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Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

BACKSTREET STORIES

Cruising the Sumida for sights


However hidden behind built-up banks it may be, the Sumida River is not exactly a "back street." But as it's said that one of the best places from which to view cherry blossoms in Tokyo is from a water bus plying the river, I resolved on a reconnaissance better referred to as a "back stream" story.

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By the bay: Dusk over Tokyo viewed from the Fuji TV observatory at Odaiba. Above: Captain Tsuyoshi and his antifling ring. KIT NAGAMURA

The ticket office of the Suijo (literally, and reassuringly, "above water") Bus is perched on the eastern side of Azuma Bridge, two minutes from the Ginza Line's terminal at Asakusa Station. In the carny atmosphere of caramel popcorn, hot concessions and various water-bus trinkets for sale, I ticket up for the next boat out.

There are 11 buses on rotation (12, if you count the nine-seater rescue boat), offering several route options. I've just missed the sleek, futuristic Himiko — designed by manga artist Leiji Matsumoto — which slinks out with a flock of yellow-capped elementary school students aboard. As the Himiko only offers direct Asakusa-Odaiba runs, and I want to get off at Hama-rikyu Gardens and Hinode Pier, I'm happy to wave them on their way.

My boat, Our Town, is a bland tug by comparison and won't ship out for 30 minutes, but I'm happy to play wharf rat.

To pass time, I chat up 25-year-old Suijo Bus employee Keisuke Yoshida. "We've been servicing Tokyoites since 1885," he tells me. "Back then, we used little wooden boats."

Woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603-1867), and hand-tinted albumen prints from the late 1800s, depict such wooden craft nudging the Sumida River's banks, then gently sloping and overhung with cherry trees.

Though Edoites were great bridge- builders — hundreds spanned the city's network of canals and waterways — people often elected to cross the Sumida by watashi-bune (small ferryboat) or cruise around in little pole-powered taxis called choki-bune. Those with a lust for leisure, or the other way around, boarded yakata-bune, or roofed pleasure boats — the sort that still light up the river's night scene these days. In fact, crossing the street on the same side of Azuma Bridge, I spot a yakata-bune launch site, inactive at noon on this cold winter's day.

So, I ask Yoshida, can I relive a scene from the past on my water bus today?

"Not exactly," he admits, rolling his eyes, but quickly adds that during the cherry-blossom season the bus makes a free jaunt northward, up to Sakurabashi, to view the flowered trees.

"Our boats get crowded then, but if you have a group of 15 people or more, you can reserve seats."

As Our Town revs its engines, Yoshida confides that the boat's captain is only 22 years old, the youngest commander in their fleet. I leap down the gangplank and find a seat in the rear; scenery first, captain later. Brisk February winds launch sea gulls and diesel fumes skyward as we shove off.

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Golden arches: The substructure of Kuramae Bridge over the Sumida River (above) Below: The airstream diner at Himode Pier. KIT NAGAMURA
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But a bus is a bus. There's no getting around the fact that I'm on a lumbering city conveyance. Being on the water is nonetheless refreshing, cradling in motion and visually novel. The underworks of Sumida's bridges reveal varied constructions and primary paint jobs: red for Azuma-bashi's arches; Kiyosu-bashi's romantic suspension construction in bright blue; pulsing cadmium yellow for Kuramae-bashi; and orange details to perk up Shin-ohashi's cable-stayed minimalism.

The river, meanwhile, is awash with fishing boats, tugs and even Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology's 46-meter research ship, Shioji Maru.

Concrete buildings today seem to wall in the river; it used to flood every few years, fertilizing the flatlands and making them agricultural gold mines. Back when Tokyo was Edo, boatloads of the resulting farm produce joined skiffs laden with fishermen's catch, fresh water from inland, construction lumber and even waste from the growing city to crowd this riverine artery.

The scene today has lost some of that vibrancy, but the city has, here and there, constructed walkways from which vantage-lovers, dog-walkers and even the homeless wave as the water bus passes. It's a feel-good trip.

I head to the bow of the boat, where the captain entrusts the helm to an elder mate and graciously leaves the wheel room to chat with me on the main deck. Captain Tsuyoshi Ishizawa is unquestionably youthful, but if he's 22, I'm Robinson Crusoe. Turns out Ishizawa, who is actually 34 and has worked aboard the water bus since he was 19, switched shifts with the younger captain.

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"I trained myself to be a captain, studying for the exam on my own and apprenticing for three years," he says. "It's a big responsibility. On board some boats, I've got 550 people depending on me to keep them safe."

Though protected from all but the fiercest typhoons, the Sumida River still presents navigational challenges. Ishizawa cites marine traffic, shallows and exceptionally low bridges, some with a mere 20 cm clearance.

"If you have a full boat, it's not such a big problem, because you're lower in the water," says Ishizawa. "But things handle differently."

Probing a bit further, I ask him if he's had any adventures while underway.

"Well," he answers, "there was a time when I got nampa-ed." My response is on gimbals, because nampa can be translated as either "a shipwreck" or "having the heavy moves put on you." If you're a ship's captain, perhaps both might occur simultaneously. Finally Ishikawa explains that several years ago, a besotted woman propositioned him while on duty.

"But," he says, displaying a digit sporting a hefty wedding band, "I said no."

In his next breath, Ishizawa recommends that I catch the cherry-blossom season aboard the bus, explaining that night voyages often feature beautiful furisode (Asakusa- based dancer-entertainers wearing long-sleeved kimono favored by unmarried women).

"They perform and pour sake for guests, and they're really beautiful," says Ishizawa dreamily.

I ask him if he would say no to one of them, too, and he laughs again — ever on the lookout for shoals — and answers: "Maybe."

Below decks, Our Town sells plastic toy miniature boats, candies depicting Asakusa's famous red temple lantern or the Himiko boat — and even beer that's exclusive to the water bus, Sumidagawa Brewery's Weizen, a slightly acidic draft with fruity notes.

All too soon, Our Town blows its horn as we chug through the water gates to dock at Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien (Hama Detached Palace Garden). I disembark, and stroll the former residence-cum- duck-hunting grounds of Tokugawa shoguns. When the cherry trees bloom, the gardens will be packed with photographers, but this month, you can enjoy a small orchard of plum blossoms in near solitude.

Strolling to Nakajima-no-ochaya, a renovated 1707 teahouse on an island in the garden's brackish pond, I order the green tea and sweet set. Behind me, a painting commemorates a meeting here between U.S. Gen. Ulysses Grant and Emperor Meiji in 1879. Though the former U.S. president was three decades older than the emperor, the illustration makes the men appear to be the same age. Perhaps it's the result of diplomatic kindness, but I'm hoping it's the tea.

I catch the next water bus for a 5-minute ride to Hinode Pier. There, my boat is overshadowed by the Symphony Tokyo Bay Cruise ship, which offers luxurious lunch, sunset, and dinner packages (20 percent off through March for online bookings). I go check out the funky dockside diner selling "ice brioche" and "cheese steak burger," then purchase my bargain ticket to the man-made joys of Odaiba Seaside Park.

The air turns cold, but I huddle on the boat's roof to watch passenger liners pull into the pier at Harumi. We pass under the Rainbow Bridge, then land at Odaiba, square in front of my destination, Fuji TV's awesome suspended ball. There's a fee to ascend to the spherical observatory, but watching the dusk and lights of Tokyo battle for beauty from this height? Priceless.

For information on this and other Sumida River cruises, visit www.suijobus.co.jp/english/ index.html and www.symphony-cruise.co.jp/ event/09early-spring.html


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