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?
This weekend is practically shock full of festivals all over Japan, not the least all over Tokyo and nearby Yokohama! It is impossible to see even tiny part of all the festivals taking place so pick one or two and make the most of it! One of my personal favorites, and a good one for foreign tourists not used to or not very interested in hanging out with the huge crowds many festivals draw, is the comparably tiny Kuramae Matsuri, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. The tiny shrine of Kuramae is not only so small that it flies under the radar of most festival aficionados, it also boasts what is often called the most beautiful Omikoshi in all of Edo. Granted, unless you are well studied up on the minute differences between different omikoshi, you are not likely to see much that is special, but the overall look of the omikoshi is nevertheless spectacular. You can use the tags at the end of the post to find more about this shrine, this omikoshi and this festival.
Many festivals feature taiko drummers giving performances once or twice along the festival route, when I visited the Kuramae Matsuri in 2013 I took these photos of a fairly large troupe doing their best to stay in the shadows, as the sun was fairly brutal that day. Taiko drumming is another one of the many “must see in real life” experiences that should be on the top of any tourist’s to see list when visiting Japan!
The great Tokyo Sanja Matsuri festival is a multi day event but the main days are the Saturday and the Sunday. This year the weather was not quite optimal for the Satuday which meant a little calmer a festival than usual but on Sunday the Sun was back with a vengeance and the weather as well as the festival were in excellent moods. Here are a few more snapshots, with no special meaning other than that I like them, taken around the Kaminarimon gate in front of the grand Sensoji temple in Asakusa.
The most famous aspect of Japan’s many festivals are without a doubt the gloriously decorated Omikoshi, the portable shrines that house the gods and get taken out for a spin around the parish during festival days. The often weigh as much as a ton and are often shouldered by a couple of dozen of the strongest and most enthusiastic people belonging to the shrine or neighborhood it represents so you can imagine that stopping one of these one it gets started can be a tricky business. A round around the neighborhood means plenty of stops and starts, and during the famous Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo’s Asakusa district one of the most important stops of them all is in front of the grand Kaminari gate! I happened to be just in front of the three headsmen of the omikoshi, as they stood on top the uma, the wooden posts where the omikoshi rests temporarily after stopping. Their job is to guide the omikoshi into the right position for the stop, and to signal the carriers to correct their course, speed up, slow down, revers or turn. Nobody much listens so it is the job of several lieutenants on the sides to steer and guide the omikoshi as it approaches the uma and the headsman. As I stood waiting the omikoshi made three attempts to approach the uma, twice coming up too far to the left or to the right and once nearly ramming the uma and the three headsmen, forcing them to hang on for dear life. As the omikoshi finally made it onto the uma the three headsmen were pulled backwards by assistants just in time to avoid falling or being squashed. At this point the headsmen usually stops to give a speech or accept a blessing from the local priests, but this being the Sanja matsuri and there being hundreds of omikoshi they barely had time to catch their breath before being ordered to go up and turn around again.
Watching all this is great is great fun but obviously there a is serious risk of injury if you get too close, and I took most of these photos without even looking at the omikoshi, being far more interested in checking that my back was free to escape if anything should come crashing towards me! I have never had to bolt so far but sooner or later!
Sanja Matsuri might be famous for its enthusiastic omikoshi crews, but this is still nothing compared to some festivals in Osaka where errant omikoshi has been known to literally go through house walls and cause irreparable damage to parked cars alone the procession route. Accidents happen almost every year, so be careful out there!