Take a Stroll Down "Frog" Street
Crossing over the Metoba River on the way to Matsumoto Castle, first-time visitors to the city are met with a mix of quaint and unusual sights. A stone and cement torii hints at the shrine hiding back among the trees. These forested grounds are lorded over, at least in size, by a massive television tower. Next to this stands a koban, the ubiquitous and unassuming Japanese version of a police station. Running past this neatly-traditional building is an equally neat brick pedestrian street known since the early 1500s as Nawate Dori (縄手道り). And there guarding the west entrance to this row of shops and nostalgia are three huge paper-mache frogs, crawling all over each other like amphibian samurai kept indoors too long.
Nawate Street began as nothing more than a long skinny bank of land between the south moat of Matsumoto Castle (originally called Fukashi Castle) and the pure-flowing Metoba River. The locals, in evident agreement that this riverbank, or dote (土手) resembled a rope (nawa, or 縄), got together over a cask of Fukashi Sake and named this raised spit of dirt and grass Nawate Dori.
Although endowed with a nickname, Nawate Dori had yet to develop any notable degree of character. That changed in Year 12 of the Meiji Era (1879) when, at the western end of Nawate Street where the land widened, Yohashira Shrine was built. By geographic default Nawate Dori came to be the path leading to the shrine, the sandoh (参道), and its illustrious history began.
From the start no horses or carts were allowed on Nawate Street, as this approach to the shrine was to be a place of quiet reflection. But the shrine’s keepers began promoting various forms of entertainment as a means to attract visitors and, in turn, take in money to develop and prosper. A string of entrepreneurial-minded locals followed suit by setting up businesses in stalls that lined both sides of Nawate Street. With the sound of taiko drums floating out from the shrine grounds, the smell of acetylene torches in the air, the cries of the vendors, children laughing and shrieking as they tried to catch goldfish from a metal tub, the boom and crackle of fireworks overhead and the chorus of Kajika frogs, endemic to Japan, rising up from the Metoba River, Nawate had become a unique and nigiyaka (lively) place.
One of the several signs that dot Nawate Dori today explains how, around the beginning of the Showa period, a small board with a small overhang appeared displaying the pages of the Asahi, Yomiuri and Shinano Mainichi newspapers. Every morning a clerk from the nearby newsstand would show up with his newspapers and a can of paste and put up the latest news for all to read. Whatever the news was on any given day, people would gather to gawk and chatter. The liveliest morning conversations took place during the nationwide high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium; virtually every day for the duration of the tournament the clerk would have to replace the day’s score sheet multiple times as people kept peeling them off and taking them. It has also been said that when the Matsumoto Commercial Trade High School team made it to the tournament the flowers in front of the board would suddenly bloom.
On the morning of August 14th in Year 34 of the Showa Era (1959) Typhoon 7 followed two straight days of rain in Matsumoto, turning the Metoba River into a bloated torrent, washing felled trees and debris up against bridges, creating dams which caused Nawate and the surrounding streets to flood. Every single structure along Nawate Dori was washed away, and only after a laborious cleanup of the muddy aftermath and a complete renovation of the riverbed walls did the area show signs of returning to its recent yet seemingly-distant past.
And recover it did, but things were not the same. Even with the restorative efforts the river had become dirty. The locals’ beloved chorus of frogs left for higher ground and cleaner water upstream. Without them the spirit of Nawate was all but lost.
Yet Japan is the land of surviving traditions, and eventually the people committed to reclaiming the glory of Nawate, bringing back the time when the Metoba River was filled with the sounds of Kajika Frogs and Nawate was a lively, alluring place. The people could not bring the Kajika back but they could keep them alive in memory – as the symbol and mascot of a rejuvenated Nawate Dori.
In Year 47 of the Showa Era (1972) the “Kaeru Daimyoujin” was created, part of the new approach to bringing back the clean Metoba River and the liveliness of Nawate Street. From this point forward this place would now be known as ‘Kaeru Machi’ (‘Frog Street’), a place where locals and travelers alike could come and enjoy the atmosphere of old Nawate.
The word kaeru has several meanings related to the renewed spirit of Nawate Dori: 買える – to ‘be able to buy’ food, drink and goods from the vendors on the street; 帰る – to ‘go home’ afterwards, safe in the absence of horses and carts; and 可得る – to ‘be accepted’ by feeling welcome in this place. At least one shopkeeper working Nawate Street today will also tell you about 若返る – wakagaeru, a regained feeling of youth brought by the small ceramic frogs he just happens to sell.
While the castle’s southern moat no longer exists, the ‘Nawate’ aspect of this street remains both in historical and customary tradition. Shops still line both sides of the narrow pedestrian way. People still visit Yohashira Shrine, the center of a sprawling festival that takes place October 1st – 3rd every year. And there are frogs everywhere, though they are made of stone and thus do not sound forth with the same chorus the Kajika once did.
And, in the age-old Japanese spirit of tradition, Nawate Dori, or Frog Street, remains a place where both locals and visitors can gather – to buy, to feel welcome, and, perhaps, to feel young again for a while before going back home.
Nawate Dori is located along a 200-meter stretch of the Metoba River in Matsumoto. Walking north on Daimyocho-Dori on your way to Matsumoto Castle, look to the right once you cross the Metoba via the Sensaibashi Bridge. Opening times for the shops and cafes vary. Nawate Street comes quietly to life between 8 and 10 am.
All photos by Kevin Kato