Hikifune (曳舟), a mostly residential area in the upper half of Sumida Ward, was my easternmost stop in this volume of The Tokyo Project. In my research after visiting, I would learn that its location within the ward had significant implications for the nature of the neighborhood. While the lower half was rebuilt in a modern grid layout following WWII carpet bombing, the upper part retained much of its maze-like pattern of narrow alleys. It was the alley culture captured in several images by Tokyo photographer Lee Chapman that led me to the general area. While I don’t think I ended up walking the same areas he frequents, I found plenty of interesting points both in the walk and some unexpected historical background in subsequent reading.
The name Hikifune means pulled boats and refers to a canal and towpath that began as drinking water infrastructure built by the Tokugawa shogunate. By 1772 it had been repurposed for the distribution of goods between the Sumida River and Naka River. Almost all of the Hikifune River was filled in and paved for vehicle traffic as part of the modernization drive in preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympics. The Lake Biwa Canal and Takase River in Kyoto are said to be the only complete surviving towpaths remaining in Japan. Though the name Hikifune does not exist as an official postal address, it survives as Hikifunegawa-dōri (which runs over a portion of the original canal), in the names of Tobu Railway Hikifune Station and Keisei Electric Railway Keisei-Hikifune Station, and for residents of the area, the neighborhood has always just been Hikifune.
The most interesting item I came across was this article by Schun Hagiwara in the journal Public Places in Asia Pacific Cities, The Alley as a Spiritual Axis for the Community: The Hikifune Project, Tokyo, published in 2001. In the piece, Hagiwara describes how Hikifune had survived both the bombings and destructive speculative land buying during the economic bubble years, but still faced the problem of what to do about old neighborhoods with substandard housing stock that was susceptible to heavy earthquake and fire damage. Hagiwara was part of a multi-stakeholder redevelopment research project initiated by a residents association, which sought out paths that would allow for improvement of living conditions while preserving neighborhood character, with particular emphasis on alleys. The scope included what they called Hikifune ekimae (station front)—the area between the two train stations, demarcated by the Tobu and Keisei rail lines, Hikifunegawa-dōri, and Takara-dōri—which ended up comprising the majority of my photowalk. A high priority was preservation of the main alley running through the middle of the zone, which was the primary scene of social interaction in the community. It was a very creative approach to urban redevelopment, but unfortunately seems to have never moved beyond the concept phase. When I visited in 2013 October, ekimae had become just two megablock developments with soaring residential towers and a multi-level shopping complex. I’ll point out all of the pieces as we go.
From the Tobu Hikifune Station I headed northwest, working my way around the area in a roundabout clockwise circle.
Bicycle parking next to the station
Here, I’ve already reached Takara-dōri.
Some of the restaurants don’t appear to open in the afternoon, but all of the grocers and dry goods shops have customers.
This part of the neighborhood seems to have been left untouched, for the moment.
I took the street northwest and first went beyond and over the ekimae area delimited in the redevelopment concept.
Cheerful mural includes imagery of the train tracks and fumikiri signal.
Though these buildings are not too old, narrow alleys like this are found in most of the photography of the area from earlier parts of the 20th century.
Emerging onto and headed south along Hikifunegawa-dōri
Looking up Takara-dōri from the two roads’ intersection
The triangular area formed by the two roads and Tobu tracks is a little world unto itself. Not all of it is in very great shape.
This alley that snakes through the buildings is lined by very low-key izakaya and cheap eats, leading back to the train station.
Planters setup in the street outside shops and homes is the dominant style of tactical urbanism.
Back out to the main road, entering the center of ekimae
Ito Yokado is a large supermarket and general merchandise chain. The scale of the shopping complex and its massive attached parking deck completely dwarfs the remaining parts of the old neighborhood.
Across the street is a small plaza with a few chain stores and restaurants, with the towering East Core Hikifune, built and managed by the Urban Renaissance Agency. This is public housing, but unlike in countries such as the United States, this does not automatically denote low-income housing. The rents in this tower are market-based and can get surprisingly high, especially for units with a view of Tokyo Skytree.
This gently curving road between the two very large blocks is all that remains of the main alley that the community led redevelopment concept had been so insistent on keeping.
The Keisei Oshiage Line will eventually run on this elevated viaduct, eliminating the need for the fumikiri where the tracks cross streets at grade.
This little portal takes you to the east side of the Keisei tracks, out of the ekimae zone. If you zoom in the Google Map above, on the east side of the tracks 6-ban and 8-ban within Kyōjima 1-chōme have been completely leveled as part of the current redevelopment plan. This is where the main alley would have continued through and connected this neighborhood back to the station.
My camera is level. That’s just some Shōwa era building stock that looks like it’ll fall over the next time there’s a sizable tremor.
The Tobu Kameido Line swings southeast after it leaves Hikifune Station.
Though I’m following along the arterial road parallel to the Oshiage Line, each of the narrow alleys lead back into quiet, homey looking neighborhoods.
Crossing back over the Tobu tracks just north of Oshiage Station and Tokyo Skytree
Cozy neighborhoods continue through Oshiage 2-chōme.
Tobikiinari Jinja (飛木稲荷神社)
I’ve followed the Tobu tracks back up along the west side of Hikifune Station. To be honest, I much prefer this side of the station to what became of ekimae. Like several of the older neighborhoods I walked on the other side of the tracks, it’s not conventionally attractive, but it’s real.
I didn’t come away with very strong feelings about Hikifune at the time of the walk. I had just wanted to go for a look around, and by that measure had completed my objective, even if I hadn’t come away with anything particularly notable. It was after digging a little into the history of the neighborhood and learning of the community led proposals for sensitive redevelopment that I felt a bit sad, even a little angry, about what had become of the space at the center. Here was a case where a highly engaged, self-starting citizen group put out some rather creative thinking that included input from relevant government departments, historians, architects, urban designers and other subject matter experts, yet this was what they got. Acknowledging that I’m missing a huge piece of the picture with what happened between 2001 and the eventual construction, I can’t shake the feeling that Hikifune deserved better. On the bright side, now I have some new questions I can look forward to getting answered, next time around.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.