Treasure Hunting in the Waters Beneath Shibuya

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.

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This is what Yoyogi, in present-day Shibuya ward, looked like during the Taisho era (1912-1926). Photo credit: Yukio Kamiyama Collection. Courtesy of Shibuya-gawa Renaissance.

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.

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A view of Shibuya, from the location of the present-day Tokyu Department Store, circa 1951. Photo: Shibuya Library Resources. Courtesy of Shibuya-gawa Renaissance.

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.

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The Shibuya-gawa can still be seen south of Shibuya Station. Don’t worry: it’s clean here, after existing an underground water treatment facility. Photo: Rei Shirao. Shirao is a photographer who documents Tokyo’s waterways.

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Photos: Rei Shirao

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 and thought to yourself: “Wait a minute. What was here before?”

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A river in Tomigaya, now part of Shibuya ward, goes underground in 1958. Photo courtesy of Shibuya-gawa Renaissance.

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Cat Street today. The road traces the path of the Ongen-gawa, part of the longer Shibuya-gawa. Photo courtesy of Shibuya-gawa Renaissance.

“Things changed very fast in Japan, especially in Shibuya. During the post-war redevelopment, things had to change fast. Suddenly there was so much concrete. And I think it is time to readjust how we perceive that concrete,” says Gen Ide, director of the Boat People Association.

The Boat People Association is a collective of professionals from fields such as art, architecture, and urban planning. They’ve mapped out Tokyo’s rivers and canals (visible and invisible) and organize events that draw attention to these overlooked waterways. I learned all of the above about the history of the Shibuya-gawa during the opening night reception for their latest project, ‘Shibuya Underground Streams’, organized in collaboration with Spatial Dialogues.

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Many Tokyo roads were once rivers. If you see grates like this, chances are there is a river running underneath. Photo: Rei Shirao.

Spatial Dialogues is a project based at RMIT University in Melbourne that is examining the role of water in three urban spaces — Melbourne, Shanghai, and Tokyo — and creating public art events to encourage contemplation and dialogue concerning our relationship to the water around us. ‘Shibuya Underground Streams’ is the Tokyo leg of the project, a month-long study and celebration of the waterways that snake beneath the streets of Shibuya through art, activities, storytelling, and symposiums.

Yet Tokyo has some well-known rivers, like the Sumida-gawa in eastern Tokyo, a wide stretch of water plied by tourist boats and crisscrossed by bridges. Why not focus on one of these rivers that remain part of the identity of contemporary Tokyo?

“Gen [Ide] drove us around and showed us different rivers. We liked these hidden rivers because they make you think about Tokyo in a different way — all the different layers of transport and mobility. Place is not just geography. It’s also history,” explains Larissa Hjorth, an artist and professor at RMIT University working with Spatial Dialogues.

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We agree: Tokyo’s underground rivers are fascinating! This is what they look like underground. Photo: Rei Shirao.

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Photo: Rei Shirao

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Photo: Rei Shirao

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Photo: Rei Shirao

The project headquarters, a shipping container at Jingu-dori Park, will function as an open studio for Spatial Dialogues’ artists. (A sandbag installation by Melbourne-based British sculptor Simon Perry promises to be a highlight). Already a treasure hunt has taken place. Over three days, participants hunted for small artworks strewn around the park with their camera phones. The goal: To capture images of only Tokyo-native sea creatures, and post them to the project Twitter account.

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Here are some of the discoveries. Photo apps like Instagram add another element to the art works. Which ones do you think are real Tokyo sea creatures?

There will also be river walks (and night-time jogs!), hosted by Shibuya-gawa Renaissance and Shibuya Rivers — two organizations seeking appreciation for the long-lost river. (As it turns out, this river that no one has heard of has some serious fans!) And for those who really want to get intimate with the river, the Boat People Association is leading a boating exhibition up the (above ground) Furukawa-gawa (the name for the Shibuya-gawa once it hits Minato ward).

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‘Shibuya Underground Streams’ runs June 2nd-23rd. For a complete list of events see:

http://spatialdialogues.net/tokyo/live-in-tokyo

Boat People Association:

http://boatpeopleassociation.org

Thank you to Gen Ide and Tadashi Iwamoto of the Boat People Association, Kenzo Ishi from Shibuya-gawa Renaissance, and Rei Shirao.