Land of the giants

Sumo turns up everywhere in Ryogoku - even on the banks of the Sumida River
Photos by Michael McDonagh

Michael McDonagh takes a tour through Ryogoku - where everything comes in big helpings.

Synonymous with sumo, Ryogoku is one of Shitamachi' least explored gems. Visitors seem to prefer the more obvious attractions of Asakusa or the shrines to technology in nearby Akihabara, but Ryogoku has plenty of secrets just waiting to be discovered.

Walking through the ticket gates of the station, sumo wrestlers stare down at you from walls lined with their giant portraits. Outside, the Kokugikan sumo stadium dominates the landscape. The Sumo Museum, on the first floor, displays decorative ceremonial aprons worn by the wrestlers, the wooden paddles used by the referees and a series of woodblock prints depicting sumo through the centuries. Despite the lack of English-language information, most of the exhibits speak for themselves. Further past the stadium, about four minutes walk from the east exit, there is the small Sumo Photographic Museum showing a part of its collection of over 50,000 photographs of rikishi (sumo). The surrounding neighbourhood is dotted with wrestling stables and a few have windows overlooking the practice area for the benefit of curious passersby. Bulky yukata-clad fighters wandering the streets are a common sight. Permission is sometimes granted to visit and watch the early morning training sessions. However, you may have to be there as early as 5 or 6am to see the wrestlers go through their moves. A more leisurely way to get that sumo connection is to stop by a chanko-nabe restaurant to indulge in the hearty stew that wrestlers down in huge quantities. Many of the restaurants are run by ex-sumo wrestlers and their families, and can be found dotted throughout the area.

Tokyo time slip
The huge white edifice elevated by enormous pillars behind the sumo stadium is the Edo Tokyo Museum, the largest in Japan. Permanent exhibits are divided into three zones. The Edo Zone begins with a reconstruction of the Nihonbashi bridge and features virtually every aspect of Edo culture. The Tokyo Zone covers the post Meiji city, WWII and post-war reconstruction, and the History Zone is an overview from the Palaeolithic to the Showa Era. Until May 27 a temporary exhibition takes a look at Hojo Tokimune, who as guardian of the Shogun was the effective ruler of Japan until his death in 1284.

Ryogoku has seen more than its fair share of death and disaster. When the great fire of 1657 broke out so many citizens died at the Sumida river trying to flee on the ferryboats that the shogunate was compelled to build Ryogoku bridge. The current structure dates back to 1977, replacing an iron bridge built in 1885. The original wooden version is immortalized in Ando Hiroshige's woodblock print that depicts an evening shower. The bridge is a popular spot for viewing the annual fireworks display that has been held since 1733, except for the war years and during the oil shock. The festival was originally held to placate the sprits of those who had drowned at sea and to petition the gods to end an epidemic of disease spreading through the city.

Eko-in temple is dedicated to the spirits of those who have drowned at sea, died in prison, aborted children, and even pets. In a small building to the left of the entrance lockers hold the ashes of dearly departed birds, cats, dogs, as well as animals that have "given" their lives in medical experiments. Behind the wooden altar in the temple stand two chipped and scarred monuments to Jirokichi - a kind of Japanese Robin Hood. Gamblers, who tend to be fairly superstitious, believe a little of the stone will help their luck, so they surreptitiously chisel away at poor Jirokichi. Leave the temple by the side exit and follow the street to the end and you'll find an old stone wall that marks the site of the former Kira mansion. The tiniest of parks recalls one of Japan's most famous stories. It is here that the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) caught up with Lord Kira, responsible for the death of their master, chopped his head off and washed it in the well - that still survives - before marching it home to Sengakuji.

The landscaped gardens of Kyu Yasuda Teien

Shake, rattle 'n' roll
More death and disaster ravaged Ryogoku when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck on Sep 1, 1923. Registering 8.2 on the Richter scale, the quake destroyed the greater part of Tokyo by sparking fires that raged for over thirty hours and claimed around 140,000 lives. Victims are remembered at The Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial & Tokyo Reconstruction Memorial Museum - an enormous complex with a three-story pagoda and church like hall designed by Ito Chuta, who also created Tsukiji Honganji temple. The site of the memorial was originally open ground, and more than 35,000 people who rushed there to shelter from the quake perished in the flames that engulfed the area. A small museum details the horror. The first floor describes the extent of the death and devastation and displays horribly twisted shapes of everyday metal objects that melted in the intense heat. However, there is no reference to one extraordinary event that occurred in the aftermath of the quake. In a senseless rage the mob, police and vigilantes killed up to four thousand Koreans as bogus rumors spread about the poisoning of wells. Less well known is the police use of the chaos as a cover for the systematic targeting of leftists. Quite thought provoking considering Governor Ishihara's notorious remarks last year about foreigners, rioting and the role to be played by the forces of law and order in the event of a quake.

The second floor of the museum is devoted to the worldwide relief efforts prompted by the trembler. It is rather poignant to see the American exhibits in the knowledge that the carnage would be repeated two decades later in WWII - the firebombing of Tokyo by the US Air Force, especially fierce on March 10 1945, killed an estimated 100,000. The air raid victims' ashes are also enshrined at the monument. In the memorial hall incense has burned in front of the altar continuously since four days after the earthquake. The walls are adorned with paintings and photographs of the natural and manmade disasters. Annual memorial ceremonies mark the anniversaries.

The Kyu Yasuda Teien (Yasuda Garden), once the site of a feudal lord's mansion, is a beautifully landscaped garden and pond. Donated to the city in 1922 it was due to open to the public but was utterly destroyed in the earthquake the following year. Restored and finally opened in 1971, the paths that snake around the limited grounds exploit every square meter and vantage point to make it seem far bigger than its actual size.

The Kokugikan sumo stadium dominates the landscape with the Edo Tokyo Museum crouched behind

Getting there
Ryogoku is on the JR Sobu line and or Oedo subway line (Edo Tokyo Hakubutsukan-mae Station). Access by boat on the Tokyo Mizube Cruising Line (Tel: 03-5608-8869).

Sumo Museum (in the stadium). Open Mon-Fri, 9:30am-4:30pm. Admission: Free except during tournaments when only ticket holders are admitted. (Tel: 03-3622-0366)

Sumo Photographic Museum
3-13-2, Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130. Free admission. Open 10am-5pm, Tues only, open every day during sumo tournaments (Tel: 03-3631-2150)
Edo Tokyo Museum, open Tue-Sun, 10am-6pm (Thur-Fri until 8pm).

Entry is permitted up until 30 minutes before closing.
Closed Mon (or the following day when Mon is a holiday). Permanent exhibition: Adults JY600 (Tel: 03-3626-9974)

The Kyu Yasuda Teien (Yasuda Garden). Free admission. Open weekends and during sumo tournaments, 9am-4:30pm.

Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial, 2-3-25 Yokoami. Free admission. Open 9am-4:30pm, Tue-Sun. (Tel: 03-3623-1200)

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