often mistakenly referred to as a dragon, the sweet-faced pseudo-dragon is made anew each year of twisted rice straw and paraded around the temple for the Yakuyoke no Daiji Festival in mid-September.

Setagaya eventually came to be overseen by Lord Hojo, who built a post town in Setagaya, between his castle in Odawara and the city of Edo, and then, in 1578, established a tax-free trading market near present day Kamimachi Station. The market specialized in boro, or rags used for repairing farm clothing and making sandals. From this evolved the annual Boro Ichi antique fair, which these days boasts roughly 700 venders on the 15th and 16th of December and January. Shoppers in the six digits definitely count as a rogue wave of people. The nearby Daikan Yashiki, the beautifully preserved home of a Tokugawa Period (1600-1867) magistrate, is a nice change of pace from the bargain-hunting throng.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 brought a virtual tidal wave of displaced refugees, and a flotilla of temples as well. Setagaya’s population nearly doubled, and Teramachi, or “temple town,” near Chitose-Karasuyama, offered land on which 26 temples damaged in the quake were rebuilt.

A variety of Buddhist sects are represented, and one temple, Senkoji, sequesters the grave site of world-renowned ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro. The hush over the area is eerie beyond words.

Northernmost Kogen-in is perhaps the prettiest temple, graced with a carp pond and the sound of laughing children from a nearby elementary school.

As for the wave of the future, it’s right on the horizon for Setagaya’s Shimokitazawa. In the works are plans that many feel will destroy the unique vibe of this haven for celluloid dives, live houses such as The Garage, Club 251 and Club Cue, ramshackle dagashi-ya candy stores, toy shops, and legitimate shogekijo, or small theaters, such as The Honda and The Suzunari. The government blueprint is to bury the Odakyu lines that congest this thumpin’ town’s crossings, to widen nearby Route 54 and run it smack through the center of things, and to build upward. There are undoubtedly safety and crowding issues — at one train crossing, after waiting 15 minutes, some couldn’t get under the bamboo barriers in time — but many community members feel the construction plans, generic in feel and potentially destructive to Shimokitazawa’s atmosphere, have been dictated to them.

Urban Typhoon, an international consortium of architects, artists, community groups, and Tokyo-based universities, held workshops this June to stimulate community involvement and brainstorm alternative solutions to area renewal. Grassroots groups such as “Save the Shimokitazawa” (STSK) have been working to shift the focus of urban planning toward a pedestrian-friendly and restorative development rather than full-on revision of the area.

Some stand to profit by selling off their shops at steep prices to the government, and others see anything new as a sign of prosperity, but the movement has begun to draw the attention, locally and abroad, of people who value neighborhoods with strong identities. “It won’t affect us directly,” notes Shigeyuki Iioka, employee of popular live house Shelter, “but we support the movement against the development.” Iioka, like many others, hopes the next wave in Setagaya won’t be a farewell wave to “Shimokita.”

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