Invisible Tokyo: A Local Foreigner’s Photo Diary

In a few weeks, I’ll have made Tokyo a home for a year. There were a few, predictably nomadic, gaps that included Hong Kong, Canada, and a long-overdue revisit to India. Fifty odd weeks after moving in, I’m preparing to move again. In September, I’ll move to another place around the neighbourhood for an interim month, then across Tokyo to another friend’s place.

The district of Koto-ku didn’t take long to charm me. I have a soft spot for understated places, community efforts, and cottage-industry ingenuity. Before I go, I want to try to capture those little things that make this forgotten corner of Tokyo so special.

Koto-Ku Canals Skytree tokyo
The canals of Koto-ku lined with its recreational paths.

Firstly, Koto-ku is translated as Koto Ward, which is effectively its own city within Tokyo. The area sits at the junction of the Arakawa and Sumida Rivers and much of it used to be marshland. Known in the Edo Period as the Shitamachi, the Low City, the area was comprised of fishing villages. The waterways that were once the highways between these communities still have a modern imprint on Tokyo and they have been transformed into lovely tree-lined recreational routes.

Arakawa River Tokyo
Afternoon napping to this gentleman’s live jazz along the Arakawa.

I live 5-minutes bike ride from the mighty Arakawa and the lengthy recreation grounds that travel 20+ kilometres upstream. At 6am or 6pm, I am joined by other cyclists, runners, students commuting to school, and parents playing with their kids. Emptying into Tokyo Bay, the winds here are strong and moist, sweeping across the high grasses at the river banks. Flower gardens, parks, tennis courts, baseball fields and football fields line the riverside in turn.

Waterpark along the many canals. This one is called 横十間川親水公園

My sister tells her friends she lives in a district with dogs and kids. One cannot avoid the laughter and enthusiastic chatter of young kids in this area. It’s a blessing.

Shio Ramen こうかいぼう
Shio Chashu Ramen at Koukaibo (Monzen-nakacho)

One hasn’t quite settled in until one has a mental map of the best eateries in the area. Armed with my bike, I can venture over to neighbouring Fukagawa to enjoy Koukaibo’s chashu ramen during lunch.

Ramen Toukanya Tokyo
Neighbourhood Ramen Toukanya

Home is defined by the places you can saunter down the block to. There’s nothing like treating yourself to the warmth of a local haunt after a long day’s work. Thank heavens mine close by is a ramen shop. Toukanya serves solid shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) ramen with jazz floating through the half-filled seats that regularly get refilled.

Tomioka Hachimangu Tokyo Sumo Shinto Shrine
Birthplace of professional sumo, the Tomioka Hachimangu

The area may have once been marshland between central Tokyo and Tokyo DisneySea. But, Fukagawa was once the largest grain market from Edo times right until World War II. The Tomioka Hachimangu is the birthplace of professional sumo and hosted 80+ tournaments. It is still a lively place for flea markets on weekends, an active part of community life. Every few years, the shrine’s Water Festival becomes a full-on street water fight and the mikoshi (portable shrine) is paraded through the streets. This mikoshi also happens to be Kanto’s largest, and visitors can see its intricate gold-leaf work near the shrine entrance.

Right beside it, the Fukagawa Fudoson has a regular stream of local visitors, especially since the Buddhist temple hosts free Goma fire rituals. Few temples are so open to the public, and even fewer play the same active roles they once did a century ago as community centres with conversing mothers and frolicking children.

What’s more – Matsuo Basho spent some of his life here! I didn’t know it was possible to be such a fan of my own area.

Goma Daifuku Sessame Daifuku
Goma (sesame) daifuku from Futaba

Speaking of goma, one of my favourite daifuku places is at a place called Futaba just north of the temple. A limited number is made daily in the dim family-run shop run by a friendly oji-san (uncle), who likes to pop his head out and people watch when it’s quiet.

Koto Ku Tokyo Kats
Cat waiting for the daily meal

Since I started commuting to work, I always look out the two street cats waiting to be fed in the evening. It seems like everyone in the neighbourhood has taken to adopting something. My neighbour has taken to liberally pruning our bushes and patrolling the block. The moms rotate watching the kids on the playground. Someone planted mint in stealth in one of the flower beds covered in weeds. I’ve adopted onions, soy bean sprouts and basil from my supermarket from the sale pile; they’re now happily in flower beds on my deck.

Koto Ku Tokyo Flowers
Flours in golden hour.

The concrete grid looks pretty bland and characterless from one block to the next. It doesn’t take much effort to notice the pots and plants balancing precariously above the sidewalks. Suddenly, one notices all the jungle pockets: hanging from the walls in pots, lining the parking lots in rows, on step-displays at an entrance, or circling a corner. The greens come in all shapes and sizes and many have flowers. There are these mini magenta ones in bunches, hydrangeas, and cacti that bloom only in the morning.

Koto Ku Tokyo Eggplant
The eggplants and cherry tomato plants outside a nursery.

There’s a nursery around the corner and in front, there are eggplants and cherry tomatoes that have been left unclaimed (I guess someone was more interested in growing than eating them).

Unakuri 5 Unagi Stall
Sunamachi Ginza’s very own unagi stall.

Unagi used to be street food because the rivers of Edo, old Tokyo, were teaming with freshwater eel. Now, unagi is often served in lacquered boxes. Old-school street-stalls have had to close up shop because of increasingly expensive eel prices since they are over-fished. Unakuri 5 is an ordinary little shop that’s been opened for only a decade, quietly selling out every afternoon before it officially closes at 6pm.

Restaurant Kitchens
Kitchens with back doors left open and nothing to hide.

Even though this residential area doesn’t have many restaurants compared to commercial districts, quiet eateries are still litered everywhere. Best of all, people here leave lots of places open and aren’t afraid to let you see what they have.

Toushomen Noodles Kitasunamachi Tokyo
Toshomen, Chinese knife-cut noodles.

Koto-ku is also an area of immigrants, I quickly learned. Ojima has a great Indian grocery store and neighbouring Kasai also has a large community. On the weekends, an Indian food truck pedals shwarma outside my park and I had a lovely chat with a Tamil man. Chinese joints also dot the area. A second-floor restaurant is at our main intersection, and down the street is another toshomen restaurant. Toshomen is the Japanese reading of the Chinese 刀削麺, which means noodles that have been cut directly into a boiling cauldron of water.

Koto Ku Tokyo Taxi Garage
Neighbourhood taxi garage

When I walk to the park around 7am, the taxi garage is filled with drivers checking in and waiting for their first dispatch. There’s something about seeing those drivers in their neatly tucked white shirts every day having their morning banters that’s put a warm face to the orange cars I see in further-flung places in the city.

Koto Ku Tokyo Bikes Field
The bikes that fill this parking area and empty every day.

Every day, this public bike parking is filled in the morning with commuters hopping into the metro after locking up. Every night, this area in front of the field is emptied out after all the parents have gone home.

Koto Ku Tokyo Bike Field
The quiet evening after a lively weekend of tournaments.

All year round, this field is filled with the shouts of young baseball athletes. Sometimes you hear a little voice leading the chants, bellowing as deep as his little 4-feet person can. In the summers, the cheers of enthusiastic parents can be heard on the other side of the park, drowning that hollow ring of a home-run hit.

Koto Ku Tokyo Park Kids
King of the Hill!

This park is the socialising ground. Junior high school jocks hang out with their bikes here. Students gossip on the swing. Toddlers scale this mountain and sail down at twice the speed. This is where children learn to walk, climb, and sail on a free-hanging rope.

Koto Ku Tokyo
Grocery shopping

In the morning, the gentle sunlight flickers through the green canopies. In the evening, the sun rays sweep past the trunks and bathes everything in a golden glow.

Koto Ku Tokyo Park

It’s a small park. After being gone a week in spring, I returned to find the trees swallowed by the waist-high grasses. In early summer, those got cut down, and the remaining stalks looked sickly for a while. By the time I started visiting every morning, the leafy weeds began sprouting buds. After a recent July rainy week, and I’d been absent for a few days, I returned to find the wild grasses had matured into full-on shrubs that commanded attention.

Luxury is the joy no amount of money can buy. For me, it is the bench with just that patch of weeds that look like soft bak choy atop dark, rich soil. In those quiet morning moments, when the streams of workers and students march quietly by, I sip my home-made coffee and type with bare feet. It is good to be grounded.

Park in Koto-Ku Eastern Tokyo
My free morning office.  
Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

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