Chasing Cherry Blossoms Along Uchigawa

In these Covid times, hanami parties, picnics under blossoming cherry trees are discouraged. The next best way to enjoy the blossoms is by staying on your feet, a stroll under the blossoms. There are plenty of Tokyo neighborhoods where one can enjoy Japan’s famous sakura. Let me introduce Ota-ku’s Sakura Promenade, less well known than some of central Tokyo’s sakura-filled parks, but a delightful way to spend a few hours wandering among retro and gentrifying neighborhoods with plenty of blossoms and other interesting sights.

The walk, just under six kilometers, follows the course of Uchigawa, one of many spring-fed streams that, in by-gone days, watered fields across what are now Tokyo suburbs. Like many such water courses, the upper reaches have now been covered over, although the stream continues to flow below ground. Toward the end of the walk, the stream emerges into a concrete-lined, flood-controlled waterway.

Begin from Magome station on the Toei Asakusa subway line (Kan-nana Exit). A map is provided below to help you find your way. The Sakura Promenade begins about 200 meters up Kan-nana from the station (turn right as you leave the station and cross Kan-nana). The actual spring that fed the stream is a couple dozen meters on the north side of Kan-nana, but is also now beneath the street with only a stone marker to be seen. Don’t bother.

Instead, enjoy the stroll along the old waterway, now a quiet tree and flower-lined walkway (no motor vehicles allowed), especially pleasant during sakura season.

After 4 blocks, the promenade becomes a spacious plaza between high rise apartments. Although the promenade continues at the end of the plaza, it is currently being resurfaced, making it necessary to take a slight detour along city streets as shown in green on the map below. The resurfacing should be completed by early April but perhaps not soon enough for those who are taking the walk to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

The walk continues on the other side of the Shinkansen tracks; just follow the map. Generally speaking, the Promenade follows the course of the now-underground Uchigawa, so if you lose the trail just look around for where the low ground is. There are also helpful maps posted along the way.

Shortly after crossing Dai-ni Keihin at the light, you’ll find the street is lined with older cherry trees, tall with nearly black trunks, a sign of their age. Now the real cherry blossom viewing can begin! Enjoy these blossoms as you stroll along the street. One striking feature is that unlike Sakura trees in public parks, these trees are rather tall and kept trimmed so that their branches don’t spread as far horizontally. This is a common feature of trees that line Tokyo streets.

IMG_4727After a couple of hundred meters of these black trunks and pale pink blossoms, a flash of bright red on your left may catch your attention. It’s the red torii gates of Shusse Inari shrine, a hilltop shrine dedicated to the god of the harvest. Yes, this quiet suburb was once dedicated to food production. It’s a fun deviation to just drop in to say hello to the god. Interestingly the front courtyard of the shrine is now a children’s playground. Next door stands Zenshoji Temple, apparently popular for neighborhood funerals.

Back on the street, turn left at the next corner to find yourself on what is known as Magome Sakura Namiki (“namiki” means row of trees), the oldest and most popular cherry blossom viewing street in this neighborhood. This street, too, was once the course of the Uchigawa, which provided precious water for the crops of local farmers.

A signboard nearby explains that this area was once well-known for its vegetable production, including spinach, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, and the like. One hundred years ago there were 1,660 ha. in cultivation in this area. By 1950 the area had become a residential suburb with only 179 ha. in cultivation. Nowadays, one would be lucky to see someone growing cucumbers in a pot. How times have changed!

But the sakura trees lining the course of the Uchigawa have not changed and they are celebrated by the locals every year. Take your time, meander, and enjoy the blossoms and the festive atmosphere.

Paper chochin lanterns are strung along the entire length of the street, about a kilometer. Food stalls, and other fair-like entertainments, are also set up along the route. The local neighborhood association has helpfully put out trash bins, and also taken measures to promote social distancing. Strolling, not large gatherings, is encouraged,

These trees are also older and well-established, with branches spreading as much as street-side trees can be. Partway along there is a public park, where a few intrepid people may try for a picnic atmosphere, but for the most part, people are sticking to the social-distancing rule. For everyone who visits, the main focus is on enjoying the delicate blossoms, such a pale pink that they are almost–but not quite!– white.

At the end of the street, there is a slight dog leg to the left. Follow this and you will soon see ahead of you a building with a large blue roof. This is the Ryushi Memorial Museum, an art museum founded to house the works of Nihonga artist Kawabata Ryushi (1885-1966). Nihonga, Japanese-style painting, developed at the end of the 19th century, a period when Japan was adopting and adapting various ideas from the West. Ryushi, a prolific artist active during the first half of the twentieth century, was particularly known for pushing the envelope, trying out new ideas and genres. He is regarded as one of the three most influential Nihonga artists. The museum is currently closed as a new exhibition is being prepared; it reopens on April 3, 2021. (Hours: Tuesday-Sunday; 9:00-16:30. Admission: JPY200). Ryushi’s house and garden are across the street from the museum and are open the same hours. The original house was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt; Ryushi’s studio in the garden dates to 1938.

From here, the walk skirts the base of a hilltop park and then goes through a rather ordinary residential neighborhood before reaching Ikegami-dori, an old road leading from Edo to Ikegami, home of Ikegami Honmonji temple. Bot today’s destination is elsewhere, so the walk continues perpendicular to Ikegami-dori. This neighborhood has a particularly retro, “Showa” feel to it with a number of older homes, likely built in the decades just after WWII. Here and there are signs of gentrification, but this still feels like an ordinary working class neighborhood and that is its particular charm.

Soon you’ll come onto another row of streetside sakura, these surprisingly tall and narrow, a sign of both their age, and the narrowness of the street on which they live.

A little further on, at a five-way intersection, you’ll find a little corner park dominated by a trellis of wisteria and containing several statues, the most important of which is a small Kannon in a small stone shrine. A sign nearby explains that she was installed here just after WWII by locals as a prayer for peace. Kannon statues with similar histories can be found across Japan, although rarely as modest as this one.

Another 150 meters on are the tracks of JR’s Tokaido and Keihin-Tohoku train lines. This is also the spot where the waters of the Uchigawa finally emerge into the light, possible because the river is tidal from here to its mouth 1.8 kilometers away at Tokyo Bay. While there is a catwalk under the tracks to follow the river’s course, a large sign states that it is not a public thoroughfare and instructs pedestrians to he nearest underpass.

After that slight deviation, follow the river course a ways downstream. At first it is just a concrete-line waterway, with little vegetation or visual appeal. Being tidal, sometimes there is trash floating on the surface. Yet, look closely and see that in fact the water is quite clean and it is easy to see the river’s bottom. Sometimes you’ll see fish and waterfowl. As you proceed downstream, there is more and more riverside vegetation and eventually more cherry blossoms to enjoy.

Just after passing a small shrine, Omori Kaneyama Shrine, on the river’s left bank, you’ll come to Suwa Bridge. Although there are more young cherry trees from here downstream, leaving the river here provides the easiest access to your transport home, and you may be ready for a snack at this point. So turn right and head way from the river. You’ll soon see the blooming sakura of Omorinishi Traffic Park, a delightful little park designed to teach children the rules of traffic safety. There is a nifty little track where kids can practice their bicycle skills, with a kiddy-sized traffic to teach them the rules. It’s just adorable to watch children carefully pulling up with their bikes and waiting for their little light to change.

Just beyond the park is Marshmallow Monster, a local sweets shop that produces “sakura donuts” this time of year. Be warned, though, they are popular and sell out quickly. When I dropped by at 1 pm. they were already sold out. I “made do” with an excellent cream puff instead. It’s just a short distance from here to Omorimachi station on the Keikyu train line, so consider taking your treat back to the park to just briefly sit under the blossoms.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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