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The Hidden Rivers Under Tokyo

Of the near-endless flow of people over the busy Shibuya scramble crossing every day, few realise that beneath their feet is something else flowing, unseen and unnoticed: the crossing of two ancient rivers, the Uda and the Onden.Beneath all the concrete and neon, Tokyo is a city built on water. It is the reason the Japanese capital’s 37 million citizens are here at all. From fishing village to seat of political power, canny water management was a key driver of the city’s extraordinary growth.Q&AWhat is Guardian Tokyo week?Show HideAs Japan's capital enters a year in the spotlight, from the Rugby World up to the 2020 Olympics, Guardian Cities is spending a week reporting live from the largest megacity on Earth. Despite being the world's riskiest place – with 37 million people vulnerable to tsunami, flooding and due a potentially catastrophic earthquake – it is also one of the most resilient, both in its hi-tech design and its pragmatic social structure. Using manga, photography, film and a group of salarimen rappers, we'll hear from the locals how they feel about their famously impenetrable city finally embracing its global crownThank you for your feedback. You’d never know it today. As cities from Seoul to Chicago to Sheffield revitalise their waterfront areas with huge economic and environmental benefits, Tokyo has turned its back on water. Its rivers have been allowed to stagnate. Streams have been filled in, highways built directly over rivers. Waterways used to be a key method of transport and cultural life. Now the rivers and canals are dirty, desolate and nearly deserted.Fly over Tokyo and you will almost certainly spot at least one of the four megarivers that converge on the city: the Arakawa, Sumidagawa, Edogawa and Tamagawa. These broad, shimmering belts are just the main ones: more than 100 natural rivers and manmade canals flow underneath a city now more famous for glass, steel and concrete.In fact, it was water management that made Edo, as Tokyo was known, larger than London by 1700. Warehouses lined Tokyo Bay, goods travelled up the rivers and canals just as they now do on roads, while theatres, teahouses and, inevitably, the red light district took advantage of the bustling waterways.An ukiyo-e painting from c 1830 showing boats on a canal. The perspective is from Nihonbashi bridge. Illustration: Buyenlarge/Getty Images The era’s famous ukiyo-e or “floating world” woodblock prints reflect the centrality of water to the life of the city. European visitors compared it with their own continent’s great water city: “In all things Edo presents peaceful harmony,” wrote Aime Humbert, a Swiss envoy, of the city between 1863 and 1864. “Where does one find its like in Europe? Only along the banks and in the squares of the Queen of the Adriatic, Venice herself.”> As Tokyo has modernised, the role of water has disappeared> > Hidenobu JinnaiToday, comparisons with Venice are thin on the ground, but you can still find evidence of water running vein-like under the city’s concrete skin, if you know where and how to look. Flat roads lined with lush greenery, for example, often indicate a buried stream. Temples and graveyards suggest a suribachi : a natural hollow in one of the city’s hills, where a spring and pond used to be.“As Tokyo has modernised, the role of water has disappeared,” says Prof Hidenobu Jinnai of Hosei University. “But the past memory and images still exist in today’s Tokyo and are an important factor in understanding the identity of Tokyo.”'This is not a "what if" story': Tokyo braces for the earthquake of a centuryThe Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 was the first rupture with the city’s water-based development. The extensive rebuilding saw planners embrace more western styles of building. Further reconstruction after the second world war – when Tokyo was burned to the ground – and then the run-up to the 1964 Olympic Games decisively turned the face of the city away from water, and not for the better, says Jinnai.“The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 decisively caused the loss of [Tokyo as a] ‘water city’,” he says. “Tokyo’s water quality got worse because of the pollution. Highways covered many waterways, Tokyo Bay, industrialisation, traffic, transport … these are the reasons that people became distanced from the water.”A recent boat trip along the Sumida river with Akira Abe of the Machifune Mirai Juku waterway activists revealed miles of faceless industrial development and grey residential towers. Strict regulations on building within the river’s flood zone were relaxed in 2004, and again in 2011, but few developers have seized the opportunity.As you travel up quieter canals and tributaries, there is a sense of gloom and neglect – but also of possibility. Abe points out the overhanging cherry trees: sakura season is beautiful on the Edo-era canals, he says.Over two and a half hours on the boat, very little water traffic passes; ...Read more

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