Wednesday 19 August 2020

Fireworks and Haiku over Shin-Ohashi Bridge: Cultural Magic on Tokyo's Sumida River

Library of Congress
The Sumida River in Tokyo, much like the Thames in London, is the lifeblood of the city, flowing 27 kilometres through 7 wards. There are 26 bridges, spaced around a kilometre apart, and it is possible (for the most part) to walk along the western bank promenade ("terrace" in Japanese) and pass under each bridge. The river and many of its bridges have featured in ukiyo-e prints (subject of last month's blog) and in the stretch between Kuramae and Ryogoku Bridges, a number of pictures by Hiroshige are displayed. Perhaps the most striking of those prints is Hiroshige's 1857 "Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake" (pictured): a metallic engraving of the same picture can be seen on the bottom of the giant central orange pillars on the current Shin-Ohashi Bridge. The print was famously copied by van Gogh (Bridge in the Rain, 1887) and indeed ukiyo-e in general had a significant influence over many of the Western (post) impressionists.

The name Shin-Ohashi ("new big bridge") is rather appropriate since it moved and been re-built a number of times. The first incarnation was completed in 1693 a little further downstream of the current (Western style) version which was built in 1885 and again in 1976. Interestingly, with a bit of detective work you can find the small stone monument marking the site of the original bridge (near the Mannenbashi-Kita traffic lights). On the side of this monument are two poems about the bridge by the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) who lived on the eastern bank of the river in a hut and watched its construction. In fact, this whole area is something of a shrine to the master of haiku poetry with a tiny but lovely museum and a hidden statue of the man gazing serenely over the river (to be the topic of the next post!). The area is not so serene on the 4th Saturday of July though: it is then that the big-daddy of Japanese summer fireworks takes place, the Sumida Fireworks Festival (隅田川花火大会), which, dating back to 1733, was the first public fireworks display in Japan. In recent years, it has attracted upwards of a million spectators, though was sadly cancelled this year (these days fireworks displays in planetariums - known as “hanabirium” - have become popular instead!). Since today is haiku day (8=ハ 1=イ 9=ク)and with apologies to Basho, who probably never saw fireworks, here's my attempt at a haiku followed by scenes from the 2016 display:
Fire Flowers Bloom (花火咲く)
Memories of Smiles(笑顔の思い出)
A Dark Summer(暗い夏)

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