2/3/16

& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking tour of the city / with low quality cellphone pictures) 2016-02-02 --

A trip from Oku to Asakusa, crossing at Kototoi Bridge, walking north and through Mukojima and back across at Shirahige Bridge and along Meiji Dori to Minowa.

I believe I came across Nagai Kafu for the first time while reading a biography of Yu Dafu, who spent years in Japan and published his most important work there. It's hard to say if the two men ever met, but it's likely Yu Dafu would have read his work (Guo Moruo at least thought Nagai Kafu was shit-- he hated most contemporary Japanese literature: "bourgeois literature" that was infected with "absorption in sensual pursuits of the demimonde"). There were translations into Chinese of Nagai Kafu's work and they share many themes. I was in Guangzhou at the time and tracked down an English language anthology of modern Japanese literature. Not much stood out for me, but I liked Nagai Kafu's work, the tattered episodes of strolls around the neighborhoods along the Sumida, the tension between the high and the low city, the modern streets and the ruins, and the dreary greyness of the stories. Reading Nagai Kafu's fiction and diaries now, there's another attraction: I can retrace his steps.

I wish I could come up with a clean statement on the why it's rewarding to retrace literary footsteps. Something about context, though. If we read to experience the world through another set of eyes and ears, this intensifies it.

"September 7. Already in the morning, the temperature was above ninety. In the evening I went walking in Sumida Park. ... I crossed Kototoi Bridge and took a bus to Tamanoi. I have been coming, since March or April, on repeated trips to investigate the quarter, and I have found by chance a house that is most convenient for resting. It contains but one lady, and her keeper never puts in an appearance. There was a maid when I first started visiting the place, and one or two have since followed her, but now there is none. The woman says that she was once a courtesan in Suzaki. She would appear to be approaching her mid-twenties. Although she has a north-country accent, her face is round, her eyes are large and her mouth is firm, and one feels that she could find a better place to work." From Nagai Kafu's diary, quoted in Kafu the Scribbler.

With that passage in mind, I thought about taking a walk through the same territory. There would be another day to dig deeper into the neighborhood, but I at least wanted to take Kototoi over to the area of Tamanoi. I took the bus from Oku Station, the 草64, which runs from Ikebukuro to Kaminarimon. I got off somewhere around Asakusa 7-chome. I walked across Kototoi Bridge.

"Currents in the Sumida River are yellow where the sun hits them, mud-colored where the sun is hidden by clouds. But since Kototoi Bridge has no steel structures except for its comb-like handrails and its pencil-like light posts, it has all the cheerfulness of a single, strong, simple, straight line of steel. Though the air is rarely clear enough to see as far as Mount Tsukuba, let along Mount Fuji, standing on the bridge from out of nowhere, the wideness of the Kanto Plain seems to flow around you." From Kawabata Yasunari's The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, translated by Donald Richie, who notes elsewhere that he lived not far away, west on Kototoi Dori. That's one of many descriptions of Kototoi Bridge in The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. Other notes: the bridge was a refuge during air raids, when most of the surrounding area was destroyed.

I had walked across the bridge before today but was distracted by the Skytree, which rises almost directly in front of you when crossing. When I lived in Kanagawa, the range of mountains to the west were a good way to navigate. The Skytree serves that purpose when I walk around Arakawa and Taito and along the Sumida.

It's like entering another part of Tokyo, around Asakusa and the base of the Skytree. All of a sudden, busloads of Chinese tourists following flags, Australians taking pictures of each other and their giant backpacks. As I walked toward the Skytree, a woman standing outside a temple waved for me to come over and said: "Buddhist temple. Come and see. Buddhist temple." Okay. The area around the bottom of the Skytree is heavily developed, a complete contrast to most of the surrounding area on the right bank of the river.


When I lived in Guangzhou, I often found myself at the base of the Canton Tower, an area completely different from the base of the Skytree. In Guangzhou, the area around the tower built on land that had not been previously developed. Most of the surrounding development, including the sci-fi metal and glass structures and fancy hotels across the river in Zhujiang New Town dates back only to the 1990s and heavier development only began in the 2000s, when the local government pushed hard to drive building and investment. But the Skytree feels odd, where it is, in the middle of a district that's far from the core of the city and has been built up for a century or so. Walking north from the Skytree, the area is split between narrow, crooked streets with the traditional homes and lowrise buildings typical in the low city but also tidy new homes with European cars parked out front.


I walked north, toward Higashi-Mukojima Station, cutting through sections of Kyojima. There seemed to be a harmony, maybe, between the piecemeal gentrification and the old city: a boutique handmade wool hats, a row of shops mostly not functioning anymore and the doors showing austere homes, and a line of freshly built homes with parking spaces, and a crumbling lowrise apartment block, and the mostly older and mostly female citizens of the old city pushing shopping carts down streets with the children of the new arrivals sweeping past on scooters and electric bikes. I'm not sure how the two worlds mix, really, but the character of Kyojima and Mukojima is different from my neighborhood in Arakawa, which has very little of the small scale gentrification and tidy new houses occupying the tiny original lots.

I had thought about tracking through Tamanoi. It's no longer on maps but I had a rough idea of where it was and had looked at a map in a book of walking trips through former akasen areas. Around Higashi-Mukojima, I crossed through a section of what had once been Tamanoi but did not go deeper and found nothing of note in the area. In Nagai Kafu's diary, he returns in the late-1940s and walks through "the ruins of Tamanoi."

A note about Tamanoi from Tokyo Vernacular:

Beginning in the late 1990s, the district became the venue for international symposia on town planning and for an art festival in which artists worked in and around surviving nagaya tenements. Some artists set up permanent ateliers in them. The arrival of artists renting or buying local property suggests the early stage of the bohemian-led gentrification patterns seen in cities in Europe and the United States since the 1960s. In Higashi Mukojima, however, the artists came following an official cleaning up of the area's image, beginning with the place name itself. Formerly known as Tamanoi or Terashima-cho, it had been the home of an illegal prostitution district from World War I until the 1950s. Terashima-cho was renamed Higashi Mukojima as part of the citywide revision of postal addresses in 1970. Tamanoi Station became Higashi Mukojima in 1987. This erasure of the old prostitution district from the map accorded with the broader "de-classification" of Shitamachi memory. Promoting links to the Edo past helped culture bureaucrats in the ward government bypass a socially undesirable modern history. The artists also came through the efforts of local government, and their focus on the physical environment of the alleys and row houses helped recast the area as a typical Shitamachi neighborhood, rather than a place of clandestine activities.
North of Higashi-Mukojima, I headed west and across Shirahige Bridge. With the Skytree looming to the south, the neighborhoods of gentrified alleys and clean shotengai and European cars and boutiques completely disappeared. Shirahige leads into the industrial margins of Hashiba. On Meiji Dori, approaching the area of Sanya, I watched a man in a phone booth piss into a phone book.

I walked west and through the Joyful Minowa shotengai and took the Toden Arakawa home.