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The gods and legends of the Sumida River

Mukashi-mukashi, a long time ago, there was a river. Peasants had small farms on its banks, a statue of Benten was discovered by two fishermen, a mother found the grave of her long-lost son, a shrine was built in honour of the water god, a future shōgun of Kamakura crossed the river in his uprising against the Taira clan of Kyoto.

The river flowed on. It was diverted, polluted, worshipped, flooded, entombed in concrete. It flowed on.

The entire Sumida River is drenched in history, but a few spots deserve special attention.

Hiroshige did many woodblock prints of the Sumida River.
The one is called "Night rain at Azuma Jinja".

This is what the river looks like now. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Sensō-ji

It isn't possible to tell the story of the Sumida without referring to what is arguably its most famous landmark, Sensō-ji (浅草寺). According to legend, two fisherman brothers found a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon in the river in 628. They took it to their village chief, who enshrined the statue by remodelling his house into a small temple so that the entire village could worship the deity. The first authentic temple was built on the same site in 645 CE, which makes it the oldest temple in Tokyo. Several centuries later, Tokugawa Ieyasu designated Sensō-ji as the tutelary temple of the Tokugawa clan.

Sensō-ji's massive inner gate

Approaching Sensō-ji's inner gate

Sensō-ji

Incense burner at Sensō-ji

Sumidagawa Jinja

The spot that interests me the most has been buried under an expressway, but it's the stuff of legends. This is where the Arakawa River (source Chichibu) and the Tone River (source Niigata/Gunma border) used to flow into each other. The "new" river that continued through a swampy delta towards the sea was known as the Sumida River.

You'd never guess it if you looked at Google Maps today, because the Tone River was diverted east, and then the Arakawa River was redirected into an artificial canal to control flooding in Tokyo's low-lying eastern suburbs. The current Sumida follows the course of the original river and still flows past Sensō-ji.

That old confluence was near the present-day neighbourhood Tsutsumidōri (堤通 Embankment Road). The crossing point of the old Tōkaidō (東海 East Sea Road) was in this area, and it boasted one of the first ferries across the river. It was here, where the Sumida was born, that a shrine was built in honour of the god of water. When it was constructed in 1180 by Minamoto no Yoritomo, it was called Suijin Jinja (水神社), nowadays it's known as Sumidagawa Jinja (隅田川神社).

Sumidagawa Jinja

A Hiroshige print of the view from Suijin Jinja

The shrine is under an expressway.

Sumidagawa Jinja

The shrine used to be on the edge of the river, but it was moved about 100 meters to make way for the Metropolitan Expressway Nr 6, which now thunders almost right over the sacred building.

As a matter of fact, this is probably the saddest shrine I've ever been to. It's old, beautiful and immaculately maintained; but the old home of the river god, the shrine that was meant to revere the rain but stop the floods, isn't on the river anymore. A beautiful torii that used to stand almost in the river itself is now next to a concrete wall. You can't even see or hear or sense the river from the shrine; all you hear is traffic and all you smell is noxious car exhaust fumes. I was close to tears, for times forgotten, for days of glory, for the price we pay for progress.

The torii used to stand on the water's edge; now it's behind a concrete wall.

Inari shrine at Sumidagawa Jinja

A reminder of the river

Sumidagawa Jinja doesn't have koma-inu to guard it; instead, it has two
10 000-year-old turtles called man-nen-kame (万年亀).

The man-nen-kame is so old that it has moss growing on its back
and flowing behind it as it swims. It's a symbol of good luck and
longevity.

Everywhere, the symbol (sui, water) of the water god.



Sumidagawa, the Noh play

If you leave the shrine and walk a few meters up a weeds-strewn road, you'll reach a small temple with links to a Noh play called Sumidagawa. It tells the story of Umewakamaru, the young scion of a noble Kyoto family, who was kidnapped to be sold as a slave. He collapsed on the banks of the Sumida in present-day Tsutsumidōri. Local residents, guessing that he was an aristocrat, buried him and planted a willow at the spot where he fell.

A year later, just as they were commemorating his death, his mother passed by. She realized (or divined) that her son had died in this spot, and built a small shrine in his honour.

The story of Umewakamaru is very old and various versions have been written, but the most famous is by Kanze Motomasa (1401? to 1432), the eldest son of Zeami. I quote from Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, edited by Haruo Shirane:

A specific source for this play has not yet been found, but kidnappings by slave traders were fairly common in medieval times owing to labor shortages in northern and eastern Japan, which were still relatively undeveloped. By buying or kidnapping people, traders supplied those areas with slaves from western and southern Japan, which is why stories of parents searching for their lost children are often find in literary works of the time. This may also explain why the deranged mother who is the protagonist of Sumida River heads eastward in pursuit of her kidnapped son.

I couldn't find a decent video on YouTube, but you can see scenes from the Noh drama at the website of the Japan Arts Council at this link.

This drama, incidentally, inspired Benjamin Britten to write his opera Curlew River in 1964. I've never been fond of modern opera (although I love classical music), but here's an excerpt:



The play is still being performed, and the story is still being celebrated at a temple called Mokuboji (木母寺). It's only a few meters up the street from Sumidagawa Jinja.

The temple is very old. It was originally established in 976, Tokugawa Ieyasu worshipped here, it was almost destroyed during the Meiji Restoration, revived in 1888, almost burnt to the ground in the American firebombing of WWII. Nowadays what's left of the old temple is so fragile that it's protected behind glass.

The old wooden temple at Mokuboji is so fragile that it's protected behind glass.

This mound commemorates Umewakamaru's mother.


Umewakamaru was buried underneath a willow.
Now a new willow grows on this spot.


Ema at Mokuboji, depicting the mother in the legend

Another ema

A Hiroshige print of Mokuboji in the moonlight

This is what it looks like now ...

A personal meeting with the water god

I went to Sumidagawa Jinja and Mokuboji on Friday morning, 21 June, squeezing in another walkpedition before afternoon lessons. I knew that typhoon Leepi was threatening, but I had a fold-up umbrella in my backpack. Fat lot of good that did me. Leepi struck with a celestial downpour that turned every shitamachi alley into a mini-Sumida. I was ankle-deep in water, and even my shirt was getting soaked. Other pedestrians huddled under shop awnings or at bus stops, waiting for the deluge to finish.

I hesitated at a local station, observed Son of Noah Part II and remembered my sadness at Sumidagawa Jinja. I thought of myths, heroes and modern Tokyo's fear of nature. 

"OK, Suijin, I hear you," I muttered. I put away my umbrella, made sure my camera and wallet were secure in a plastic bag, stepped into the rain and walked home. I was a sopping wet wreck within minutes. Others stared at me as if I were crazy and needed to be deported back to my own continent immediately.

No. No, Tokyoites, I was celebrating with the gods of yonder days, experiencing their power and enjoying their blessing. If that's insanity, so be it. I'm but a savage from a southern land, and I know not how to conduct myself.

Arbitrary but nonetheless fascinating trivia

The events described in the Noh play took place near present-day Kanegafuchi Station. It's also near Shirahigebashi and Kototoibashi, two modern bridges which I mentioned in this post.

OK, so, Kototoibashi (言問) was named after a waka by Ariwara no Narihira (在原 業平, 825 to 880), and that waka is quoted in full in the Noh drama.

Here's the original Japanese:

名にし負はば いざこと問はむ都鳥 わが思ふ人は ありやなしや

na ni shi owaba iza kototo wa mu miyakodori wa ga omou hito wa ari ya nashi ya to

Here's a translation:

If you are what your name implies, oystercatcher, then I shall ask you: is the person I long for living or dead? (An oystercatcher is a bird, called 都鳥 miyakodori in Japanese.)

Kototoibashi

Kototoibashi

There used to be a station called Narihirabashi. It's now been renamed as … Tokyo Skytree Station. The area around the station is still called Narihira. (Arbitrary aside within an aside: I don't like that spelling, Skytree, one word. I stubbornly persist in writing it as Sky Tree.)

Shirahige Jinja

Shirahige Jinja (白髭神) is in an old suburb called Mukōjima (向島), which means "island on the other side of the Sumida". It used to be fertile farmland thanks to soil carried along the Sumida and deposited in this low-lying area close to the ocean. The shrine was founded in 951, but has been rebuilt many times. It's named after a Korean tutelary god who was brought to Japan by immigrants who settled in the Lake Biwa area. Read more about it here.

Shirahige Jinja

Shirahige Jinja

Matsuchiyama Shōden

Matsuchiyama Shōden (待乳山聖天) used to be situated near Yoshiwara, the most famous red light district in Edo; as a matter of fact, it was connected to Yoshiwara via an old canal that's now been filled up. The temple attracted many worshippers from the sex industry, and it very well still might, but these days most visitors are probably looking for love, a successful marriage and fertility of either womb or wallet. Read more about it here.

Matsuchiyama Shōden

Roof detail at Matsuchiyama Shōden. That's a money bag for good luck.

Ru's favourite shitamachi shrine

My favourite shitamachi shrine, Mimeguri Jinja (三囲神社), also used to stand on the river's bank. I love this shrine because it has a lion, foxes and a view of my beloved tower. Read more about it here.

Hiroshige's print of Mimeguri Jinja in the snow

Mimeguri Jinja

Mimeguri Jinja

The Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall

The Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall (東京都慰霊堂, Tokyo-to Ireidō) was built in Ryōgoku in 1930 to commemorate the victims of the Great Kantō Earthquake, which struck in Sagami Bay near Tokyo at noon on Saturday, 1 September 1923. The quake, which registered 7.9 M, killed 142 800 victims, mostly due to fires.

Several years later, the United States launched the most destructive bombing raid in history against the shitamachi. American planes dropped 2000 tons of incendiary bombs on suburbs where ordinary families lived in small wooden houses. Roughly 100 000 people – a conservative estimate – lost their lives and 40 square km was annihilated. Eventually they, too, were honoured at the Memorial Hall.

Read more about it here.

Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall

A statue commemorating the children who died in the American firebombing.

Yanagibashi

Three hundred years ago the Kanda River, at the confluence with the Sumida River, was lined with so many willow trees that the area was named Yanagibashi (柳橋) or Willow Bridge. There was a real bridge across the river, too. It was originally constructed in 1698; the current green arch was built in 1929. Yanagibashi had another link with willows: it was famous as a karyūkai (花柳界or "flower and willow world", in other words, a geisha quarter. Read more about it here.

Yanagibashi

A small willow still grows at Yanagibashi.

Bashō's favourite spot

The haiku poet Matsuo Bashō 松尾 芭蕉 (1644-1694) lived in the Fukagawa area of Tokyo. Today you can still visit his favourite spot next to the river as well as various other places associated with him, including the departure point of his famous journey to the north. Read more about it here.

This was Bashō's most favourite spot on the river. The bridge in the background
is Kiyosubashi.

Bashō's spot seen from Sendaiborigawa

That's the end of this very long post. You do realize that I managed to write about the Sumida's most famous spots without including my other major obsession, Tokyo Sky Tree? That tower might very well take over as the main attraction along the river, but for now, we focus on symbols that have stood the test of time.

My Sumida River series

Flood control, the upper section of the river from Akasuimon to Otakebashi

Bridges, Part 1, the middle section of the river from Shirahigebashi to Eitaibashi 

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