In the opening scene of the 1968 movie, “Admiral Yamamoto”, starring the great Mifune Toshiro, Yamamoto is being ferried across a river in his hometown and is challenged by the boatman to make the crossing standing on his head, thereby demonstrating his superior balance and seamanship.
Perhaps because I know there was a time in Japan when bridges were few and these small ferries were the most common way of crossing many of Japan’s rivers, it was the little ferry boat that most fascinated me about this scene. I have always wanted to find a spot where I could make such a crossing.
In the Tokyo area, perhaps the only place still offering a traditional ferry service is Yagiri no Watashi, crossing the Edogawa River between Shibamata and Matsudo. A ferry has been operating here for about four centuries, providing crossings to locals with goods to bring to market as well as travellers on the Mito Kaido, one of the major roads north-bound out of old Edo (now Tokyo). It was featured in a popular early 20th century novel as well as a tragic love song popularized in the 1970s/80s. It is also often portrayed in the Tora-san movies of the late 20th century, since Tora-san’s home is nearby.
In fact, as long as you’re going to this “upper right hand corner” of Tokyo, you might as well make a day of it and meander through some of the other sights of the area. The easiest way to reach the ferry landing is from Shibamata station on the Tokyo side.
What to see and do on the Shibamata side
In the plaza outside Shibamata Station you will find a statue of Tora-san, the loveable vagabond played by Atsumi Kiyoshi in 48 movies from 1969 to 1995. Although the movies are set in various locations across Japan, they almost always also feature scenes in Shibamata, where Tora-san grew up and to which he returns regularly. There is also a statue of his long-suffering sister, Sakura, bidding him farewell as he once again sets off on an adventure.
Generally follow the foot traffic from Shibamata Station to the laneway approach to Shibamata Taishakuten, the major Buddhist temple of the area. The laneway is lined with shops and restaurants offering local delicacies as well as Tora-san memorabilia. This neighborhood is a microcosm of old “shitamachi” life and takes great pride in its quirky favorite son!
Take a little time to explore Taishakuten, a beautiful complex featuring some beautiful old wood-carved panels and a serene inner garden. This is a very active temple, regularly hosting both religious and community activities.
Follow the signs to Yamamoto-tei, a Taisho Period (1912-1926) house and garden turned public facility (admission JPY100). Here you can enjoy tea and cake overlooking the garden.
Don’t miss the Tora-san Museum next door. There are displays of sets and props from the movies as well as features about the principal characters. Even if you’ve never seen a Tora-san movie, the displays are interesting and will make you a fan. For the price of admission (Adults: JPY500; Students: JPY300; Seniors: JPY400) you can also visit the Yamada Yoji Museum across the street. Yamada wrote and directed nearly all of the Tora-san movies and his museum is dedicated to displays on movie-making.
When you’ve finished these museums, you will find yourself just next to the river and not far from the ferry landing.
From mid-March to late November, the ferry operates daily (weather permitting) from 10:00 to 16:30, making the crossing in about 10 minutes. (In winter months it operates on week-ends only.) The one-way fare is JPY200 for adults and JPY100 for children 4 and over.
Usually the boatman rows across, using the traditional single oar over the stern (a rowing style many Westerners will relate to the Venetian gondola, but a method also developed in China and disseminated across Asia–unless you want to think Marco Polo carried the method one direction or the other). The day I crossed was very windy, making the river choppy and hard to navigate, so the boatman rowed only part of the way and used a very quiet motor to glide the rest of the way across.
The Chiba side is somewhat desolate. There is a small concession stand at the ferry landing and another place where you can get refreshments near the bus stop on the other side of the levee. Otherwise, there’s a golf course and lots of fields where vegetables are cultivated. Consequently, many people make the crossing, get off and have a quick look around, and then get back on again and return to the Shibamata side. But other options include (1) catching a bus to Matsudo from the bus stop (a bus schedule is posted at both ferry landings), (2) walking to Yagiri station, about 2 km away (a predominately suburban and not particularly scenic walk), or (3) walking about 3.5 km along the Edogawa to Matsudo station.
I recommend options 1 or 3. Notwithstanding the distance, if the weather is fine, it’s an easy walk atop the levee most of the way and you can enjoy bird life, river views, local activities and other interesting sights.
What to see/do in Matsudo
Although Matsudo is flanked by the Edogawa, historically its life was centered on the Sakagawa, a small tributary river. If you’ve walked along the Edogawa, you will notice the river on your right after you’ve descended from the levee in order to cross under Hiway 298. It’s pleasant to walk alongside the Sakagawa from this point. Even today, this tributary continues to feature in such religious celebrations as the o-bon related floating of lanterns in late summer. Check out my 2012 article for more information on this, the Matsudo Shrine and Tojogaoka History Park. Note that I recommend visiting Tojogaoka first, and then returning down the hill to Matsudo Shrine and continuing on from there.
Up river from Matsudo Shrine, just off a road now known as Nagereyama Kaido, you can also find Hokoin and Zenshoji, a couple of temples that are remnants of Matsudo-juku, the way station that was so important for Edo Period travellers. Nestled in a bend in the Sakagawa, Hokoin in particular has managed to boost its modern relevance with its wall of statues of Kobo Daishi, one for each of the 88 temples of Shikoku that he founded. Visiting here is a deemed completion of a pilgrimage to the Shikoku 88.
From Zenshoji and Hokoin, it’s just a short walk to Matsudo Station.
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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