Shinagawa: The old post town and modern waterways

By Vicki L Beyer

Now that the summer heat and the precipitation of typhoon season have both gone, everyone is getting outdoors to enjoy the autumn cool. Even if you don’t have time to get out of Tokyo, here’s a great half-day walk that will allow you to take in autumn colors along with cityscapes and waterfront views. And, of course, a bit of history.

Shinagawa was historically a post town just outside Edo, the first stage on the Tokaido road taking travelers from Edo to Kyoto. In those days, the Tokaido at Shinagawa ran right along the shoreline. These days, that waterfront is long gone, replace by landfill projects that have pushed the waterfront of Tokyo Bay eastward. That might sound unappealing, but in fact, there is a lot of see and enjoy in this area.

This is a relatively short walk (about four hours) and the last stop is a delightful local spot for dinner, so perfect as an afternoon outing. You’ll start and end at Kita-Shinagawa station on the Keikyu line.

From Kita-Shinagawa Station, turn right and walk toward Shinagawa. Across the busy six lanes of the Dai-Ichi Keihin Highway, you’ll see a church spire and some greenery. That area is known as Gotenyama. If you had been here 150 years ago, you would have seen a heavily wooded hill. In 1720, the shogun ordered the top of the hill planted in 600 blossoming cherry trees, making this a popular springtime destination. In the late 1850s, the weak Tokugawa government wanted to create defensive islands in Tokyo Bay and the soil of Gotenyama was the nearest at hand for the major landfill project. By 1861, the hill was nearly gone.
Take the first right (a sharp turn) and cross the Keikyu train tracks to find yourself on the old Tokaido, now a tidy little laneway lined with houses, shops and small businesses and decorated with fluttering flags proudly announcing its name. Many shops offer sightseeing information and the shopkeepers are happy to chat and tell stories of their neighborhood.

In the days when this was a post town, there were many inns and eateries here, as well as the occasional temple or shrine. The post town was bisected by the Meguro River, with North Shinagawa, where you are now walking, more popular as an excursion from Edo and South Shinagawa serving the long distance travelers.

Just before you reach the Meguro River you will cross Yamate-dori. This, in fact, is roughly the former course of the Meguro River, which changed course in a major flood shortly before World War II. After the flood, the river was locked into its new (current) course with cement embankments, as you will see when you reach it.

Upriver (to your right), sitting on the north bank with its own vermillion footbridge, is Ebara Shrine, the guardian shrine of South Shinagawa. Dating back to 709 and historically known as Tenno-sha, this shrine protects fishermen and those who work in the water, especially apt given that Shinagawa’s major industry was once the production of laver (nori) in the shallow waters of the bay. The shrine's major festival, celebrated in June each year, involves floating omikoshi portable shrines in the waters of the bay to mollify kappa, or water sprites, which might otherwise seek to harm encroaching humans. Check out the delightful statue of Ebisu, the dragon rain spouts and the fantastic woodcarvings that adorn the shrine structure.

From here, a traditional traveler would continue south on the Tokaido, but we’re going to deviate to explore more of the former waterfront and the modern topography.

Head downstream alongside the river. About 30 meters after you’ve passed under the next bridge, turn left and cross the street; in about 70 meters you will find Yoriki Shrine on your left. This shrine dates to the mid-18th century, when this street was the shoreline of Edo Bay. At that time, this land was a small north-south spit with the Meguro River at the back of the shrine, flowing north to its mouth at the top of the spit.

Because of its position right on the waterfront, the shrine’s "honden" (the innermost part of the shrine, housing its sacred objects) is made of stone blocks, rather than wood. This better protected the building's contents. The "honden" has vault doors opening to the "haiden" (worship hall) at the front. These vault doors are decorated with plaster reliefs made by the famed 19th century plasterer, Izu no Chohachi. This is one of only two places in Tokyo where Chohachi's work is extant. It was once considered good luck to rub the bare breasts of the lady on the left, but as they were becoming discolored, the practice is now prohibited.

The quaint little shrine's grounds also boast a small Inari shrine and a tall gingko tree, several centuries old, that is spectacularly golden in November and December.

From the entrance to Yoriki Shrine, cross the street, walk through the park and up the lane to Kaigan-dori. If this were 60 years ago, you would now be wading in the bay. But landfill projects have turned this area into a number of islands and canals.

At Kaigan-dori, turn right, cross the river and then cross Kaigan-dori at the light. Straight ahead is Higashi Shinagawa Kaijo Park. This green space, sitting on the corner of two canals at the mouth of the Meguro River, is known for its flowers in various seasons.

Take the white arched footbridge from the park north to Tennozu Park on Tennozu Isle. Just across the bridge you’ll find playground equipment in the shape of a whale, and a small monument with a reproduction of an 18th century woodblack print of a whale surrounded by pleasure boats. You will also see whales painted on the floodgates of the nearby canal.

In 1798, a 16.5 meter whale beached itself in this part of the bay, creating quite a stir (hence the woodblock print). After the animal died, its bones were interred at Kagata Shrine near the then-mouth of the Meguro River. You may pass by at the end of today’s walk.

Aside from this small playground, the bulk of Tennozu Park is baseball diamonds that are kept very busy on week-ends. A large portion of the park also has free wi-fi.

Just northwest of Tennozu Park is the Terada Soko Honsha Building, site of Archi-Depot, one of Tokyo’s newest museums. Opened in September 2016, Archi-Depot is a repository of architects' models for various structures, ranging from the Kengo Tanze Olympic Stadia and the Tokyo Skytree to private residences and schools. It’s quite fun to wander among the models, able to visualize both the exterior and the "guts" of the final structures. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m; admission is 1,000 yen.

The Terada Soko Honsha Building faces Yamate-dori. Here, turn right. In the next building is Pigment, a fascinating little art supply shop. After a brief exploration, continue along Yamate-dori to the next set of lights. Overhead you will see the Tokyo Monorail that was built as modern Haneda Airport access for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Several tall modern office buildings have turned the once sleepy Tennozu Isle into a thriving business center.

Cross the intersection "catty corner" and continue on Yamate-dori to the entrance to the boardwalk, just before the bridge. A stroll on the boardwalk offers an interesting perspective on the modern waterfront of Tokyo, with its offices, high rise apartments and industrial buildings. The boats that ply the canals are also of interest. Continue right around Tennozu Isle, crossing under the Metropolitan Expressway and crossing to the other side of the canal, where you'll see a permanently landlocked sailing vessel, the Unyo Maru. Continue along the canal, now with it on your left, to the Fureai Footbridge. Cross the bridge to return to Tennozu Isle. On your right is TY Harbor Brewery, one of Tokyo's first micro-brewery restaurants. This is a nice spot for dinner, if you're ready. But I recommend continuing on for another 15-20 minutes.

Continue straight from the bridge back to Yamate-dori, checking out the murals along the way; turn right. Cross the bridge and turn right again, descending to another boardwalk along another canal. From here you can enjoy views of Tennozu Isle, including a 10 story tall mural of a sumo wrestler and houseboats moored near the TY Harbor Brewery. This boardwalk also wraps left where the canals intersect. Follow it to the end, then go straight ahead to the crosswalk and cross Kaigan-dori. Continue straight down the narrow road (perpendicular to Kaigan-dori) to a slight bend to the left. Here, on the right, announced in neon, is Ichiryu Yataimura, a delightful little collection of about five kitchens with shared seating, including canal-side seating where you can watch yakata-bune go by and even observe the tides. Order a dish or two from each of the several kitchens for a sumptuous feast of "home cooked" Japanese food.

This canal is particularly deep, being near the former mouth of the Meguro River, making it particularly popular with both yakata-bune and day-tripping fishing vessels. When you leave Ichiryu Yataimura and continue to the right to the next bridge, you'll be able to see the moorings of several of these boats. This is the former mouth of the Meguro River (finally!).

To return to Kita-Shinagawa station you will take a dog-leg to the right and continue on about 50 meters back to the Tokaido. But first, if you are inclined, take a small detour to the left to visit the whale's grave at Kagata Shrine, just 150 meters down. A sculpture of an eye-hopping whale and a small playground are just outside the shrine.

By the time you return to the Tokaido most of the shops will have closed and it will be quiet, an atmosphere redolent of the old post town and a fitting end to your exploration.

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