The historic Nihonbashi Bridge Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

Discovering tradition mixed with the ultra-modern in Nihonbashi

By Joshua Meyer

As the home of Japan’s first department store, Mitsukoshi, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Nihonbashi is often thought of as a shopping and business district. Since the Edo Period, it’s been Tokyo’s center of commerce and finance. Yet it’s also a place where you can embark on a cruise of the capital’s waterways, eat Edo-style sushi while watching an authentic noh-kyogen stage performance, and see goldfish swimming inside colorful art installations.

A microcosm of Japan itself, this is a place where old meets new in dynamic ways. There is a great deal of history and culture in Nihonbashi that goes well beyond the famous bridge that gives the area its name.

That bridge (Nihonbashi means “Japan Bridge”) is well-known for being the starting point of Japan’s five major roads during the Edo Period. What is less known, perhaps, than the bridge’s zero-kilometer marker is that Nihonbashi Bridge is now the starting point for waterway cruises, too.

Tokyo Bay Cruising has boats that depart from a pier next to the bridge every day. This pier opened in 2011 during the bridge’s 100th anniversary. The boats follow a course down the Nihonbashi River, out to the Sumida River, and around Tsukishima (“Moon Island”) to Tokyo Bay.

The crew of the cruise boat Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

Tsukishima and the Chuo-Ohashi Bridge Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

The Olympic Village at Harumi is under construction. Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

Along the way, you can get a feel for the way the modern Tokyo is developing as you pass by sites such as the new Toyosu Fish Market (where the Tsukiji Fish Market is set to relocate in October) and the Olympic Village at Harumi where athletes will stay during the 2020 Olympics. The boats do have open decks and as you move out in sight of the Rainbow Bridge and circle back around on your return course, there even comes a point when you can see Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree inhabiting the same panorama.

Under the expressway on the Nihonbashi River Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

Nihonbashi used to be closer to the coastline, but over the last 150 years — since the Edo Period ended in 1868 — reclaimed land has set it back further. The boats actually sail under the bridge on their way back to the pier. Nihonbashi Bridge is infamously covered by an overpass, but earlier this year, a project was approved to move that unsightly stretch of expressway underground and restore the once-iconic view of the bridge.

A great way to escape the summer heat in Nihonbashi is to take in a noh-kyogen performance and sushi meal at Suigian, the new dinner theater lounge owned by Hidetomo Kimura. Kimura is the brain behind the Eco Edo Nihonbashi Art Aquarium, which is now in its seventh year and already a Nihonbashi summer institution.

Noh-kyogen refers to two styles of theater, noh and kyogen, which are often performed on the same stage. Noh is actually the world’s oldest extant form of theater, a slow, serious style of musical drama involving supernatural elements. Kyogen is lighter and funnier, a form of comic theater used during noh intermissions.

A scene from the kyogen performance Bou Shibari Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

While Suigian showcases a different type of performance every day, a typical kyogen performance would be "Bou Shibari" (“Tied to a Pole.”) In order to safeguard his alcohol stash, a samurai master tricks his two servants, Taro and Jiro, into getting tied up. However, they still manage to raid the liquor cabinet while he is gone, singing and dancing and drinking themselves silly.

At Suigian, an English interpreter comes out on stage to explain this scenario. Even if you are not fluent in Japanese, it is genuinely amusing to watch the performers’ mannerisms and hear their lively voices, especially when you have one of the actors modeling his toothy kyogen laugh for you beforehand and showing off his “triple axel jump, bushido style.”

Suigian only brings in trained professional performers who are capable of upholding the centuries-old tradition of noh-kyogen as it was meant to be performed. While trying to take in a full noh performance might be a daunting prospect (even native Japanese speakers are known to need audio guides), Suigian allows its guests to sample the art form in a controlled dose.

Edo-style sushi set at Suigian Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

It offers a bite-sized taste of tradition while also adding in the unique component of real food. This is the only venue in Japan where guests can enjoy Edo-style, Osaka-style, or chakin (egg-wrapped) sushi along with Kyoto-style desserts while watching noh-kyogen.

Suigian is located in a basement under Fukutoka Shrine and it is only a short walk from Nihonbashi Mitsui Hall in the Coredo Muromachi 1 Building. This is where the ever-popular summer event of Eco Edo Nihonbashi Art Aquarium is being held from now until Sept 24.

Visitors look at a "kingyo" (goldfish) installation at the Eco Edo Nihonbashi Art Aquarium Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

The center "kingyo" (goldfish) installation at the Eco Edo Nihonbashi Art Aquarium. Photo: JOSHUA MEYER

The Art Aquarium is growing more and more popular every year as visitors stream in to see the vibrantly colored art installations, which double as goldfish tanks. It’s not uncommon to see people milling about in yukatas (summer kimonos), shooting pictures with their smartphones and uploading them to Instagram.

At night, the bar opens up, serving cocktails and Dassai sake, while a DJ and musical performers are brought in to liven up the atmosphere even more. It’s a vivid reminder of how Nihonbashi is a place where the traditional and ultra-modern exist side-by-side, all within a five-minute walk of Tokyo Station.

© Japan Today

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I squirm every time I see that ghastly expressway over Nihonbashi Bridge.

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I squirm every time I see that ghastly expressway over Nihonbashi Bridge.

I know right? What the hell were they thinking?

The article says they plan to take it down (and tunnel under?). I wonder when they will start. Seems like a big project.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Whilst it does look unsightly I do love driving the elevated shuto and chuo expressways through Tokyo. When the traffic is alright they are so much fun to drive, snaking through the city with slightly banked curves. Jeremy Clarkson was right "this is not a road, it's a race track".

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