Contrasts add to Sumida's charms

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

SUZANNE MORPHET explores the old and the new in a rapidly gentrifying district of Tokyo.

Two women wearing traditional kimono and hair ornaments gaze through a glass wall of the highest tower in the world.

At 634m, Tokyo Skytree completely dwarfs the surrounding low-rise buildings in the Sumida district, some of the oldest in the city. From the observation deck, the contrast between the old Tokyo and the new is as vivid as the colours in the women’s kimonos.

It’s not a clear enough day to see Mt Fuji on the western horizon, but the vast panorama of the biggest city in the world impresses on its own. The Sumida River flows calmly past, hemmed in by high-rises on one side, low-rises on the other. Among the jumbled grey blocks in the near-distance, we can make out the distinctive shape of the architecturally designed Sumida Hokusai Museum, which we’ll visit later.

Tokyo Skytree was built in 2012, primarily as a television and radio broadcasting tower, but has become one of the city’s prime tourist destinations. Locals initially viewed it as another unwelcome intrusion into their traditional neighbourhood, where bathhouses and shrines were being threatened by shopping malls and condominiums.

But for visitors at least, Sumida today offers the best of both worlds, from the professional sumo-wrestling stadium at Ryogoku Kokugikan, to the upscale stores in the Solamachi Mall at the base of Tokyo Skytree.

Sumida occupies the lowest-lying part of Tokyo, where you’ll still get glimpses of old Edo — Tokyo’s name before the Emperor moved here in 1868. It’s one of the few neighbourhoods that wasn’t destroyed by the fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 or by the ruinous bombings of World War II.

Before leaving Skytree, we descend one floor to Sky Restaurant 634 where we enjoy a lunch that’s beyond my wildest expectations for a tourist attraction in Tokyo. First, it’s French cuisine and second, the food is as beautifully presented as it is delicious, paired with wines if you choose.

The braised sirloin of Saga beef with port wine and fond-de-veau sauce is possibly the best beef I’ve ever eaten (I learn later that Saga beef comes from a Japanese black-haired cow raised on the island of Kyushu. To be branded as Saga, it must score above 7 out of 12 on Japan’s Beef Marbling Standard).

Leaving Tokyo Skytree, we hail a taxi for a short ride to the Sumida Hokusai Museum. On our way there, my guide, Etsuko Kamisugi, tells me that even though the area is quickly gentrifying, it’s still known as a neighbourhood where artisans and craftspeople live and work. The Sumida Traditional Craft Preservation Association produces a map showing studios for leather workers, hand-dyeing specialists and others.

And if you get off the major streets, you can still see traditional two-storey homes with gardens in front.

One of Sumida’s most famous sons, artist Katsushika Hokusai, was born in this district in 1760 and the Sumida Hokusai Museum celebrates his life and work. In the permanent exhibit, visitors can thumb through replicas of his many sketchbooks and use a touch screen to view his most famous series, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, made when he was in his 70s.

The pigment Prussian blue had recently become commercially available and he used it profusely to wonderful effect.

But perhaps the most riveting exhibit is the life-size, and incredibly life-like, model of Hokusai and his adult daughter O-ei, also an accomplished artist. Hokusai is on the floor on hands and knees, hunched over a canvas, paintbrush in hand, while O-ei looks on in adoration. Hokusai’s hands and balding head are particularly realistic, and if you watch closely they move ever so slightly, giving the impression you’re watching the great artist at work.

Leaving the museum, we walk along Hokusai-dori Street, which is adorned with lampposts bearing reproductions of dozens of the artist’s works. We pass another museum, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, known for its authoritative interpretation of the city’s last 400 years.

Next we come to Yokoamicho Koen Park, where we stop to admire the three-storey, white pagoda built as a memorial to the 30,000 people who died here in a massive fire after fleeing the Great Kanto Earthquake.

The same earthquake almost completely destroyed the nearby Kyu Yasuda Garden, which was rebuilt in 1971 in the style typical of the Meiji era (1868-1912). Bonsai trees, ornamental rocks and a pond with koi and turtles make this a pleasant place to stop and relax.

Continuing along the Sumida River, we pass the Japanese Sword Museum, then come to what’s considered the spiritual heart of Sumida — its sumo wrestling stadium, Ryogoku Kokugikan, the only one in Tokyo. More than 10,000 fans fill this building at tournaments held three times a year (December, April and August).

It also houses the Sumo Museum. For the 2020 Olympics it’ll be the venue for boxing competitions.

“Oh, I am a sumo fan,” Etsuko tells me enthusiastically. “The Sumo ring is spotlighted and their mawashi belts (the loincloth wrestlers wear) are so vivid they don’t seem ugly at all.”

Etsuko adds that locals like to rent a Japanese-style “box” where they can sit on the floor like they do at home. “They feel more relaxed to watch a bout while eating and drinking.”

Etsuko makes it all sound so appealing that I almost forget the rather grotesque images I have of sumo wrestling from watching it on television.

Our tour over, I return to my 16th floor hotel room that faces Tokyo Skytree.

At night, awash in coloured lights, the tower seems even closer, like a brilliant beacon on Tokyo’s skyline, and a lovely reminder that this is a part of the city I’ll want to return to on my next visit.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Suzanne’s visit was supported by the Tobu Group. They have not seen or approved this story.

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