An old sakura (cherry tree) leans over the fence with haru jo-on (fleabane daisy) at its feet. Tsutsuji (azalea) blooms are the latest in a parade of color that begins with sakura’s pale pink in early spring and carries on until maples bright red in fall. The understory is a mix of palm trees, hakuunboku (fragrant styrax), ajisai (hydrangea), hanamizuki (flowering dogwood) and a myriad of others whose names I don’t know. Shirasagi (a general term for herons, ibis, and cranes), kame (turtles), and koi wander the narrow channel below in search of food, a place to bask in the sun, or a spot to nest. Hebi (snakes) traverse the limbs above and occasionally even swim the waters, sending an involuntary shiver down my spine. A footpath a meter above the water’s edge as well-worn as mine gives away the route used by hakubishin (civets) and tanuki (raccoon-like creatures) for avoiding the busy streets above.
This waterway, the Tamagawajousui (Tama River Canal), is not in rural Japan, but a western Tokyo suburb. A ten-minute walk from the station where travelers zip to Shinjuku – a hub of urban action – in just under thirty minutes, the canal almost seems odd in a city better known for its concrete, neon, and skyscrapers. Started in 1653, the 43km long Tamagawajousui was an engineering miracle that helped kick-start Edo’s (Tokyo’s former name) transformation into a bustling metropolis for its day.
Five major rivers – the Kanda, Sumida, Tamagawa, Ara, and Edo – meet in Tokyo Bay where even now they continue to support trade and fishing. But it is the intricate series of canals built during the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 – 1868) that charted a new course for this former backwater. Built for irrigation as well as drinking water and sewage purposes, the canals brought water to the surrounding plains making it possible to expand the city’s footprint and increase agricultural land use. Fresh water came directly to neighborhood wells channeled through hollow logs, square wooden pipes, and bamboo. This system included a series of reservoirs that, along with rice fields, also supported a diversity of plant and animal life.
Today, Tokyo remains surprisingly green for a city of its size, although residents still crave a place to stretch their legs and feel the seasons change. These waterways woven throughout the city’s fabric (not due in the least to ardent citizen activism in the 1970’s) provide just such opportunities even in some of its busiest spots, often stringing together parks as well as places of natural and historic interest. Management varies – sometimes water courses along cement between brick walls or wanders freely over the same sandy bottom it has since the beginning. Some canals incorporate manamade islands planted with grasses and flowers to invite wildlife in to these green corridors.
Whether a fully cemented version of their former selves, the canals and rivers remain part of life here as well as a place to glimpse history. Fishermen and tour boats still ply the waters, and gingkan (gingko nut), yomugi (mugwort), and fruit gathering continue along the banks. Others, like me, use them as low-traffic, scenic bicycle routes for weekend adventures. Peddling along above the water past old wooden homes, orchard remnants, the occasional working farm, and neighborhood shrines and temples feels more like being on a country lane than a street in a major international city. As I stop to see what has caught the eye of others out for the day, I can’t help but think that the thrill I find at the sight of a brilliantly colored kawasemi (kingfisher) catching his dinner is the same as it was 400 years ago. The city is still alive.
Joan Lambert Bailey is an American writer currently living in Tokyo where she’s lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm. You can read about her adventures at Popcornhomestead.blogspot.jp