On the 25th January, after eating breakfast, Kiku and his friend Miko-chan consulted the seasonal almanac, and were a little surprised to read that the next five day marker was known as ‘marsh waters frozen solid’.

“Are there marshes in Tokyo?” Miko-chan asked Boss Panda. The old bear smiled and said “Even before Tokyo was the capital city of Edo long ago, it was comprised of many marshes, both tidal salt marshes and freshwater swamps, as well as lots of other sources of water.” Kiku thought about this for a moment and wondered aloud “where did all that water go?”

Boss Panda suggested that they go out for the day so that he could show them some of the hidden signs of Tokyo’s water. “We will take a trip out to Tokyo SkyTree, where we get a good view of the city and I’ll explain…”

From the Bamboo Bathhouse they walked to Sangen-jaya station and took the Den-en-Toshi line into Shibuya, from where they crossed central Tokyo on the Hanzomon Metro Line to Oshiage for Tokyo Skytree.

When they had reached the observation deck of SkyTree and were looking out over the city, Boss Panda began to explain that Tokyo was essentially originally made up of high ground to the West (known as yamanote), with rivers and streams flowing through valleys within it to the lowlands of the East (known as shitamachi), where there were once many marshes and pools. In today’s heavily built up landscape, you might find yourself suddenly going down into a dip, where depressions had been made in the volcanic ash topsoil, or up a steep hill and suddenly come across a surprising view. “If you come across a garden with a large pond, then that was likely built as part of a feudal lord’s villa during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), but you might also come across a concrete covered play park, which might indicate that there was once a marsh or swamp-like pool there that has been filled in.

Kiku looked out over the ever-changing city and asked “but what about the rivers and water channels themselves – surely they still need to flow?” Boss Panda explained that many rivers had been diverted underground as the city grew, but that if you walked some streets (such as the main streets of Shibuya) you would notice how they meandered. This was a sign that the road was once a watercourse. “In fact”, he said, “in Shibuya until recently, the river was still visible in some places but in a very poor state, in fact looking more like a dirty drainage channel than anything else, and not really accessible due to elevated train tracks but in the last few years parts of it have been smartened up, the transport lines moved underground, and a newly built footpath allowing people to stroll its edges and walk to Daikanyama…”

As they were leaving SkyTree to take the train home, Kiku noticed with amusement that you might still be able to take advantage of ‘waters frozen solid’ in the city. Pointing at the seasonal ice rink in the plaza he said, “ you might not be able to skate on a frozen marsh in Tokyo anymore, but this is a good alternative!”

Further Information

Article about ‘rediscovering lost Tokyo’ from The Japan Times here

As part of Shibuya’s redevelopment and organisation, a new commercial complex known as ‘Shibuya Stream’ opened in September 2018, along with the new pathway following the former Toyoko train line route. Parts of the rail track can still be seen embedded in the paving, and turned into street furniture, and even part of a former platform has been left along the route. There are places to stop for refreshment along the route such as a fresh lemonade speciality store.


  • Julie Pierce says:

    Thank you Joanna!
    Love those ‘ah ha’ moments: Yamanote and Shitamachi! I so enjoy learning how the history (especially social history) of an old city weaves itself into the modern landscape.
    Within a few minutes bike ride from our little place in Osaka are 3 different river ferries which we periodically use. Nothing even vaguely romantic – both sides of the Kizu River there are heavily industrial, and the river itself pretty filthy, but I love the crossing for the fact that, obviously, people have been using these ferries in more or less these exact spots for hundreds of years. What did the river and banks look like then, I wonder, and why and where specifically were the people going?
    PS. I also love that only pedestrians and bicycles are allowed, the boats cross every 15 minutes, AND it’s absolutely free!

    • nakamura says:

      Hi Julie – me too! I once went on an architectural walk in London and found out so many fascinating things, that you would never notice without being told! I think it is so important for a city, even if constantly changing, to retain some of these visual clues. I love taking a closer look at the old woodblock prints for keys to what the city once looked like – and it is so amazing when people have been doing the same thing in the same place for so long! That’s amazing about the ferries, and that they are free too!!

  • Jennifer says:

    Im so happy to be back in this world of wonder–such a lovely mix of history, natural history, architecture and friendship. The seasonal markers are so poetic–I’ve become a fan of marshes in recent years and “marsh waters frozen solid” is so evocative. As always, your pictures put me over the moon–I continue to hope that one day your stories will be in a “real” book that I can share with my granddaughter.

    • nakamura says:

      Thank you so much Jennifer – as I live near a large area of marshland I also have a fondness – I think they are often overlooked but are a rich source of nature and inspiration. Thank you for reading!