Long ago, the Tonegawa river flowed through Tokyo and into Tokyo Bay. It's course was never steady and every big storm brought floods and course changes to the river. So, about 400 years ago, Ieyasu Tokugawa (the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate) began a project called the “Eastward Transfer of the Tonegawa river”, which changed the river's course eastward to the Pacific Ocean just south of what is now Kashima City. The project helped to protect Edo from floods and aided the development of agriculture in this area. It was also designed to offer protection against invasion from the north.
This also resulted in a waterway that allowed fish and rice from what is now Ibaraki Prefecture to be shipped by boat to markets in Edo. The lakes, canals, and rivers were the major means of transportation. Itako city, located where lakes Kitaura and Kasumigaura empty into the Tonegawa river, became a transportation hub, in turn creating a tourist trade.
Today, transportation is primarily by rail and truck, but the days of poling and sculling boats through the canals and rivers are not forgotten. They are celebrated especially during Itako City's Ayame Matsuri - Iris Festival - during which people come by the busload to take a step back in time, enjoy viewing a million iris flowers along the Maekawa, listen to ancient music, watch dancers, and take rides in traditional "robune" - boats powered by a single sculling oar mounted on the stern. The oar, called a "ro" is common to Japan and China and consists of a curved handle connected at a pivot point to a horizontal oar blade.
The tour boat businesses have long since switched from using bamboo poles, to small outboards as the primary source of power (though poles are still kept on board). This was in part due to the dredging of the Maekawa which made part of it too deep for poling. Many of the women who run these boats have been doing so for over 50 years.
After lunch, it was time for a wedding...
At an Itako style wedding, the bride and her parents form a proccession through the iris gardens, and board a specially prepared robune which contains a hope chest of sorts as well as symbolic gifts of rice and sake for the groom. The groom waits downstream as the bride and her parents float past friends, relatives, and other well wishers. Watching this has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, so the city and tour companies provide actors to play the roles on days when there is no actual wedding scheduled. This day, we saw the saw the real thing.
These days, the great waters of the Tonegawa river system are used primarily to provide drinking water to large parts of Tokyo and the Kanto Plain, as well as flood control and recreational boating. But who knows? As the global energy crisis continues to emerge, perhaps these rivers and canals will find their past role as transportation "highways" revived. In the meantime, festivals such as the Ayame Matsuri give us a glimpse of the past in a fun and beautiful way.