A couple of weeks ago I spent a lazy afternoon revisiting the Yanaka district and the Snake Road (Hebi Road) that is currently seeing something of a revival in the crazy for the authentic Tokyo downtown experience. You can read more about Snake Road and the are in this post, where I took these photos, and a couple of snapshots in the are around the Snake Road. This is what much of central Tokyo used to look like, 30-50 years ago.
In Ueno, just near the the famous pond and the zoo, next to one of the gates belonging to Tokyo University you will find the tiny Sakaiinari Shrine (境稲荷神社), and right behind it the tiny ancient well of Benkei Kagami (弁慶鏡ケ井戸). The well, which has been famous for its sweet and clear water has been around for as long as anyone can remember, and it was certainly there before the Shrine, whose beginnings are lost to history, but which was already established in this spot in the late 15th century. The shrine has its name Sakai (meaning border) for being in the middle of the the border between two old towns or villages. It was built over in the 19th century but dug out again in 1940. The revival of the old well turned out to be a very good thing, as its water helped save the lives of many people who lived in the area during the intense bombing raids of 1945. One of the most famous people said to have been saved by the well’s water was the famous painter Yokoyama Taikan (横山大観).
Unfortunately, few natural spring wells can survive the infrastructure of a modern city and today the water is labeled as not for drinking, although you can still draw it, by the Sun Tiger hand pump installed near the old well head.
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!