Sumida-ku is more than just the Tōkyō Skytree
It’s not such a rarity on this website that some city-walks lead to corners of Tōkyō that – even though hardly ever mentioned in the most popular travel guides (or maybe just because of that?) – show the most interesting or simply most charming areas in the city. And those walks that are able to combine the less famous treasures with the tourist’s “must” are not the worst. Let’s get on our way to yet another of those strolls:
The JR Sōbu line (総武線 / そうぶせん) takes us directly to Ryōgoku station (両国 / りょうごく). And the hall of the station already clearly demonstrates what’s to be expected at its north exit: The rather futuristic building of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan (両国国技館 / りょうごくこくぎかん), the hall of the Japanese Sumō-Federation, which can hardly be missed. This sports hall has a capacity of 13,000 people and was opened in 1985 – at a time when money wasn’t any issue in Japan, when the bubble economy was bearing the most astonishing architectural fruits. This hall is home to great Sumō competitions – and the occasional other sports event.
Right next to the Kokugikan you’ll see the perhaps most striking “child” of this era of the bubble economy, the “Edo-Tōkyō Museum” (江戸東京博物館 / えどとうきょうはくぶつかん). It covers an area of about 30,000 square meters (far more than double the space of inner court of the the gigantic Tōkyō Dome) and resembles a spacecraft more than any “earthly” building. With a total height of 62.2 metres it also is in reminiscence of the height of the tallest of the donjons of the castle of Edo (Tōkyō). This gigantic and modern museum tells you all there is to know about the history of Tōkyō – and it does it in the most entertaining way.
Just a few steps north of the Edo-Tōkyō Museum (you’ll see the tall office tower of NTT docomo on your right hand side) we’ll reach the Yokoamichō Park (横網町公園 / よこあみちょうこうえん), a location with a history that might very well be the most tragic in the whole of Tōkyō. The area which is now covered by the park, was the place where 38,000 people lost their lives on September 1st 1923, during the Great Kantō Earthquake (関東大震災 / かんとう･だいしんさい). After the earthquake these people had been evacuated to this spot which promised safety and protection, but which was soon run over by a fire that killed all those people. The victims of the tragedy are commemorated in the Tōkyō Memorial Hall (東京都慰霊堂 / とうきょうといれいどう) (previsously “Earthquake Memorial Hall”) which was opened on the 7th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake (i.e. 1930). The massive building that might have looked a bit initimidating at first glance some years ago has in the meantime been refurbished and presents itself in its original splendour again. It features a great, three-storied, 41 metres tall pagoda and was built in the style of a buddhist temple. However, also this building became a victim of the air raids (1944-1945) and could only be re-built in 1951. Since then it has been the memorial for the victims of both catastrophes – the earthquake as well as the air raids. In the foundation of the pagoda the remains of those victims have been enshrined.
Even though the park is somehow dominated by the “Tōkyō Memorial Hall”, there are at least two more items that are worth the attention: The “Peace Memorial for the Victims of the Air Raids” which was built in 2001, and the “Tōkyō Reconstruction Memorial Hall” (東京都復興記念館 / とうきょうとふっこうきねんびかん) (also called: “Great Kantō Earthquake Memorial Museum”).
The latter is a museum that gives you (even though in a rather old-fashioned style) a rather clear and impressive picture of the terror of destruction caused by the earthquake and the air attacks of World War II. It’s absolutely worth a visit – and it’s free of charge.
And all of you who have enough of destruction and commemoration will be glad to see that there is a little gem of horticulure of the Edo era right around the corner: The Kyū Yasuda Teien (旧安田庭園 / きゅうやすだていえん). I’ve heard about voices saying that this garden is nothing worth mentioning, as it is a municipal garden and as there is no attmittance fee (according to the motto: you get what you pay for). But these voices probably don’t know what they are talking about.
The garden and its pretty landscape are surely worth a little detour – not just because this garden has an interesting history. The level of the garden’s pond used to move with the level of the water in the Sumida river – and the river, being so close to the Tōkyō Bay, was affected by the Pacific’s tides. Also the pond is said to have the shape of the Sino-Japanese character for “heart” (心) – I admit, it takes a lot of fantasy to recognise this shape nowadays. Furthermore – and other than in other gardens in the city – it offers a trail suitable for wheelchairs.
It’s also not entirely unimportant that the garden was built in the late 17th century, was owned by the industrialist Yasuda (hence the name) during the Meiji era and was finally made public in 1922. The years after weren’t too kind to the garden. It was largely destoyed during the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. After restoration it was re-opened in 1927. The Sumida river was one of the first victims of Japan’s industrialisation and was polluted immensely – and with it the waters of Kyū Yasuda Teien. Only since 1971 it can be seen and enjoyed again in its original splendour and beauty.
I’m sure you are going to agree with me: The garden is worth the little detour before we finally reach the banks of the Sumida river (Sumidagawa / 隅田川 / すみだがわ). Closest to the Kyū Yasuda Teien the yellow Kuramae Bridge (蔵前橋 / くらまえばし, completed in 1927) offers an easy access to the river’s promenade.
All those of you who have alreaday browsed this website a bit know the river promenade a little more north („Sakura Matsuri“, Mukōjima – „Pearl on the banks of the Sumidagawa“). Also here, a couple of hundred metres more south, the city has worked on it to either conceal or remove the architectural eyesores of the past. Since the 60s of the last century the river had been converted into something like a shallow channel in a concrete cage and at least on its banks on the east-side over-towered by a gigantic highway. In fact, the promenade can – at least in parts – be called rather pretty now.
It is, however, also “home” to the homeless people’s huts. But, if one considers the astonishing small number of such huts (taking into account that we are in the middle of the biggest metropolitan area on the face of this earth) and the fact that even the homeless are compratively “orderly people” in Japan, it becomes clear that visitors needn’t fear. Just remember that also homeless people do not appreciate it, if they and their “homes” are hunted by cameras…
Between the green Umaya Bridge (厩橋 / うまやばし, completed in its present shape in 1929) and the blue Komagata Bridge (駒形橋 / こまがたばし, built in 1927) a man-made creek was built next to the promenade which receives its water from the Sumida river via a wind-powered pump. This creek has soon become home to all sorts of animals. With a little luck you can watch the little crabs here. Also lush vegetation has been planted in this part of the promenade.
Always interesting are also the so-called Yakatabune (屋形船 / やかたぶね), “house boats”, which could be called the popular version of old day’s feudal revelry. Since the Heian-era (which began in 794, when the Emperor’s residence was move to what we call Kyōto today) and until the Edo period (when the old Edo, today’s Tōkyō, was the seat of the goverment of the Tokugawa shōgunes) the noble people (and others wealthy enough to afford it) took pleasure in floating along the rivers in gorgeously furnished boats and ships.
During the Shōwa era (when the father of the present Emperor reigned over Japan, 1926 to 1989), particularly after the river had been cleansed of the worst contaminations of early industrialisation, this noble kind of leisurely entertainment was transformed into an everybody’s enjoyment. Today the flat, long ships are nothing but floating banquett halls – where one can have parties sitting on tatami mats and enjoying food and drinks. It’s not an entirely cheap sort of entertainment (it’s usually about 10,000 Yen per person; basically the boats can only be chartered for groups of 20 or more people; some boats also allow individual reservations), but for the money you pay you can enjoy the skyline of Tōkyō and delicacies of Japanese cuisine for two or three hours. Should you (for whatever reason) ever have a chance to be invited to such a Yakatabune-party, never hesitate to accept!
By the way: Should your mood for strolling along the river fade, don’t miss your chance to climb over the bank slope at the Komagata Bridge. From here it’s just a few steps to the next big crossing – and a breathtaking view to the Tōkyō Skytree (東京スカイツリー), Tōkyō’s latest landmark. And nothing is stopping you from walking to the tower from here, if you feel like it…
You’ll find more information about that here:
Tōkyō Skytree (東京スカイツリー) – When high isn’t high enough any more….
Tōkyō Skytree (東京スカイツリー) – Almost as high as flying…
A little side-trip to the Honjo (本所 / ほんじょ)-quarter of Sumida-ku (墨田区 / すみだく) may, however, also be worth it, even if you don’t feel like climbing dizzying towers. In this quarter you’ll finde some pretty good examples of architecture of the Shōwa era (1926-1989) – these buildings may not be of ravishing beauty, but they are striking witnesses of a time not so long gone by, when the average townhouse in Tōkyō was just one or two stories high.
Should you have remained at the river promenade or returned to it, you’ll reach on your way north the red Azuma Bridge (吾妻橋 / あずまばし). And here would be a good point to decide whether you are fit for some more impressions or not.
If you feel it’s enough for a day: The subway station “Asakusa” (浅草 / あさくさ) of the Tōkyō Metro Ginza line (東京メトロ銀座線 / とうきょうメトロぎんざせん) and the Toei Subway Asakusa line (都営地下鉄浅草線 / とえいちかてつあさくさせん) can be accessed easily on the other side of the bridge (on the west banks of the Sumidagawa).
And for all of you, who can’t get enough of this part of town, let me recommend you the following in the neighbourhood:
Mukōjima (向島) – Pearl on the bank of the Sumidagawa
Asakusa Sensō-ji (浅草寺) – Tōkyō’s oldest and most famous temple