Journey in Japan Part 46: Bridges and Balloons

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Today I rent a bright red bicycle, and cycle over the Sumida River, toward Ryogoku. There is a row of parked bicycles, each with a bright purple sticker featuring today’s date. I want to park too, but for some reason, I can’t find any attendant or any machines. I try a bicycle parking lot, but oddly, the machine doesn’t want to accept my coins, and however many combinations I try, and as much as I hammer the buttons on the machine, a Japanese voice just continually thanks me. Instead, I decide to park inconspicuously by some balloons.

Ryogoku is known as ‘Sumo Town’ and is where the Edo Tokyo Museum is located. Here there is also a large sumo stadium, shops selling clothes for ‘large’ people, and many a sumo wrestler in full costume ambling around. I even pass one sumo wrestler on a bicycle, the man an unsafe weight for the buckling handlebars.

The sumo stadium isn’t open, so I instead head into the adjacent Old Yasuda Garden. Free entry is a bonus. Originally built in 1688, the gardens have suffered many changes. They have been destroyed by an earthquake, remodelled completely, and ruined by pollution from the Sumida River. They since reopened in 1971, and the pond has now been made to look like the Japanese kanji character ‘kokoro’, meaning heart, but I don’t see the resemblance. Ryogoku Sumo Hall sits idly in the distance, beyond a little red bridge.

I wander the garden for a while, enjoying the escape from the busy city, before rushing back to collect my bicycle, worrying that it might get removed; and if it does, a ¥5000 retrieval fee is required; almost half the cost of the bike itself.

I check out a nearby map and see that there is a Fireworks Museum close by, so in that direction I head. With fate as malleable as clay, the Firework Museum is closed today. Typical. I check out another map, Stationary Museum. I cross the bridge back over the Sumida River to discover that all trace of the Stationary Museum has been erased. My lucky day.

I continue cycling around, passing an amusingly named café called, “Nob Coffee,” an amusingly named clothes shop called, “Very International,” before spotting the most premature Christmas decorations I have ever seen.

I thought it was somewhat crazy when at the end of September Halloween decorations started popping up in every shop, bar, and restaurant; but these Christmas decorations take early celebrations to another extreme. I remind myself that it is still the middle of October, before darting off toward another sign. I try to find something else to do today, a day that so far has been of no real plans, meaning, or motivations.

The ‘Kokucho Time Bell’ is marked as a place of interest, and is some ten minutes away from my location; sounds interesting enough.

The bell unusually sits in the middle of a children’s play park, in front of a Nichiren Buddhist temple. A famous Senryū (three line poem with seventeen syllables) about the bell said: “The bell of Kokucho reaches as far as Nagasaki.” Seeing as Nagasaki is in Kyūshū, over one thousand kilometres away; I very much doubt the accuracy of the poem.

After searching too hard for places of interest, I cycle back in the direction of Asakusa. On the way, I cross a bridge and notice that it has a plaque with some English writing. I double back and check out the text:

“The Yanagibashi Bridge was first built in 1698, the present bridge was erected in 1929. There are several explanations for the origin of the name, Yanagi (it means willow) bridge. One explanation is that willow trees stood at the base of the bridge. In the 19th century, this neighbourhood was a bustling red light district known in Japanese as gay world. Yanabashi was the subject of art and literature at that time.”

So once again, willow is the symbol for a red light district in Japan. The small river leading up to the bridge features many small boats which house little bars and restaurants. I decide to explore the area around the bridge and discover that gay world and the red light district have since been replaced by street after street of fashion shops.

As the night draws in, it really is time to leave. As I cycle home, I discover that the light on my bicycle is powered by a gyroscope; probably the most exciting thing that has happened to me all day.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I visit the Asakusa A-Round Festival where I learn all about leather crafts and the origin of Fortune Cats, visit a temple built by a dragon that worships radishes and see a real-life geisha by clicking here.

Or alternatively, click here to begin the journey from part one.

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