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
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
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
Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial, 2-3-25 Yokoami. Free admission. Open 9am-4:30pm, Tue-Sun.