If the color of the taxi I have boarded is anything to go by, I could be in New York or Chicago, maybe even Kolkata. Instead, this particular yellow cab is ferrying me around Tokyo and rather than vying for lane space with trucks, buses and passenger vehicles, it’s chugging along some of the little-traversed waterways of the Japanese capital.

The scenery seems to fluctuate at each bend in the river, no more so than after Capt. Katsuaki Hirano has navigated us through the massive red iron gates of the Ogibashi Komon Lock, where a gaggle of giggly schoolboys waves us through with a cheery “Ha-ro!

We are now traversing a narrow stretch of the Onagigawa, a canal built at the behest of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 17th century to transport military provisions such as salt to the capital, which was then known as Edo.

Today, daimyo and samurai have given way to a boisterous bunch of businesspeople picnicking on grassy parkland, a woman walking her tartan-jacketed poodle, a leisurely group of colorful kayakers and an elderly man casting his well-baited line in front of a delightfully jumbled row of waterside buildings.

Soon the yesteryear atmosphere of this part of Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown) makes way for the spanking new and the metropolis’ architectural piece de resistance, the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree, which rises up into the blue sky like some space-bound rocket awaiting countdown.

When Tokyo Skytree opened in 2012, it was not only viewed as a not-so-subtle symbol of intent, but also a significant key to the future of Tokyo’s waterways, quickly becoming a popular destination for the growing fleet of tourist boats and water buses, not to mention the newest kid on the lock, Tokyo Water Taxi.

Tokyo Water Taxi COO Hajime Tabata.
Tokyo Water Taxi COO Hajime Tabata. | ROB GILHOOLY

“Our goal is to have 60 on-demand water taxis operating by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” says Hajime Tabata, chief operating officer of Tokyo Water Taxi, which will soon increase the size of its fleet of the zippy six-passenger yellow vessels to three. “However, it’s not as easy as setting up a land-based taxi service. For us to succeed, several conditions must be met, such as a sufficient number of wharfs to pick up passengers and park the boats and reasonable fees to allow for both. The lack of even one of those conditions would make that goal a reckless one.”

According to experts, the current regulations and patchwork of authorities governing Tokyo’s waterways makes many of those conditions difficult to fulfill. Indeed, for the likes of Tokyo Water Taxi, they are as restrictive as a university offering research students internet access to just a few regulated websites.

More than 100 rivers and canals with a combined length exceeding 800 kilometers flow into Tokyo Bay. Despite that extensive network, however, Japan’s capital has lagged behind many international and even some domestic counterparts when it comes to waterfront development, according to Hidenobu Jinnai, a professor of engineering and design at Hosei University and an expert in the history and other aspects of Tokyo’s waterways.

Hidenobu Jinnai, a professor of engineering and design at Hosei University.
Hidenobu Jinnai, a professor of engineering and design at Hosei University. | ROB GILHOOLY

New York, Boston, Sydney, London and Amsterdam are examples overseas that Jinnai cites as utilizing waterways in creative and civically beneficial ways, while Osaka and Hiroshima are among domestic cities known for more aggressive and progressive approaches to waterway development, he says.

“In Asia, places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have made efforts to breathe new life into waterfront areas,” says Jinnai, who has authored numerous books on waterways around the globe, most notably Venice, Italy.

“Tokyo has a few water development projects, but overall there has been a tendency to move further and further away from the waterfront and concentrate on high-rise projects inland that are largely built around railroad stations,” Jinnai says. “It’s strange that, globally speaking, Tokyo is alone in this, not least of all given its history as a city of water.”

That history began at the start of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu developed the capital around a central axis, Edo Castle, the construction of which he supervised.

A river cruiser travels down the Sumida River in Tokyo.
A river cruiser travels down the Sumida River in Tokyo. | ROB GILHOOLY

A system of waterways grew from the inner and outer moats of the castle, first through the development of existing rivers and, as landfill projects expanded the city’s landmass, a grid-like system of canals.

According to Jinnai, these quickly became “the highways of the time,” with ships loading and unloading produce at the plethora of bridges that spanned the Sumida and Kanda rivers. Plazas that were formed at the end of those bridges became gathering spots and entertainment centers, while a pastime that found favor among the commoners was riding aboard pleasure boats that plied the Sumida River, he says.

Indeed, the flourishing waterside culture of the era is reflected in some of the most celebrated woodblock prints, including those by Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen, among whose works is one titled “View of an Evening Cooling Off at the Ryogoku Bridge, Edo.”

Yet, while “city of water” may have been a fitting epithet for Edo — a name that is said to mean “gateway to the bay” — the quest for economic nirvana that drove Japan’s capital city after World War II left those same waters heavily polluted by industrial waste.

The underside of the cross-shaped Clover Bridge in Koto Ward.
The underside of the cross-shaped Clover Bridge in Koto Ward. | ROB GILHOOLY

In many places this eyesore was covered up or obscured by highways and flyovers — most famously the expressway that encroaches on Nihonbashi, Japan’s very own “kilometer zero,” and its namesake river.

The rapid spread of motorization, trains and other land-based transportation made many of the capital’s waterways all but obsolete, while artificial levies blocked the view of many stretches of river that remained unhidden, furthering the divide between people and water, Jinnai says.

“In the Edo Period, residents were fearful of flooding and so on, but they still had a close connection with the waterways and saw them as places for recreation,” Jinnai says. “As Japan raced toward that period of high economic growth, those same waterways became places to be avoided.”

Soon, container terminals became the new distribution points, and storehouses in areas such as Shibaura, Shinagawa and the Sagacho district of Fukagawa also became outdated and were eventually abandoned, he says.

“In the 1980s, however, those storehouses were converted into cafes, art galleries, bars and nightclubs, much as similar districts had a decade earlier in New York, San Francisco, Boston and then London,” Jinnai says. “In Tokyo, this was started by a kind of guerrilla movement totally unconnected with the authorities. It was only short-lived and profit was not the main motivating force, but this was undoubtedly Tokyo’s waterfront heyday, offering an insight into the potential of the capital’s waterways.”

Iwao Takamatsu (left) and Akira Abe of Machifune Mirai Juku.
Iwao Takamatsu (left) and Akira Abe of Machifune Mirai Juku. | ROB GILHOOLY

Drifting along the Shinonome-higashi Canal aboard a more conventional vessel, Akira Abe, managing director of Machifune Mirai Juku, a Tokyo-based think tank researching future uses of the capital’s waterways, points out a number of high-rises that were built by increasingly powerful developers on the site of some of those long-gone storehouses following the burst of the economic bubble.

“These were promoted as homes offering a peaceful life gazing out over the waters,” says Abe, an architect and former professor of urban environment planning and design at Chiba University. “There was no attempt to promote any actual contact with the water, and even residents who think about getting a boat and venturing out often give up when they find out how strict the regulations are.”

A major sticking point has been the near absence of places to moor vessels. Since water buses were first introduced in the 1980s, wharfs have been constructed at a handful of places to support certain fixed routes covering tiny pockets of Tokyo’s east side, while the yakatabune pleasure boats that light up the waters of Odaiba district at night are given special permits for wharfs that are exclusive to their fleets.

Customers enjoy entertainment aboard a yakatabune pleasure boat in 2010.
Customers enjoy entertainment aboard a yakatabune pleasure boat in 2010. | ROBERT GILHOOLY

Private boat owners, meanwhile, can spend as much as ¥3.8 million per year to tie up their vessels at one of two marinas in the capital, although they cannot actually alight at any of the wharfs around the metropolis.

Indeed, as you travel around Tokyo’s waterways, the sight of moored boats is conspicuous by its absence, though illegal docking on primitive, self-styled wharfs is still an issue, though increasingly less common, Abe says.

An irony that is felt most keenly by the likes of Tokyo Water Taxi is that Tokyo is actually home to more than 100 wharfs dotted along the capital’s rivers and canals. Each was built specifically as a “disaster prevention quay,” though not one has ever been used for that purpose and almost all remain locked, with the keys kept in offices of the relevant governing authority.

Some of these wharfs have been gradually opened up for general use, primarily to facilitate a pilot project jointly convened last year by the transport ministry and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to trial three new timetabled routes, according to Takeshi Ikawa, director of transportation project planning at Tokyo’s Bureau of Urban Development.

Tourists enjoy the view from atop the Hotaluna water bus in Tokyo.
Tourists enjoy the view from atop the Hotaluna water bus in Tokyo. | ROB GILHOOLY

Each of the routes is aimed at servicing some of the waterfront Olympic venues in time for the Tokyo games in 2020. One of them links the international airport at Haneda with Asakusa, stopping off at Odaiba and Ariake, although weather conditions often result in cancellations, according to industry insiders. The distance from the airport to the poorly signposted Tenkubashi Wharf at Haneda and the fact the boats take over two hours to reach their destination have further stymied their popularity, experts say.

Ikawa admits that challenges do exist, none more so than raising awareness about the new routes among the general public.

Yet, participating operators have expressed a desire for it to continue and, as a result of the new project, roughly 20 of the disaster prevention wharfs have been opened up in the central Tokyo area, he says, adding that the wharfs are only available for use by enterprises offering water transportation — and only upon approval by the relevant governing body.

“The issue of making Tokyo’s waterfronts and wharfs more open has only started to be raised over the past few years, but we are now discussing with the relevant parties how to make it more open and convenient for those wanting to use them for their operations,” Ikawa says, adding that the process is complicated by a wide range of different authorities being in charge of managing different wharfs.

Paddle boarders take to the waters of Yokojuken River in Tokyo.
Paddle boarders take to the waters of Yokojuken River in Tokyo. | ROB GILHOOLY

Another issue to be tackled is that those wharfs were not built for servicing passengers, he says. However, he adds, “we are now in the process of trying to open up the ones that are usable for passengers.”

Ongoing research by Abe and his colleague, Iwao Takamatsu, suggests that many wharfs won’t be usable. Indeed, many of Tokyo’s wharfs are not even very practical in the event of a natural disaster. Mooring rings are often placed in inconvenient places, and heights between the water surface and wharf deck range between 20 centimeters and 120 centimeters, their research has shown.

Other issues include a lack of any roofing and related facilities, though these pale into insignificance beside the Byzantine application system that jeopardizes any on-demand enterprise such as Tokyo Water Taxi, where expeditiousness is key.

According to Tokyo Water Taxi’s Tabata, three wharfs have now been made available on an on-demand basis, but he believes the metropolitan government is missing a crucial point when it comes to opening up the remainder of the wharfs.

A fleet of 60 small boats, he says, could prove invaluable in the event of a natural disaster, when roads are likely to be blocked by rubble and larger boats operated by the port authorities and so on would be unable to pass due to rubble and damage.

Kayakers on the Kyunaka River pass under a bridge in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.
Kayakers on the Kyunaka River pass under a bridge in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. | ROB GILHOOLY

“We have already created our own wharf designs that incorporate an integrated emergency system and make use of dead space below the wharf deck to store emergency supplies,” Tabata says, adding that there are numerous places in Tokyo that are far more accessible by boat than train or car.

According to Takamatsu, the biggest problem preventing the implementation of such forward-looking ideas is that there is no grand design for Tokyo’s waterways.

“Without one, there is a high risk that the situation will deteriorate further and returning Tokyo to a city of water will be extremely difficult,” says Takamatsu, who previously held positions at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tackling issues relating to urban development and tourism.

Indeed, Abe and Takamatsu believe a drastic paradigm shift is required — one that places the capital’s waterways squarely at its center.

Amid Japan’s aging, depopulating society, not to mention a burgeoning tourism industry that the government estimates could attract more than 60 million overseas visitors by 2030, Japan should be moving away from “now meaningless” road development and looking at a new “Olympic axis” that mimics the one envisioned by Tokugawa Ieyasu 400 years ago.

The Sumida River, as seen from the Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo
The Sumida River, as seen from the Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. | ROB GILHOOLY

“At the heart of that axis would be a triangular gate between the historic Hamarikyu gardens, Aomi and Tsukiji fish market, which, once its relocation is completed, should be preserved and turned into a central tourism center, where overseas visitors are given a taste of regional Japan before setting off to experience the country’s provinces first-hand,” Takamatsu says in reference to the trouble-plagued move of Tsukiji to a new site in Toyosu.

All of these places would be serviced by an integrated system of scheduled and on-demand water buses and taxis, which could ferry both tourists and residents around the capital, he says.

Abe and Takamatsu are also in discussion with developers to try and find ways to integrate miniature marina-like wharfs into waterfront high-rise designs. With the aid of some of his students, Abe has also been exploring the potential of developing cafes and other creative spaces that extend out from such high-rises onto the water.

A woman plays with her dog on the banks of a river in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.
A woman plays with her dog on the banks of a river in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. | ROB GILHOOLY

Yet they are well aware of the hurdles to fulfilling that dream. Interestingly, a new hotel that opened on the Sumida River on April 14 attempted to integrate similar ideas but was unable to install a wharf due to governmental restrictions, according to Yasuhiro Fujihara of ReBITA Inc., which developed Hotel Lyuro in Koto Ward. Indeed, permission to build the hotel’s spacious deck was only granted on condition it was made publicly accessible — from an existing walkway below, Fujihara says.

Hosei University’s Jinnai believes such facilities in Tokyo, which are few and far between, especially in comparison with Osaka, hold an important key to the future of the capital city.

A Tokyo Water Taxi vessel travels toward the Gate Bridge in Tokyo Bay.
A Tokyo Water Taxi vessel travels toward the Gate Bridge in Tokyo Bay. | ROB GILHOOLY

“The logic ruling the land-based city is functional, businesslike and impersonal, and always conducted at a frighteningly fast pace,” Jinnai says. “Waterways cannot be manufactured in this way by human rationale — there is a natural, rhythmic force, a natural logic at play that we have to obey. I think it would be cool to have a slow city within a metropolis such as Tokyo and I think the city’s waterways, with their sense of release not found in our hectic day-to-day existence, are the perfect vehicle for that.”

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