It is easy to forget, but until quite recently, historically, Tokyo was a city built on water: reclaimed lands, great moats, canals, rivers, streams, inlets, marshes just about anywhere and the sea constantly present. In the era before reliable road transport the humble push-boat ferry crossing was the daily staple of hundreds of thousands of people all over Tokyo, and remarkably, one of those ferries have survived to this day. There used to be ferry spots at or near almost all major bridges in Tokyo, but as the bridges went up, the ferries went in decline of were actually banned by the Meiji government outright.
The last remaining ferry crossing in Tokyo is on the edge of a little field on the Edogawa-river, connecting Shibamata and Shimoyakiri Matsudo, which is technically in Chiba Prefecture. Operating these ferries was by government appointment only, and the present and last operator is a fourth generation ferryman. The ferry system was made semi-public by decree in 1740, and its has been a special operation involving both the city of Matsudo and the families of the town for the last 255 years. The boats were traditionally made from a kind of wood which is excellent in sea water but rots rather quickly in the fresh water of the river. Back in the old days the revenue would be used to keep new boats coming in and it is said that the river here is littered with old ferry boats having sunk during the centuries. The present boat is operated by paddle when leaving Tokyo but an engine is usually engaged for the return trip, depending on the number of passengers, the weather, the current etc.
The reason this crossing has survived is because of the bank on the Chiba side of the river used to an uninhabited island with extremely fertile lands for farming, so plenty of Tokyo farmers would need to cross here to get to their fields. If you look at the area from a satellite image you will see instantly the huge difference between the Tokyo side which is densely populated and the very sparse Chiba side. In fact, the Chiba side is so empty (just fields and tiny farms) that no tourists ever bother to get off. The trip is 100 yen, but everyone just pays for the roundtrip at once, so it becomes 200 yen per adult. Half price for kids I think.
As a tourist attraction, well, it depends on what your idea of fun is. What you see in my photos is just what you get and nothing more, nothing less, plus the sometimes interesting banter of the ferryman of course. There is no reason to get off on the other side and the ferry ride itself is over in a matter of minutes, still, to me it was fantastic. As a fan of economic history, and the history of Tokyo in particular, it was a huge event to experience first hand exactly the same thing that hundreds of thousands of Tokyo farmers, samurai and merchants had as part of their daily routine for hundreds of years. It was a brief but fantastic window into one tiny part of life in the old days. Virtually nothing has changed, apart from some of the taller buildings sticking up by the horizon. There are birds watching the boats, now as in centuries past, there is fish in the river and probably a bit of garbage as well. Where humans are, garbage will accumulate. From half a meter above the water, this is quite possible the only place in the entire city of Tokyo where nothing visible to the naked eye has changed in three centuries. If you narrow your eyes and listen carefully on quiet Sunday afternoon, it what you see and hear and smell will be exactly the same as any peasant farmer in 1755 or 1815 or 1855. These places are quite valuable I think, and apparently the government agrees with me because a few years ago it was selected to be part of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan, a government initiative to identify and preserve a variety of unique and vulnerable soundscapes, in order to fight the ongoing noise pollution of the country.
To most tourists, this ride and the walk to and from it would be a major pain in the behind and boring as nothing else, but for this Tokyo lover, it was a little piece of heaven. Explore at your own risk!
Founded in 1629, the temple of Shibamata Taishakuten dedicated to the teachings of the Buddhist sage Nichiren is one of the most famous, and at the same time, least visited buddhist temples in Tokyo. The temple has always been very popular with local people but it rose considerably in fame in the during the great Tenmei Famine of 1782-1788 when due to abnormally cold weather (possibly made worse by the massive volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 and the two huge volcanic eruptions in Japan the same year, Mount Iwaki and Mount Asama) the rice crop failed for several years in a row. Between 20 and 200 thousand people are said to have died in the famine, and the total population in Japan fell by over 4% from 1780 to 1792, to less than 26 million. It is said that members of this temple parish and the people who prayed here did not suffer as badly from the famine and the temple skyrocketed in popularity.
The next time the temple was to become famous was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the temple precinct served as the backdrop for the hugely successful Tora-san series of romantic comedy-drama. Tourists arrived by the busloads, and they only declined in number in the late 1990s after the last Tora-san movie was released in 1995. Certainly I saw much fewer tourists in 2015 than on my first visit in 2005.
The first photo is of the famous Nitenmon, the main gate to the temple yard, where you will find the main temple building constructed from roughly 1915-1929. The temple is also famous for it holy water spring, dedicated to the Goddess of the White Snake. It is popular with worshipers to place small statues of white snakes near the spring. The snakes are paired up, representing husband and wife, together protecting the fount of wealth! More photos to come!
The main reason everyone visits the Katsushika Ward neighborhood of Shibamata, inconveniently placed as it might be on the extreme east of Tokyo right next to Chiba Prefecture, is to visit the hugely famous Taishakuten temple. But being as most of us are, much more easily lured by more carnal attractions (in this case, eating, shopping, drinking) what seems to keep most people in the area for the longest is the mere 200m of the the Taishakuten Sando, a remarkably well preserved, picturesque and quaint shopping street leading right from Shibamata train station to the temple gates. The street is lined with old timey shops, eateries, souvenir vendors and purveyors of religious paraphernalia. Most big temples and shrines around Japan have shorter or longer versions of this kind of street, but this is one of the more attractive I have seen so far. I visited very late on a very hot day with dubious weather so I could enjoy the normal crowds to take these photos of the near empty street.
Some people say that Taishakuten and enivrons is Tokyo’s most underrated conventional tourist attraction, and I might agree with them. The place is steeped in culture and post-war romanticism, but even for the casual foreign tourist the place is well worth a visit!
Few tourists and even fewer Tokyo natives ever have a reason to ride the tiny Keisei Kanamachi line (京成金町線). It is not the shortest train line in Japan but very nearly, at only 2.5km in length it must surely be the shortest proper train ride in Tokyo. The line has three stations, the Keisei Takasago (京成高砂), Shibamata (柴又), and Keisei Kanamachi (京成金町). Except for the middle Shibamata station, which is the most interesting for tourists, the line is pretty well linked with other lines and stations at both end.
The first and so far only track of the line was laid down in 1899 when the station was served by single train cars carrying six passengers and pushed by hand by one or two operators who walked behind the train car. The line was not electrified until 1913 when it was purchased by the Keisei company and only got the automatic ticket gates in 2010. Today the lines sees 89 sorties per weekday, and 75 during weekends and holidays, usually at a 10 or 20 minute intervals. Originally the line was established to make it easier for worshippers to reach the famous temple in Shibamata, but these days the train is very popular with locals and commuters as well.
If you are a fan of train history or just want to spare your feet the 1 or 1.5km walk to the temple, you really will have to try out the Keisei Kanamachi Line! Incidentally I found the house prices around Shibamata to be very reasonable, so if you are looking into buying a proper house in Tokyo that is not priced astronomically high I can recommend having a look out, although it is just a couple of kilometers away from Chiba Prefecture!