I once met an elderly Japanese man in a bar who told me that he had grown up in Shibuya. There were rice paddies there, he said. “I used to try to catch fish in the river.” Hang on — what river? Shibuya today is synonymous with larger than life video screens, lurid fashions, boozy nights and love hotels. It’s a confluence of youthful hedonism and crass consumption. There isn’t river in sight. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone wandering the streets of Shibuya who even knows that one existed. (A quick polling of Japanese friends suggests this is generally true). Yet it does exist: the Shibuya-gawa.The Shibuya-gawa runs from Shinjuku-gyoen all the way to Tokyo Bay, though its name changes a few times along the way. You can see it in Ebisu, a small trickle hemmed in by concrete walls, running alongside Meiji-dori. However, the section that runs from Shinjuku to Shibuya is now entirely underground. Ever walk down Cat Street, the curiously meandering boutique-lined lane that connects Shibuya and Harajuku? The river (here called the Onden-gawa) is underneath. Another river, the Uda-gawa, is now Center-gai, Shibuya’s main drag. The Uda-gawa and Shibuya-gawa converge right around where Shibuya’s famous crossing — where thousands are said to cross with every light change — now stands. It is crazy to think: this icon of modern Tokyo, where there is now a parade of platform shoes, was once water. To understand the fate of Shibuya’s rivers is to understand the trajectory of twentieth century Tokyo. At the turn of the last century, Shibuya was a village in Tokyo prefecture known for its tea fields and water wheels (powered by the rivers, naturally). It had recently gained status as the southwestern terminus of the city’s new streetcar network. When the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake left more than half the city homeless (mostly due to the fires that leveled the densely packed eastern neighborhoods — then “downtown”), tens of thousands of people moved westward, many ending up in Shibuya. For centuries, farmers had purchased and carted away the contents of Tokyo chamber pots, but the reorganization of people and the reduction of agricultural land caused the system to break down. The Shibuya-gawa (and others) became a convenient alternative. Naturally, the rivers got pretty stinky; typhoid levels rose. Most likely, the man I met in the bar should not have been fishing in these waters. The decision to cover the rivers in concrete was part of the citywide clean up effort leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Shibuya-gawa has been under concrete for about half a century now, which means in two generations its existence has been almost entirely forgotten. That’s hard to believe — but then again, how many times have you walked by a new construction in Tokyo
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