RYOGOKU / KURAMAE / ASAKUSABASHI
Standing on opposite banks of the Sumida River in eastern Tokyo, the areas of Ryogoku and Asakusabashi were once in different countries. When the area on the west bank first appeared on Japanese maps it was named Musashi. The area to the east was Shimosa. As time passed and Musashi gave birth to Edo (nowadays called Tokyo), the river was still the border separating ‘both countries’ (Ryogoku in Japanese).
With no real bridge or effective way of crossing the river until as late as the 17th century, tragedy was to finally link the east bank with the west.
In January 1657, the Meireki fire devastated large parts of the city after breaking out in Asakusa, around 2km to the north of Asakusabashi on the western bank of the river. With nowhere to run in a city built of wood around 100,000 Edoites soon lay dead – one seventh of the then entire population. As a result, part as a way to provide an escape route in future fires and part as a way to connect Musashi and Shimosa, the ruling elite built the 175m Ryogokubashi in 1660 (Ryogoku Bridge). In doing so a temple, Eko-in, was also constructed on the Ryogoku side to hold the ashes of the Meireki dead. Ryogoku was born.
Always a ‘downtown’ area, Ryogoku developed over the centuries and eventually became most closely associated with Japan’s national sport of sumo. Several sumo stadium have been constructed in the area but all have been destroyed by fire – one stood beside Eko-in on the main Keiyo Doro Street and burned down as a result of a blaze started at a doll show, another as a result of the fires started by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake (although the building had survived the tremors) and yet another in the 1945 fire bombing of the area. Finally moving across the river to an area just north of Asakusabashi – Kuramae, in 1949, sumo tournaments left Ryogoku for 36 years until 1985 when a new, earthquake proof facility opened for the January tournament of that year. Today, in addition to Ryogoku being home to the Kokugikan (stadium of the national sport), it also plays host to almost half of the 54 sumo stables in existence and a large number of ‘chanko-nabe’ (sumo stew) restaurants.
A kind of ‘all in one’ stew that contains meat, fish, vegetables and is usually flavored with either miso soy bean paste, salt or soy sauce, most chanko restaurants occupy the street and side streets running adjacent to the south side of the Chiba bound Sobu Line that stops at Ryogoku station. This area is just 2 or 3 minutes walk from some of the stables and the main arena and the area is best visited in January, May or September when tournaments are held for 15 consecutive days starting from the Sunday closest to the 10th of the month. Reservations for the restaurants are recommended and there is always a chance of seeing former sumo wrestlers working in the restaurant if not eating there after their bout of the day. Interestingly, the less traditional McDonalds opposite the station’s main entrance offers free meals to any wrestler who won his bout on a given day – and many of the younger men collect as they receive no salary.
Ryogoku is not all sumo though – not quite. Just to the rear of the station can be seen the oddly shaped Edo Tokyo Museum. Probably the best one-stop museum of Japanese and Edo / Tokyo culture in the city this is a must see for any visitor on a limited schedule. Covering all eras in local and thus national history with the centerpiece a scale reconstruction of the Nihombashi Bridge (the historical center of Tokyo and starting point for several famous roads that went to all corners of the nation in old times), this is a real ‘hands on’ museum. Open every day bar Monday, the museum contains exhibition areas, a research library, restaurants and audio visual facilities plus much more, all the time combining the 21st century with many that have gone before.
In addition, for those seeking a little peace and quiet, around five minutes walk north from the main station can be found the delightful Yasuda Gardens and slightly further on a memorial temple to over 100,000 victims of the March 1945 fire bombings. Set in peaceful grounds surrounded by busy streets and tall buildings, the fenced off area also contains one of Tokyo’s least known museums – the museum commemorating the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1st 1923. Free of charge, the building and its range of exhibits are particularly interesting to those from non-earthquake zones, and many need no explanation. A melted car frame, twisted iron girders and plates fused together are just some of the items to be seen as the realization sinks in that this area of Tokyo has far more sorrow in its past than many other locations. 40,000 died on this spot alone, 140,000 in total throughout the city following the earthquake.
Crossing the Sumida River via Kuramae Bridge to the left of the main gate of the memorial temple and museum, a view either north or south along this one time water artery can be enjoyed. Barges will still be seen transporting their load up or down river.
Over the bridge, on the immediate left can be seen the site of an ancient pine tree, long since vanished but continually replaced, that was said to act as a local marker for those on river journeys before buildings took up almost every inch of space. The tree warned boat passengers they were approaching the pleasure district of Asakusa.
Kuramae itself is nowadays largely a bulk supplies town with many trade shops that don’t actually sell to individuals. Sandwiched in between the former entertainment center of Edo, Asakusa, to the north and Asakusabashi to the south, Kuramae still has a few interesting toy shops, smaller shrines and temples, some signposted in English and a number of smaller shops that look unchanged since the Edo era (1603-1867) selling everything from cleaning materials to sumo related goods. (Kuramae was the site of the Kokugikan prior to the modern stadium opening – opposite the Kuramae Police Station next to Kuramaebashi. The area is now a waterworks). The main Mito Kaido Road running through the area is also host to a few very old and very popular restaurants that often see lines of customers waiting before opening time.
A little further south and almost coming full circle from Ryogoku (now on the opposite bank of the Sumida River) can be found Asakusabashi. A retail area like Kuramae, Asakusabashi differs somewhat in that both bulk and individual buyers are welcome. Perhaps most famous for its many shops selling traditional dolls and regalia for the various festivals surrounding children, (Girls Day – March 3rd, Boys Day – May 5th and Shichi-go-san – November 15th) that line the main street north from the station, Asakusabashi also stars as one of the most famous areas in the capital when it comes to stationery outlets with several multi-storied Shimojima stores be found within 20 or 30 meters of the Sobu Line station exit. Japanese language schools add an international touch to the area as many non-Japanese can be seen coming and going all day while for the peckish, the usual range of fast food outlets can be found but it is sushi and other forms of traditional dining that are by far the most popular culinary.