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UpdateMarch 28, 2018
ReleaseMarch 28, 2018

For hundreds of years, Tokyo’s waterways were the arteries of the city. Long since replaced by the modern day road system, several of these ‘arteries’ still carry their load as far as their winding course permits. Deemed rivers by the map makers of the 21st century, many are technically canals, having been produced by the blood, sweat and tears of the city’s residents over the centuries of development of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) that led to large scale land fills and land reclamation projects.
The Sumida River, arguably Tokyo’s most important since the Middle Ages, is in the east of the city and connects the northern part of the city with Tokyo Bay and for this issue of att.JAPAN, we will focus on the stretch between Asakusa in the north and Odaiba in the south with a brief stop off in Hinode and a mention of one or two other areas along the way.
As has been reported herein before, Asakusa was once the entertainment heart of Edo and later Tokyo and the surface of the river was no exception in many regards as a large number of boats were known to ply their trade of feeding and entertaining customers. Many still do – but largely at fixed times on the modern calendar such as the evening of the annual fireworks display in the area. Illegal trade at night – when travel by boat was officially banned – and the movement of contraband and criminals was not unknown in the early part of the 20th century and even haiku legend, Matsuo Basho was known to live just off its main course for a good deal of his adult life in the mid-Edo era (1603-1867). The Matsuo Basho museum can still be found in Tokiwa on the eastern bank equidistant from both Asakusa and Hamarikyu.
In more modern times however, as much of the water traffic of old dies down and as trucks replace barges, one type of boat is doing a thriving trade – the river’s water buses.Ferrying passengers between Asakusa and either Hamarikyu Gardens, (13 times a day on weekdays and 15 times on weekends) in 35 minutes, or Odaiba Seaside Park (4 times a day) in about an hour on the direct line, in large part, the journey to accompanying music is one that almost seems to take passengers on a journey to the past and back again.
Another destination, Hinode, is slightly further along than Hamarikyu, not as far as Odaiba and is also on the fixed schedule but is often merely a stop on the journey to or from the aforementioned destinations. It is however, the starting point of several further boating journeys around the north and west of the area around Odaiba. Among the destinations serviced are Tokyo Big Sight (Tokyo Big Sight Pallete Town Line), and Tokyo’s Museum of Maritime Science and Shinagawa Aquarium (the line named after these destinations). While each of these areas are themselves worthy of a stop off en-route, to fit them all into one day’s sightseeing would be a squeeze to say the least. For the so inclined though, and even for those after a more leisurely speed at which to enjoy water buses, full details of schedules and necessary boarding fees can be viewed in Chinese, English and Japanese, at:
Pictures of the boats and route maps are also displayed.
Leaving Asakusa, and starting on a trip that will see boats pass under a dozen bridges along its course, following the departure terminal just to the north of Asakusa’s famous red Azuma Bashi Bridge, the first major sight that comes into view is in the shape of the reflective black Asahi Breweries building topped with a golden flame like sculpture representing the spirit of the company. Observant passengers will note that the bridges passed are all actually different in design but it is on the banks that the images are constantly changing as modern high rise buildings give way to houses that look like they belong in a period drama before the high rise buildings appear once more.
At around the ‘thirty minutes out’ mark, and looking to the right, passengers will see Tsukiji fish market and perhaps the nearby Fish Museum. Once the world’s largest such markets, Tsukiji is a name synonymous with fish in Japan and is thriving with activity almost daily from the very early hours. Many boats turn to the right soon after enabling those stopping off at Hamarikyu to look around these one time Shogunal hawking grounds at a leisurely pace. Disembarkation here is at the heart of grounds fully equipped with lakes, tearooms and easy strolling courses among a range of trees and seasonal fauna. Of particular note is the well groomed and centuries old pine tree near the main gate.
For those opting to stay on board and head to the furthest stop from Asakusa, Odaiba, just after the boat comes out into the slightly more open and choppier water of the Port of Tokyo, looking again to the right will offer sights of the access ramp to Rainbow Bridge, numerous cars and perhaps a monorail car making its way across. Spanning the distance between the mainland and the reclaimed land of modern Odaiba, Rainbow Bridge is best seen at night but still impresses during daylight hours with its size and structure.
Just after passing beneath the bridge, a gradual left turn and a passage between a narrow channel formed by protective land banks brings the boat directly to the front of the large and easily recognized Fuji TV building and just a couple of minutes away from pulling into the Odaiba Sea-bus Terminal. Within just a hundred meters or so of all of the major attractions in this part of Tokyo, arrival by boat is actually slightly more convenient than by train.
For the maritime buffs though, perhaps this is the best chance to appreciate the boats by getting off and looking at them from the shore. Although a number of designs ply these waterways, and one boat based in Odaiba even offers tours around the bay with your pooches nowadays, ‘Himiko,’ is by far the most eye catching and curious of the fleet. Sleek lines with an overall appearance that make it seem as modern, if not more so than something destined for orbit and not just a river cruise, Himiko was designed by a famous Japanese cartoonist named Leiji Matsumoto, weighs in at 114 tons and is capable of carrying 171 passengers plus crew (2 pilots and one galley staff member) at a top speed of 12 knots. The boat is completely closed to the elements from bow to stern as the main single passenger cabin is encased in a frame of glass and steel and the limited hull depth provides for a very smooth ride as the boat seems to cut through the waves rather than move over the top of them. Limited in seating as it is, Himiko is definitely a boat for the forward lookers and those not out for the full comforts of the bigger yet slower vessels out there, and while access to and from boats on a tidal river inlet such as the Sumida can be a hazard, staff are always on hand to make sure those in wheelchairs or for whom ‘barriers’ pose more of a challenge are well taken care of.
For 21st century river travel in this modern jungle of high-rises and department stores, nothing comes close to taking you so smoothly through centuries past using the technology of this.