The Sumida River (Sumidagawa 隅田川), one of Tokyo’s classic waterways, is a photographer’s dream. With waterside terraces, appealing atmosphere, and breathtaking views, it’s a definite “must” on any tourist’s list. Yet sadly, many fail to take advantage of this fun, free opportunity.
Originating in Chichibu (秩父), Saitama (埼玉), the Sumidagawa breaks off from the Arakawa River (荒川) at Akabane-Iwabuchi (赤羽岩淵) in Tokyo’s far north. Passing attractions such as Asakusa (浅草), Tokyo Skytree, and Nihonbashi (日本橋), it neatly divides Tokyo before flowing into Tokyo Bay. During the Meiji (明治) period, the threat of floods forced the government to split the river, sending most of the water into a manmade channel. This new riverway retained the name Arakawa. The water that continued to follow the original Arakawa route was named the Sumidagawa.
The Sumidagawa is an easy walk which can, technically, be done in a day. However, it is much better to take your time and split the walk over a series of days, breaking the river up into manageable chunks. The Sumidagawa has an amazing stillness that makes it hard to imagine you are wondering through the heart of Tokyo. Most of the river can be traversed using the well-presented riverbank terraces, however, due to maintenance you sometimes need to detour inland before rejoining these terraces farther down the line.
The key to good photography is light. Follow the sun from east to west if you want soft, well-balanced lighting – or turn towards the sun for strong light and contrast. The composition is also critical; think before you take the shot. Don’t clutter your picture with too many things. Simple backgrounds help highlight buildings and riverscapes. Consider what angle will produce the most dramatic shot. Sometimes taking an image from above or below eye level turns the ordinary into something special. Conventional images of classic tourist attractions are great, but try to personalize your images by experimenting with more unusual shots.
The color contrast on the river just before sunset is amazing. Dull buildings suddenly take on artistic form. The glow of the evening sun makes the ordinary spectacular. It is something our eyes sometimes ignore, but the camera definitely notices – so give it a go.
On the technical side, I usually set my camera to manual and use a film speed of 100 ISO. A lower ISO gives a cleaner image. Higher ISO speeds are good for action and low light conditions, but for this type of photography a 50-200 ISO range is more than enough. I tend to use a fast shutter speed – between 1/200 to 1/400. This, I find, gives the river and landscape sharpness. To capture movement I reduce my speed significantly, however, “river flow” is not a key feature of the Sumidagawa. Finally, I use a neutral color balance with an automatic stop. Remember, for a focused background and foreground (ideal for landscapes), a smaller aperture (higher F-number) is best. Having said all this, don’t let the technical details worry you. You can take perfectly wonderful images using a camera phone. Just remember the rules – patience, a keen eye, an uncluttered background and good light.
Our Sumidagawa one-hour walk starts at Shioiri Park in Senju (千住). The Shioiri is a lovely park. Starting at the Senju Shioiri-Ohashi Bridge (千住汐入大橋), it offers perfect distance views of Skytree.
The park is a favorite of waterbirds and has a small, wooden observation tower with views of the river. From Shioiri, start your journey southwards towards Skytree.
Just before the Shirahigebashi, you will pass the very beautiful Ishihama (Arakawa-ku) Shrine. With a 1300-year-old history, it enshrines the Jurojin (寿老神), one of the seven lucky gods. The shrine was created by Emperor Shomu (聖武天皇) in 724. It has a wonderful feel about it and is linked to the famous Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮).
Unfortunately, Tokyo Gas decided to build a storage faciblity behind the shrine a few years ago. From the riverbank, it makes for a funny sight and an interesting juxtaposition between the traditional “sacred” and a modern “necessity”.
This one to two-hour walk starts slightly inland from Shirahige-bashi where there are two well-known temples – the Sensō-ji (浅草寺) and its “smaller sister”, the Matsuchiyama Shoden (待乳山聖天).
The Sensō-ji is arguably the most photographed temple in Tokyo, but please do not ignore the Matsuchiyama Shoden. The Matsuchiyama, located very close to the river, has an interesting story. Apparently, the hill it was built upon magically appeared in 595 and since then, it has been considered a holy place.
During Edo (江戸) times, the Matsuchiyama was the place to go to view the river. There have been Nishikie (錦絵) prints and poems dedicated to it. The shrine has a small museum, garden, and cable car that takes you from street level to the prayer area ten meters above.
South of the Matsuchiyama, you enter probably the most famous and most photographed part of the Sumidagawa. Between the Sakurabashi (桜橋) and the Azumabashi bridges (吾妻橋), you will find the best views of Skytree, the golden art sculpture on top of the Asahi Beer Hall, and the numerous water boats that traverse the river.
The number of classic shots that can be taken on this stretch of the river is endless. Outside of the more conventional images, try looking for reflections against office buildings, or water activity to create unique photographs.
The next trip is a two to three-hour walk south of the Umayabashi where the landscape changes once more. Tourist sites morph into office and residential buildings. Old and new combine. You are now passing one of Tokyo’s oldest areas. On your right is Asakusabashi (浅草橋), famous for its traditional Japanese doll shops. Asakusabashi, once a major bridge, now plays second fiddle to the bridges on either side of it.
It is interesting to note that in Edo times, the Sensō-ji temple stretched all the way to here. On the left bank is Ryogoku (両国), a district synonymous with sumo. There is an Edo, as well as a newly built Sumida Hokusai Museum (すみだ北斎美術館) here. The area also has many excellent ramen shops and you can often see junior sumo wrestlers walking around in their traditional outfits enjoying the food.
The simple bridges that line this stretch of water offer the observant, hidden photo opportunities. Don’t just walk past them – this is your chance to be a little creative! Consider taking a shot of the Kuramaebashi (蔵前橋) – its strong yellow tones and metallic structure reflect well against the water.
Continuing down the river, you come to the Shin Ohashi bridge, which was immortalized in an Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) woodblock print by renowned Japanese artist Hiroshige (歌川広重). A copy of the drawing can be seen on the Asakusabashi side, heading towards the Shin Ohashi bridge. This print formed part of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo collection. Hiroshige’s colors and diagonal strokes made him popular in Europe, Van Gogh being an ardent fan.
The Ukiyo-e woodblock print portrays traders crossing the bridge in the rain, while in the background a boatman punts his raft, looking for shelter. The current bridge does not exude such tradition but does make for a lovely photograph.
Japan’s most famous poet, Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉), also lived around the Shin Ohashi bridge where you’ll find some beautiful waterfront terrace gardens. The site of his house is now a shrine and there is a beautiful museum which focuses on his career and life. It was from here that he embarked on his famous journey into the “interior” – which he wrote about in his book, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道).
The area also has many photogenic inlets that can be explored, so it’s worth spending a little time looking around.
Past this point, the landscape morphs again, tranquility and tradition disappear, replaced with the “bang” of modernity! Tsukuda is truly amazing. During Edo times, it was little more than a small island used for storage, a place for people to stop on-route. Today, modern skyscrapers dominate the landscape. They rise like a monolith in stark contrast to the subdued suburbs before it.
Like Skytree in Asakusa, Tsukuda makes the waterfront come alive. The prestigious residential towers were designed to look like the formation of a kabuto (兜), a traditional samurai battle helmet. The effect is astounding, allowing residents to enjoy views of the river and Tokyo Bay. The towers themselves are not open to the public, but you can walk around the surrounding parks. The area is also famous for a delicious dish called monja-yaki (もんじゃ焼き), a Japanese-style pancake and Kanto’s (関東) answer to Osaka’s okonomiyaki (お好み焼き).
The spectacular Chuo Ohashi Bridge links the “mainland” to the island. Built in 1994, around the same time as Tokyo Bay’s Rainbow Bridge, it is the second newest bridge on the Sumidagawa. It was designed, like the Asahi Beer sculpture, by a French team to symbolize the friendship between the Sumidagawa and its French “sister”, the Seine.
From the Chuo-Ohashi, face north. Let your eyes follow the path back, across the Eitaibashi and onto Skytree; it makes for a wonderful photograph and a fitting farewell.
Walking a little farther south, you come to the official end of the Sumidagawa – the Tsukiji markets (築地市場) and the Namiyoke Inari (波除稲荷神社), a shrine dedicated to “protection from waves”. Beyond this point is the ever beautiful Tokyo Bay…. but that’s another story.
So if you love photography, why not take this recommended tour of the Sumidagawa and discover some amazing views for yourself?