When we first moved to Tokyo in 1998, my wife and I rented a studio apartment next to the Kanda River. I knew nothing about the role of this river in Tokyo’s urbanization, its usefulness in military defense, its romanticized image in popular culture, or even where it started and ended. I certainly did not think of the river as a providential source of drinking water. It just made me sad. It was, in my eyes, an eyesore, along with the exposed electric wires, gray-tiled apartment buildings, and treeless roadways that often made me wonder, “How did this ancient city of 37 million become so ugly?” Discounting my obvious symptoms of first-year Tokyo culture shock, the Kanda River near my apartment was indeed a bare concrete ditch, with steep canalized walls channeling a thin, seemingly lifeless beige stream far below street level, inaccessible to life around it. It reminded me of the oily canals in urban Shanghai where I had lived before Tokyo, less a place to rest the eyes than to hold the nose. At night, on long walks through the neighborhood, I often passed a rumbling construction site that seemingly never rested. I learned that it was a flood control project, but I had no idea of its vast scope, nor its connection to the river beneath my balcony.

A decade later, we had settled into a quiet neighborhood 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) west of our first birdcage apartment. We still lived near the Kanda River, though I didn’t think of it as the same river at all. This section of Kanda River flows out of Inokashira Pond, a tree-lined pool in a busy suburban park, whose foliage burns red in the autumn and blooms wildly pink in the spring, drizzling cherry blossoms on the tipsy revelers picnicking below. In the summer, couples paddle swan boats across the surface, defying the legend that all lovers who visit the park are destined to separate. The origin of this myth is the temple to the Goddess Benzaiten, a deity who protects both water and good fortune, but in this location is also said to be jealous of lovesick couples. The 1,200-year-old vermillion temple stands on an island in the pond and is a popular tourist attraction, even among these lovers tempting fate. A spring bubbles up at the head of the pond (though its water is now pumped to the surface), and a clear stream gurgles out of the pond through a stone gate at the pond’s opposite end. Beyond this gate the rivulet tumbles along an ancient stone bed for several hundred meters. On Sunday afternoons a decade ago, my daughter and her friends would scour under its rocks for the darting crayfish. When they (rarely) captured one, it would be brought home as a tragically short-lived pet. This is the head of the Kanda River, and the underground springs feeding the Inokashira Pond are still its source.

By the time my daughter had stopped playing along its edges, I had come to appreciate the forested stretch of the Kanda River flowing out of the park and toward the city through the leafy suburban neighborhoods of Suginami District. Despite being encased in steep concrete embankments once it exits the park, the Kanda River all along its course continues to host a varied ecosystem overflowing with wildlife, from fishing cormorants and families of ducks to bright-green Japanese rat snakes hunting ducklings in the current. The snakes are agile climbers, leading to shocking human–reptile run-ins on the jogging paths far above the streambed. Much of the wildlife, though not the snakes, are invasive species, including the crayfish brought in from the American South in the 1930s as food for imported American bullfrogs (Cheung 2010), and even the orange- and yellow-mottled koi released into the river by people who formerly kept them as pets. Put off by the industrial aesthetics of the riverway, I hadn’t noticed all this cosmopolitan liveliness earlier (see figure 1).

Figure 1:

Roughly two kilometers from its source, and on a day without heavy rains, the Kanda River is still a narrow stream. A school of koi explore the deepest part.

Photo by James Farrer © 2022

Figure 1:

Roughly two kilometers from its source, and on a day without heavy rains, the Kanda River is still a narrow stream. A school of koi explore the deepest part.

Photo by James Farrer © 2022

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This spring I was approached by NHK World, the international service of Japan’s public broadcaster, to host an episode about the Kanda River for a new urban history program called “Dive in Tokyo” (NHK World 2022). Until then, I knew little of the Kanda River’s central role in Tokyo’s westward growth, including its singular role as a supplier of drinking water. I am an ethnographer of urban foodways, focusing more on the drinks that come in bottles and glasses in a crowded Tokyo izakaya than on the clear cool water flowing from its spigots (Farrer 2021). But like every Tokyoite, I have learned that our water tastes pretty good, and we drink it every day, straight from the faucet.

We shot the thirty-minute episode in three days, followed a linear plot, tracing the Kanda River from its source in Inokashira Pond all the way to where it empties into the much larger Sumida River in central Tokyo. In making the program, we learned that for nearly three centuries the Kanda River was the primary source of drinking water for the city of Edo (the historic name for Tokyo). After 1590, when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated power and moved his capital to Edo, it was recognized that two obstacles to the city’s livelihood were a lack of potable drinking water and flooding. The city lay in low-lying brackish marshlands, in which wells delivered only salt water, and even the Shogun’s castle was in danger of flooding from the rivers flowing into Edo Bay. A partial solution to both problems was to construct a deep new channel for the Kanda River, redirecting its flow to the north of the castle, thereby reducing flooding in the new political center, and simultaneously creating a wide protective moat around it. The waterworks also sucked up the resources of powerful regional lords, potential rivals who were forced by the Shogun to supply money and labor to build them. The deep leafy moat remains one of the city’s most impressive sites, reminding us that Edo once was a matrix of emerald canals, more like Venice than the concrete maze it is today (Jinnai 1995; NHK World 2022).

In this waterway construction of the early 1600s, part of the flow of the river was directed into a narrow stone channel that began in what is now Edogawa Park. (The larger overflow of river water continued down the old channel into the moat.) This drinking water flowed steadily into a covered wooden aqueduct that crossed over the newly dug moat near what is now Suidōbashi (literally the “aqueduct bridge”) (see figure 2). The water then fed into a system of wooden conduits that ran under the streets of the growing city, eventually supplying fresh water to over one million inhabitants. Residents hoisted their water out of wooden cisterns in courtyards shared by multiple dwellings. According to Kaneko Satoshi, the curator of the Tokyo Waterworks Historical Museum, this largely wooden infrastructure comprised what was probably the largest municipal water system in the world in the early modern era. Residents of Edo were proud to point out that they had had their first bath in the waters from this municipal system. Landlords funded the system, and its use was included in the rent of the dwellings. Even more remarkable, before the Meiji Era (1868–1912) people could safely drink the water without boiling it, Kaneko said. Small freshwater fish often lived in the cisterns. During the high-growth Meiji Period, however, urbanization and increasing pollution upstream led to multiple outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases. The system was replaced by water piped from reservoirs further in the western hills of Tokyo, where our water currently comes from. A purification plant for this water was built in 1898. However, the wealthy Tokyo suburb of Musashino City that includes Inokashira Park still pumps its drinking water from the same aquifers that feed Inokashira Pond (NHK World 2022).

Figure 2:

An 1863 watercolor print by Utagawa Hiroshige showing the wooden Kanda River aqueduct as viewed from the Suidōbashi. It is crossing over the moat through which the Kanda River still flows toward the Sumida River.

Courtesy Tokyo Municipal Library Digital Archives

Figure 2:

An 1863 watercolor print by Utagawa Hiroshige showing the wooden Kanda River aqueduct as viewed from the Suidōbashi. It is crossing over the moat through which the Kanda River still flows toward the Sumida River.

Courtesy Tokyo Municipal Library Digital Archives

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A mere 24.6 kilometers (15.2 miles) in length, the Kanda River is the most urbanized river basin in Japan and perhaps in the world. Ninety-seven percent of its catchment is urban land, and as the city rapidly grew over the past 150 years, the heavy rains flowing off paved-over farmland posed increasing dangers to the low-lying downstream settlements. The canalization of the river—though it remains an eyesore—was a necessary response to increasingly disastrous floods. It was not, however, sufficient. A second response was the building of a vast underground reservoir system to store water during typhoons and other storms. In filming this NHK World program on a scorching summer day, we were invited to descend by elevator deep into the underground facility, which was still being built near my first apartment in the 1990s. At 53 meters (60 yards) beneath city streets, the temperature was a chilly 14 degrees Celsius (57 F). According to Mukoyama Kimihito, one of the engineers managing the facility, the underground diversion tunnel, which runs nearly 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), can hold 540 million liters (142 million gallons) (see figure 3). The last time it was filled up completely was in a 2013 typhoon, but it has been used numerous times since then to stave off flooding downstream. However, as the Mukoyama explained to us, the canalized riverways themselves are much more significant in flood control (NHK World 2022).

Figure 3:

The flood-control tunnel stretches six kilometers (3.7 miles), also connecting to two small tributaries of the Kanda River. The photo is backlit by an employee holding a powerful flashlight standing 200 meters (218 yards) into the tunnel.

Photo by James Farrer © 2022

Figure 3:

The flood-control tunnel stretches six kilometers (3.7 miles), also connecting to two small tributaries of the Kanda River. The photo is backlit by an employee holding a powerful flashlight standing 200 meters (218 yards) into the tunnel.

Photo by James Farrer © 2022

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The rivers of Edo thus were not only a source of drinking water but avenues of transportation, commerce, and entertainment. Little regular transport occurs on the narrow channel of the Kanda River today, but the television crew was still able to hire a private boat to take us up the Kanda to the point where the moat is blocked by the train station at Iidabashi. We entered the Kanda from where it flows into the Sumida, motoring through the silent green urban canyons carved out by hand tools centuries before. At the juncture of the Sumida we found party barges moored along the embankments, waiting for groups of revelers who dine and sing karaoke while motoring down the wide Sumida, with shorter incursions into the Kanda River itself—just a small taste of Edo’s water-based “floating world”.

We often see our lives in a river, from bubbling adolescence to vigorous adulthood, slowing merging into saline senescence. Popular songs have been written about the Kanda too, including the number-one hit “Kanda River” by the folk group Kaguyahime (1973). In the folky ballad, a young man fondly recalls the girlfriend he lived with in a tiny, one-room apartment alongside the Kanda River during their student years at Waseda University. Remembering my own younger years in a tiny apartment just a bit upstream from the Waseda campus, it is easy to relate to the romantic nostalgia in the lyrics, but I still wonder if they noticed the smells, or saw the wildlife among the sad flotsam.

I am sure they mainly saw themselves.

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