Monday, December 18, 2006

Fire and Water - Tsukudajima

With the discovery of the charred remains of Oda Nobunaga in the ashes of Honnōji in June 1582, the various daimyō of his alliance all rushed to Kyoto in pursuit of both Oda's killer Akechi Mitsuhide and the now-vacant seat at the top of the political order.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and his retainers were part of that rushing throng.

Just before they could reach the outskirts of what is now Osaka, however, their advance was thwarted by a rain-swollen river. Ieyasu, in desperation, asked the headman of the neighboring fishing village of Tsukuda for help. The headman rousted up his people and their boats. Together they ferried Ieyasu and his retainers to dry land on the Osaka side.

Ieyasu never forgot the timely aid of the villagers of Tsukuda. In 1613, after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, he invited Tsukuda villagers to come to Edo, granting them a special charter over all fishing and fishmongering along Edo's shore. Thirty-three families made the journey.

In 1644, the families moved to a small manmade island in Edo Bay across the Sumidagawa from Akashimachi. They named the island Tsukudajima, after their ancestral home.

As fishmongers, the Tsukudajima residents had to deal with the problem of a quickly devaluing inventory. To put it simply, fish rots. Perhaps due to the extremely limited land area available to them, the Tsukudajima fisherman did not dry their fish. Instead they developed a means of boiling seafood in shōyu, which had recently gone into mass production in the northern Kantō. With the explosion in the sugar trade in the late 17th century, sugar and mirin were added to boiling mixture.

The result is something one eats a lot of this time of year, probably without knowing it is "the boiled food of Tsukuda" : tsukudani (佃煮).

Three of the traditional tsukudani shops are still operating in Tsukudajima. Tenyasu, the oldest (established 1839) most charming and cheapest, is open is all year round. The other two outlets close one day a week.

Tsukudajima was the only neighborhood in the Tsukishima complex to survive the firebombing of March 10, 1945. Neighbors banded together in bucket brigades to continously wet the rooves of the houses of the tiny enclave, managing to douse or sweep off the cinders falling down like snow from out of the firestorm consuming the rest of the Shitamachi.

There is not much to see in present-day Tsukudajima. Descendants of the original settlers still live in cheaply-built houses squeezed onto the tiny lots doled out to their ancestors. The contruction of the Bridge ended the area's isolation and need for the tiny ferry that ran between Tsukudajima and Akashimachi. The enclave had never been a center of of great prosperity: there is precious little of the "Little Edo" gimcrackery one sees elsewhere.

Much the island to the north of Tsukudajima has been converted into luxury apartments. Tsukudajima itself is being allowed to lapse into senescence, its empty spaces being converted into tight, tiled terraces, cold and dark beneath the great gnomon of the Seiroka Garden Building across the river.

Tsukudajima photos by MTC.
Late afternoon of December 17, 2006.
Click on photos to open in a separate window.


ochka said...

a very refreshing departure from the who-is-in-bed-or-doing-what-to-whom in politics - which you entertain us with in Shisaku. I bet your other readers, overwhelmed as they are with the wavw after wave of political slush and flush, will find such a knowing and warmly reported article - a relief, and educational - See, something is left from the 16th century, not imperial, but human-scale. Great, may we have some more, prosim



Jun Okumura said...

Bless us eyeballs, O Great Shisaku, with more of same from your weekend saunterings.

hvala? I second that.