Summer is nigh. One of the best ways to cool off is to take a dinner cruise or view the summer fireworks in an old-fashioned yakatabune along the Sumida River.
“Our Dai-ni, Number Two boat, is probably the last wooden yakatabune in Japan,” says Tsutomu Sato, 57, owner and fourth-generation manager of Komatsuya Boat Company. Sato points to a black and white photo on the wall next to a ticking pendulum clock. The new boat, frozen in time, is cruising past the completely undeveloped island of Odaiba on its maiden voyage from the Yokohama boatyard to the Komatsuya dock at the Yanagibashi bridge where the Kanda river empties into the Sumida.
The Dai-ni was built 30 years ago. It is a small boat, with a trim hull shaped from cedar trees taken from the hills of Sanbu in Chiba. It seats only 20 guests. People request this boat because, as Sato explains, it reminds them of the old days along the Sumida.
But thirty years ago the Sumida was a quieter river. River traffic now includes large boats, tankers, and barges. “They can travel as fast as they like,” says Sato. “They cause big waves that rock the small boat,” he adds. “Drinks fall off the tables. Customers get seasick,” he shrugs with a smile. “So we usually advise them to choose a larger boat.”
The Dai-ni used to be moored under the Yanagibashi bridge, but several years ago during a heavy downpour, the river rose so high so fast the boat was almost crushed under the bridge. It now rests at the end of the Komatsuya dock, next to the willow trees that line the river. Keeping the weathered boat serviceable is a point of pride with the family.
Over the last 80 years, the Sato family business too has weathered some tough times. The Yanagibashi area was once a thriving entertainment area filled with ryotei restaurants that hired yakatabune boats to take customers out on catered river cruises. Those restaurants closed down long ago. Another setback was the construction spurred by the Tokyo Olympics—both the Sumida and Kanda rivers suffered from serious pollution, Sato explains. Customers wanting cruises became scarce.
“At one point, we were the only yakatabune company left in Tokyo,” says Sato.
But things started to pick up. The Sumida became cleaner, and some of the old ryotei customers and geisha wanted to cruise the river again. They urged Komatsuya to offer more cruises. For several decades now, business has been continuous.
Traditional cruises are popular every season: cherry viewing in spring, fireworks and “cool-down” cruises in summer, moon viewing in autumn, and snow viewing and New Year’s parties on the river in winter. In addition, evening cruises to view the bright lights of Odaiba and the Rainbow bridge are also popular.
The Komatsuya fleet now includes two other yakatabune. The Dai-hachi, Number Eight, which seats 60, is a reproduction of Iemitsu Tokugawa’s banquet barge first built in 1630. Like the shogun’s boat, the Dai-hachi is painted crimson, with gold and black accents. The other vessel, Dai-nana, Number Seven, is also decked out in bright red. It seats 28 guests. Komatsuya has a fishing boat for hire for those wanting to try their luck on the bay.
Summer is one of Komatsuya’s busiest seasons, especially during the firework festivals on the Sumida and in the bay.
“Preparation for firework viewing is a lot different nowadays,” says Sato. “In the past we had to leave early to get a good viewing spot. But now the police direct each boat to a particular slot on the water. We line up like cars in a parking lot,” he says. “It’s not good to set out too early. First in means last out.”
For viewing the fireworks, though, where you drop anchor is not so important. It’s the weather. If the wind is wrong, explains Sato, the boats are covered in smoke. “We’ve had customers complain that they couldn’t see any fireworks at all. And we sometimes get sparks and cinders falling into the boat,” he adds with a smile.
The moon viewing cruise can be impressive, he says. The moon rising over the harbor is incredibly large, but seeing it is a matter of luck. It’s often turns cloudy on the best evenings.
Even snow viewing can turn out to be troublesome. “The snow doesn’t fall little by little, as it does on land,” explains Sato. “On the river, the snow may come down all at once. You can’t see the boats ahead of you sometimes.”
Sato and his wife Junko, 52, run the Komatsuya operations from a small wooden shack perched at one end of the Yanagibashi Bridge in Asakusabashi. Their tiny 3-mat office is crowded with an old tansu holding pamphlets, books and brochures, a two-way radio, a fax machine, and a low table with a laptop computer and a constantly ringing telephone. The walls are covered with memorabilia: photographs, two straw rainhats, and a row of tattered, age-darkened yumihari-chochin, the slim paper lanterns that were hung on the front of a yakatabune announcing which ryotei had chartered the boat.
The room also contains a small kitchen where each evening Junko prepares the dipping sauce for the tempura served on the boats.
It’s usually a crew of one on a yakatabune. Each sendo-san, or boatsman, must pilot the boat, cook the food, and serve the customers. Sato was a boatsman for some 14 years.
Two or three times a year, Sato likes to go out again. “Actually, some people don’t look good in the traditional boatsman clothes,” he says. “The shape of the face, the height, and other factors affect whether at first glance one thinks, ‘Ah, that guy looks like a boatsman’.”
“I shouldn’t say this myself,” he says with a grin, “but I look pretty good in those clothes.”
Across the Yanagibashi Bridge is another Daimatsuya shack selling tsukudani, a salty-sweet preserve of seaweed, tiny shrimp, shellfish, or vegetables eaten as a topping on rice.
Dinner courses on the yakatabune start from 10,500 yen per person. Call well in advance.
2-27-22 Higashi Nihonbashi, Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Tel: 03-3851-2780. www.komatuya.net.