Fukagawa

A Blue-Collar Working District


Fukagawa is one of the newer neighborhoods in downtown Edo. It is located on the east bank of the Sumida river, just a short distance inland from Kiba. In fact, Kiba is officially a part of the Fukagawa area, with the same local officials responsible for governing both areas. Like Kiba, Fukagawa is a slightly marshy, low-lying district criss-crossed by dozens of canals. There are a few main roads through the area, most of them running parallel to the coast from the area around Eitai bridge. However, the easiest way to get around Fukagawa is by boat.

The main east-west canals -- the Onagigawa and the Konakigawa -- run from the Sumida river in downtown Edo to the Ara river, about 10 kilometers to the east. Both are busy thoroughfares for both passenger traffic and goods. Some of the passengers riding to and fro on the canals are travelling between their homes in Fukagawa and the downtown area. However, there are also many people from the city who are on their way to one of the many sites of interest in Fugagawa. But regardless of where they are headed, almost all of the people in this area travel by boat, because Fukagawa is the center of the network of canals that criss-cross the city.

One landmark that draws only a few visitors, but is nonetheless a place of great importance in Edo, is the so-called "banana villa" (Basho-an). It is the home of Matsuo Basho, one of Japan's greatest poets. Matsuo Basho's real name was Matsuo Munefusa. He was born in western Japan, in the town of Ueno, and spent the early years of his life as a teacher of Chinese classics and poetry. However, in 1666 his main student, the son of a leading daimyo, died. Matsuo retiring from teaching and became a semi-reculse, living on an estate in Fukagawa owned by one of his former students. Matsuo planted a large banana tree (basho) in the garden, and as a result, his retreat came to be known as the basho-an (banana villa), and he came to be called Basho no Matsuo (Matsuo, of the banana villa).

Matsuo Basho was one of the greatest haiku poets of his time. His greatest collection of poetry is the book Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road Through the North Country), which he wrote while making a pilgrimage to northern Japan in the later years of his life. Although he died in 1694, his canal-side retreat at the banana villa continues to attract poetry lovers, who come to pay their respects to this remarkable man.

Not far from the banana villa is another landmark of Fukagawa -- the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine. The shrine is located right in the heart of Fukagawa. The main road, Nakamachi-dori, crosses in front of the temple's main gates, and a huge boat landing with wide stone steps brings visitors right to the front gates of the temple. In front of the boat landing is a broad plaza surrounded by tea shops and food stalls. Nakamachi-dori runs past the boat landing, from east to west, and just across the street is the first torii gate that marks the entrance to the shrine. Tomioka Hachiman Shrine was built around 1625, not long after the main canal from Edo to Gyotoku was completed. The shrine is dedicated to the war god, Hachiman. Many of Japan's major cities -- especially cities that have served at the headquarters of the bakufu (military government) -- have shrines to Hachiman.

Before Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo, the Hachiman shrine in this area was located a bit further to the east, in Sunamura. The tiny village of Sunamura is located on a patch of high ground in the midst of the marshes, about five kilometers east of Edo. It is one of the oldest settlements in the area, but remains fairly rural and isolated due to the surrounding marshes. After Ieyasu became Shogun,the government naturally found it necessary to build a much more elaborate shrine, to thank the war god for bringing victory to the Tokugawa family. Therefore the site was moved to its current location and a large group of elaborate buildings was constructed. The shrine now serves not only as a place of worship, but also as the social and commercial center of the whole Fukagawa neighborhood.

From the plaza next to the boat landing, a wide avenue leads into the center of the shrine grounds. The path is paved with huge flagstones, and passes through two additional torii gates as it approaches the main shrine building Many smaller buildings dedicated to lesser deities line the avenue. This collection of shrine buildings is one of the largest in Edo. Only the Kanda Myojin shrine is comparable in size.

At the far end, on a raised platform of earth surrounded by stone walls, is the Shrine building itself. This huge structure was built in the mid 1600s, after most of the other earthworks and structures in the area were complete. Tomioka Hachiman Shrine remains one of Edo's most important centers of worship. Although the warlike traditions of the middle ages are slowly fading in importance, the shrine to the War God remains very important, particularly to members of the samurai class.

Just to the east of Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, separated from the shrine grounds by a narrow drainage canal and a line of pine trees, is a long, broad, windowless building that is a popular destination for any sightseer in Edo. This is the Sanju-San Gendo (Thirty-Three Alcove Temple). Fukagawa Sanju-San Gendo is actually a full-scale replica of a much older temple of the same name, located in Kyoto. Both the site in Kyoto and the one here in Edo are famous for the archery tournaments that take place in the gardens outside the building.

Archery has always been one of the main martial arts practiced by samurai. From an early age, young members of the warrior class are taught the skills of swordfighting and archery, as well as equestrian skills. Even today, when war is unheard of and these skills are never used in battle, it is important for all samurai to demonstrate their ability in archery. The Sanju-San Gendo is a center of archery training, and there are almost always some people in the garden taking target practice. Several times a year, the temple is also the site of an archery endurance test, when top champions demonstrate their amazing ability to fire arrows in rapid succession for hours on end. In 1728, one 13-year-old boy set an amazing record that stands to this day. Beginning in the second hour after dawn (about 8 AM) he began shooting arrows without stop. He fired a total of 5,848 arrows without stopping to rest, and only stopped when the tournament was suspended for darkness. This amounts to an average of about one arrow every 5 seconds for an entire day. If that is not already incredible, the official record of the incident states that 5,319 arrows struck the target. Only 529 missed!

In the garden of the Sanju-San Gendo, the samurai in their fine silk outfits practice archery. In this setting, the art of archery seems almost like a sport, and indeed, that is what it has become. It is almost hard to believe that skill with a bow and arrow was once a matter of life and death. Today, it is more a hobby for the samurai class. Even women can be seen practicing to sharpen their aim.

Although many of the visitors to Tomioka Hachiman Jinja and Sanju-San Gendo are samurai, the Fukagawa neighborhood is mainly home to blue-collar workers who work in various parts of Edo. While almost the entire shita-machi area of Edo can be roughly described as "working class", few areas are as representative of the hard-working day laborers who keep the city running smoothly. The neighborhoods of Edo are divided into cho ("towns") that average about one hectare in size (2.5 acres). Each cho has its own local leaders and its own local services such as the ban-nin ("town watch", or police) and the shobo-nin (firefighters). Most cho are further divided into about a dozen ban ("blocks" of houses). In Fukagawa, most of the ban are occupied by five or ten row houses (nagaya). These are long, two-story buildings that contain up to a hundred individual "apartments". Usually, two row houses are built around a central square with one or more wells and some green space between the two buildings where people can relax and socialize, and where the children can play.

The central square between the row houses is the focus of daily life for residents. Most nagaya have only small windows facing the street, while the doors of each apartment face the central square. The central square is semi-paved, and has a few small trees and shrubs. At one end of the square is a large well, which everyone in the "block" uses for washing and drinking water. At the other end of the square is a public toilet. In most residential districts of Edo, public toilets are the norm. The people of Edo do not dump their sewage into the rivers or oceans, as is done in many other cities around the world. Instead, all human waste is collected, composted and recycled as manure for farming. This is one reason why Edo has a relatively low incidence of disease -- there is no sewage to pollute the water supply or serve as a breeding ground for bacteria. In this sense, sanitation in Edo is far more advanced than in most other parts of the world. Manure collectors visit the neighborhood once a week, and carry away the waste to a composting area in the countryside. This keeps the entire town clean and sanitary.

The apartments in the nagaya are very small. Each individual unit has a single room about six tatami mats in size. A tatami is a heavy straw mat used on the floor of most Japanese homes. Since the mats are always made to a specific size, rooms are often measured in terms of the number of tatami on the floor. A six-tatami room is about 3.5 meters (12 feet) square.

Typically, an entire family -- parents, children and perhaps grandparents as well -- will live in one of these rooms. However, in cases where several adult siblings live in the same "block", they may share the cost of a separate third apartment for the grandparents.

These relatively crowded conditions are one reason why the central square is the focus of daily life. Houses are too small for the family to spend all day indoors. In fact, the apartments are mainly used just for sleeping. All other daily chores are done in the central square.In the evenings, after a hard day's work, the men will bring out mats and spread them on the ground, then spend the evening talking to their neighbors, smoking, sipping sake and eating the food that the women of the neighborhood have prepared.


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