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Updated: February 28, 2019

Trace Tokyo's waterways and rivers for a glimpse of the city past and present

Narrow waterways weave their way through central Tokyo passing key attractions like the Imperial Palace, and while they may no longer play the vital role they once did, modern-day Tokyo would not be the city it is without them. Explore the channels and waterfront areas to see how Tokyo has changed and how it continues to develop.

Tips

  • Cruising the city's historic waterways
  • Strolling the former merchant districts of Nihonbashi and Kanda
  • Exploring the temples, gardens and castle grounds of pre-modern Tokyo
  • Visiting Tokyo's new, up-and-coming bay areas

Nihonbashi: Snowy Morning, Keisai Eisen

The eastern city of water

Bustling with boats ferrying people and goods through the city, life centered around Tokyo's rivers and waterways during the Edo period (1603-1867). Historic documents suggest comparisons were made between Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Venice, and woodblock prints from the time conjure up images of a kind of Venice of the Orient.

53 Stations of the Tokaido: Nihonbashi, Ando Hiroshige, ukiyo-e woodblock print

Flourishing around waterways

Commodities came from across Japan to the city of Edo by sea. From there, they were transported deep inland by way of Ieyasu's network of waterways. At each pier they were unloaded at places called kashi, which became ideal hubs of business for warehouses, wholesalers, and markets. The area around these kashi naturally attracted shops and restaurants for serving the many workers. And so, Edo flourished around waterways and grew into a buoyant city home to more than a million residents and workers.

Yakatabune —the culture of waterside entertainment

Make merry in the tender glow of the lanterns as you take a cruise on one of Tokyo’s famous yakatabune, which dot the city’s maze of waterways with light and laughter. Eat and drink to your heart’s content as the boat slips through the quiet city.
Yakatabune Boat Cruises

Reflection of the Sumidagawa Fireworks in the river

Vestiges of Edo and a fresh angle on present-day Tokyo

Today, Tokyoites and visitors alike continue to travel the rivers and canals of Tokyo by boat. The cool breeze, the murmur of the traffic along the banks, and the vigorous calls of the workers maneuvering the boats offer a glimpse of the vestiges of the lively and energetic Edo. The waterways also provide a fresh view of the beauty of present-day Tokyo lined with modern buildings. Don't miss the opportunity to hop on a boat and experience Tokyo—the "city of water."

Traffic on the Sumidagawa River today

Downtown Tokyo's former merchant quarters

Served by multiple waterways, the area from Akihabara south through Kanda, Nihonbashi and Ginza was one of the liveliest and most prosperous districts of Edo, inhabited by merchants and craftsmen. Today, they remain key business districts with department stores and large retail outlets lining their main streets.

Nihonbashi today, with Japan's first department store in the background

For remnants of the Edo period, visit Kanda Shrine, Mitsukoshi—Japan's first department store, founded by the wealthy Mitsui merchant family—and Nihonbashi Bridge, the beginning of Edo Five Routes (Gokaido).

Other historic waterfront sights and attractions

Head further north up the Sumida River and you will find Sensoji, metropolitan Tokyo's oldest temple. Set aside a good half day to see the temple, its iconic gate Kaminarimon and the shops that line the approach.

© Sensoji Temple

The iconic gate and pagoda at Sensoji Temple

While in the Asakusa area, consider stopping off in nearby Ryogoku to visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum, where you can learn more about the castle town that became Tokyo. The waterbus pier at Echujima (just a short way from Ryogoku) will take you straight to the Hamarikyu Garden.

Glimpse a slice of pre-modern Tokyo at Hama-rikyu Gardens

Heading north from the gardens, you will arrive at the Imperial Palace. During the days of Edo, this was the site of Edo Castle and the seat of the Tokugawa Shogun. Surrounded by an intricate system of moats, the castle was impenetrable.

The Imperial Palace stands where Edo Castle once stood

Visit the grounds to stroll gardens and see relics of the past which include the foundations of the castle keep, gates and guardhouses. You can even rent boats to row along a section of the Chidorigafuchi Moat.

Row boats on Chidorigafuchi Moat during cherry blossom season

River cruises

Operating along the Sumida, Kanda and Nihonbashi rivers, cruises are an excellent way to take in the sights of the city, old and new. Several operators have tours and pleasure cruises departing from Nihonbashi, Asakusa and Ryogoku.
River Cruises

One of the services operating along the Sumida River

Writing the next chapter

Tokyo's waterfront areas continue to evolve and nowhere is that more true than the bay area. In the last few decades, land has been reclaimed from the sea to accommodate the growing needs of the metropolis. To experience the changing shape of the city, visit Odaiba, Tennozu Isle or Shibaura—some of the newest and fastest developing neighborhoods.

Odaiba and Tennozu Isle

Nearby Attractions