On July 21, one of my favorite Tokyo pools opened for the summer. The Taito Riverside Sports Center’s outdoor pool – barely visible through the trees in this photo – is 50 meters long by 19 meters wide. I’ve never seen it crowded (though I’ve only been there on weekday mornings). Admission is shockingly cheap at 200 yen.
As you swim through the crystal-clear water, you can gaze up at the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree, whose staggering height makes it appear to loom directly over the pool, even though it and the sports center stand on different sides of the Sumida River. Now and then, a seagull may fly across your view, cruising up the river from Tokyo Bay, about 10 kilometers downstream. It’s a lovely spot.
It also happens to be at the center of one of Tokyo’s biggest summer events, the Sumida River fireworks display. A barge anchored next to the sports center’s grounds is the main launching spot for the pyrotechnics, which means that the pool is closed from noon on the day of the event (July 30 this year) until noon the following day.
In contrast to the magnificence of the pool itself, the locker room is Spartan. It has no benches, and no spin drier that I could find. It does, however, have the nicest floor I have ever encountered in such a facility. It’s covered with hard plastic beads embedded in soft plastic gel – very comfortable to walk on and seemingly very non-slip.
Ordinarily, the pool is open from 9 to 5, and then again from 6:30 to 8:30 in the evening. However, on my latest visit, the pool’s opening was delayed until 10. The reason, explained by a lifeguard who pantomimed shivering to drive the point home, is that it was just too cold that morning. I doubt it would have been too cold for me, but I’ve got more natural insulation than the average Japanese swimmer. Hopefully, as the summer wears on, such closures will be rare. The lifeguard told me that the pool is also closed when it rains.
The delay of an hour gave me some time to walk around the neighborhood and also have a look at two life-sized statues of athletes on display in the main lobby of the sports center’s building. I had never used the main entrance before, because the entrance for the outdoor pool is around back, on the left (north) side of the building.
Both sculptures are by Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), who was nicknamed “The Rodin of the East.” One of them, titled 競技前 (Kyougi Mae, or Before the Competition), is a man stretching before an event, probably in the ancient Olympics. It was apparently made in 1959.
The other work is apparently from 1927, much earlier in Asakura’s career, but in my opinion it’s a more interesting and appealing work. Titled 水の猛者 (Mizu no Mosa, or Water Hero), it is a man in what was then contemporary swimming attire, walking along with a towel slung around his neck.
His jaunty pose and self-assured facial expression give him a real personality. One can easily imagine that he has just emerged from the nearby river after performing some aquatic feat, and is now strolling away to get a well-earned cup of sake. (Historically speaking, it’s a safe bet that he was adept at sidestroke.) Although his swimsuit places him in relatively modern times, the work has some classical aspects. For instance, Asakura uses the hero’s towel the same way Michelangelo uses David’s sling – to put his figure in a pose with one arm flexed and the other relaxed.
By the way, if you’d like to see another Asakura sculpture, check this blog again in the future. He has a statue of a woman at another public swimming pool that I hope to write about soon.
This year, the outdoor pool will be open through September 4. If the Taito Riverside Sports’ Center has any disadvantages, a somewhat inconvenient location is one of them. There is a bus stop out front, but the facility is not close to any train station. If you take the subway to Asakusa, be prepared for a 10 to 15 minute walk north along the river.