Today I met a kind, older man walking his dogs on a path in my neighborhood of Tachiai Gawa 立会川, Shinagawa-ku. As we began talking, he mentioned that he was born in the area. I asked what had changed over his lifetime.
Well for one, he said, the brick path that we were standing on was once a lovely river (the Tachiai, which carries the serendipitous meaning of ‘Meeting Place’). When he was a boy he would come and fish here. During the war, the entire area was razed by the American fire-bombing campaign, which laid much of Tokyo in ashes during the final year leading up to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. After the war ended, the area was redeveloped and the Tachiai River was laid in concrete, with much of it covered over by this pathway.
Now if you follow the Tachiai, he continued, you reach what was once known as the Namida Bashi, literally, ‘Bridge of Tears.’ While its now a drab, concrete bridge, in the not-so-distant Edo Period, families parted with loved ones here who were facing execution, so he had heard. (From the bridge, it was just several hundred meters south to the execution grounds of Suzugamori. Now a small memorial marks the site, and people continue to make offerings in appeasement of the spirits who died there.)
Finally, you wind up at a damn at the end of the river with a canal on the other side. But this area used to be a beautiful sea (kirei umi!), he reminisced. Its shallow waters provided long stretches of both nori (seaweed) and mussel harvesting. Up until age 12 for him. After that, the bay was filled in and developed with shopping areas and roads.
After our conversation, we said goodbye and parted ways over what was once the Tachiai. Looking up, I noticed a statue by a narrow, man-made pool that shouldered the pathway. The statue was of a small, delicate boy dressed in shabby clothes. He was holding a fishing rod and a heron was perched beside him.
Hearing of the nori, my memory drifted back to the commemorative Nori Museum just south of Tachiai Gawa that my family and I had visited recently.
How do we collectively preserve elements of our lives that will soon join the past? As the tides of modernity, upheaval, and redevelopment swept over local communities in Japan over the last century, how do they retain a sense of continuity? While the statue of this boy had never given me pause before, now it struck me as an attempt by that generation of men – who fished there as boys – to preserve a glimpse of what it once was. I felt grateful to have heard the story behind it.