Tokyobling's Blog

Yanaka Hebi Dori – The Snake Road of Yanaka

Posted in Places by tokyobling on August 11, 2015

I have been wanting to write a blog post about the tiny Snake Road in Taito Ward’s downtown Yanaka district in Central Tokyo for years now, but every time I sit down to do the necessary research I keep uncovering more and more texts, photos and documents. In tourists brochures, the Hebi Dori is added mostly as an afterthought, and locals try to promote it to attract more tourists. But the tiny street has an amazingly rich folk history.

The name – Hebi Dori, or Snake Road, is a popular relatively recent nick name for a tiny unassuming street in Yanaka. It is named for its peculiar shape, the road as it is laid out wriggles back and forth like a snake, twisting its way between the houses. It sounds far more exciting than it is. When I first walked here there was barely a couple of newly opened cafes along the route, but recently there are more businesses and shops along the road. I took these photos last winter, and as you can see there really is not much to the naked eye. The story behind the road is all the more interesting though. It used to be a river, the Aizengawa (藍染川), which was gradually culverted in 1921. Many centuries ago, this part of Tokyo was a deep inlet of Tokyo Bay, connecting it to the Pacific Ocean. As the land around Tokyo Bay was gradually reclaimed for housing and business, the deep inlet became a peninsula, and finally in the 19th century the two inlets had been reduced to two very slow moving rivers, which merged at this point to become the Aizengawa. There are two stories behind the reason for this name, the first, official story, was that it got its name from the many indigo dyeing workshops located by the river. The other more interesting story is that it is a pun on “Two Rivers Becoming One”, which was factually true, but also slyly referring to the (at its height) 90 brothels located in the area, which by the 19th century had become a famous red light district. One of the reasons for this place being attractive for brothels was that the river was the border between the old Hongo Ward and the Shitaya District, so law enforcement was a little weaker than usual. You see, interesting things happens at borders!

There are very few people left alive who have any real memories of the Aizengawa, but several people who grew up during the mid-19th century has given their first hand eye witness accounts, and it seems that every bend of the river (the street has 15 bends) had a completely unique and fascinating story to tell. For example, Upstream among the shrines, there were ponds belonging to noblemen who bred goldfish as a hobby, and during heavy rains in the summers the ponds would sometimes overflow and release the most amazing goldfish into the river, to the delight of all the local children. Other people have told of the scoldings they would get from shady “rag and bones men”, junk dealers and scavengers who would walk through the river every night in an effort to scrounge any valuables the drunkard customers of the many brothels would have thrown in during their partying. Rumors had it that every now and then someone would find gold, fine ceramics and even statues in the river! One can imagine the drunk samurai trying to explain losing these things to their wives the morning after! So the local children were told to stay out of the river, due to the masses of broken bottles accumulating there.

Another local remembers having to sleep under a mosquito net most of the year, due to the many insects living around the river, including masses of fireflies. So in reality, what the locals at that time considered a dirty river full of garbage was compared to our own times, clean enough to have huge populations of very sensitive insects thriving in it. It can not have been that bad! I have only seen fireflies in Tokyo once, and that was far far away from the city center. One young man tells a story of how they used the river water to fight fires in the neighborhood, but one day the fire fighters had received a new mechanical pump that would make their job easier, only that it did not work at all the first time they had to use it in an emergency. The river also played a small part in the Ueno Wars of 1868, when the Shogunate elite troops, the famous Shogitai, managed to hold off the Imperial forces after taking defensive positions in three local temples. The rains had been extremely bad just before the battle and the Aizengawa had flooded most of the area the Imperials could have used to attack the Shogitai. It wasn’t until hours later when fresh troops from the Choshu domain (present day Yamaguchi Prefecture) arrived with the cutting edge in military technology: light artillery and breech-loading rifles recently imported from England. The medieval bravery of the Shogitai was no match for the industrial weaponry of the Imperial forces. About 300 hundred of the Shogunate warriors were left on the battlefield after the surrender.

With the river being so well associated with flooding, it is no wonder that there were few protests when it was finally enclosed for good in the mid 1920s.

If you go visit the Hebi Dori today though, there is very little to remind of the old history, the brothels, the war, the drunkards throwing stuff in the river, the many bars, the coarse indigo dye workers or the goldfish. Still, there are constantly new shops opening, and it is a natural stop on any full day tour of the Yanaka district. Maybe good for taking tourists or visitors who have done most of the things they came to do and are tired of shopping?

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5 Responses

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  1. Hangaku Gozen said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:40 am

    Thank you for this! I have a piece of antique indigo-dyed fabric from the Aizengawa area. It’s less than two meters long and looks as if it’s the leftover scrap from a bolt of cloth cut long ago to make a kimono. The pattern is one of chrysanthemums floating on a stream. The seller was never able to give me much information about it, except that it came from Tokyo. I wonder if the designer was inspired by the river.

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    • tokyobling said, on August 11, 2015 at 6:58 am

      Oh, how interesting! Do you know the name of the manufacturer and year it was produced? Here the three dyeing shops I know that actually used the water from this river: Nezuseiansho, 1909. Chojiya, 1900. The Ueda factory, 1870. I am sure there were more.

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      • Hangaku Gozen said, on August 11, 2015 at 9:57 pm

        The only thing I know about the cloth—and this came from the dealer, who got it from an old woman who was selling off her mother’s things at a flea market in Meiji Park—is that it was probably made in the 1920s, and it’s a fall-weight linen. The fabric would have been used for a kimono: the fabric is just two feet wide, so you can see how a seamstress would have pieced together the cut fabric to construct the long, straight sleeves and torso section. Very economical and lovely.

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        • tokyobling said, on August 12, 2015 at 12:45 am

          In that case it is almost certainly dyed at one of those three workshops. What a nice object to have.

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  2. […] へび道 Snake Road (Hebimichi) […]

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