This weekend I took a tour of Edo-era waterways, getting to know the way that the civil engineering projects of the city of Edo (now Tokyo) sculpted the landscape, ferried people, connected spaces, and shuttled goods around the city. Edo was the biggest metropolis in the world in around 1800, surpassing Paris and London (and presumably other cities…). The “great unifier” Tokugawa Ieyasu had big plans, which included not only the first national tax systems and surveys, but city planning of his new roost to a massive extent. As a counterpoint to the grid-like development of major Euro cities, Edo has been a point of reference for people who want to balance growth and sustainable relationships with building and resources. The rivers were part of a huge development project in which land was excavated the re-located, and where the port life of Tokyo extended all the way into the city, far from its fringes. (For more on the kinds of settlement, firebreak and entertainment districts that cropped up, see Jinnai Hidenobu’s Japan Echo article here.)
Anyway, the trip was pretty great. It was led by a design/planning historian who has been doing this for a few years. He had to take a break a few times from narrating, a reality check moment in the life of Japanese academia. The face-time and on-time for talking and public speaking is so much more lively and important here than in the R-1 hermit culture of US universities that my field encourages. (The North American kind of work setup rewarded in a lot of the Humanities really discourages interaction apart from official pedagogical events, like classes and conferences, things that go on a CV. The versions of public intellectual in Japan are more market-responsive in interesting ways, more social and differently ‘productive’ in a lot of cases…but that is another post.) I felt a pang of sympathy, the throb of killing off my character from an earlier teaching-job life, as my throat was literally raw from all the teaching and public talking I had to do my first week at my new job. I was glad not to have to be verbal, but just to slosh around taking in the landscape (ok, and some new engineering vocabulary).
The timing of our trip was lucky, as some of the locks on the rivers had only recently started opening on Saturdays, meaning we could get through that part of the laced network of waterways. We passed through fishing villages, party-boat districts, varying degrees of small-scale wave (the Sumida-gawa was the choppiest, but only in contrast to the utter placidness of the rest), rock walls still standing and bordering the river from the 1600s, tons of scenic views, and under a whole array of historical bridge styles.
The headroom was, apparently, precisely 23cm on top in this one.
The most fun part for me, apart from starting to put together these unfamiliar parts of the city with a different linking system, was the locks. I’m familiar with them from midwestern rivers, but had never been on the boat side of things (as opposed to the car side of things). There was some fancy boat-work necessary when other boats passed–kind of like driving in the Silver Lake hills, you have to negotiate with your neighbor. First, you wait…
..and then it rises. I literally watched the markers on the side of the canal rise meter by meter as we floated up with the loosing of the water flow. It was pretty cool.
A feature of the boat ride was the dispatch of umbrellas in time for the “rain”–the water that inevitably comes dripping off the lock when it is raised.
There are yet more topographies–the rebuilding after the great 1923 fire, for one. But what really impressed me was how much the city had since the 1964 Olympics been re-engineered to make car traffic flow. There was a consistent horizon of car-movement on the surface of the city, things adapted to that horizon of lateral movement that we could see pass by overhead. No doubt 2020, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, will bring new changes to the water-highway nexus.
For me, this was a great introduction to earlier eco-thought as well as parts of the city I don’t know that well. I am not great at transcendental perspectival viewing–I am much better at immersive perception, and this gave me a way to toggle back to the birds’ eye view of maps. Some day soon I hope to get to Higashi-ojima, the only “subway” station located smack on top of a river, and see the other flip side.