I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Chisato Moritaka -- Watarasebashi (渡良瀬橋)

I stumbled upon Kayo Kyoku Plus more than a year ago when I was searching for Akina Nakamori (中森明菜) and Midori Karashima (辛島美登里), to find out how various people write about her songs.  What a huge discovery!  Since then, I've been following this blog regularly and at times commented on some of the posts.  During a recent conversation with owner J-Canuck, he extended his warm invitation and asked me if I'm interested in contributing to this blog.  So, here I am writing my first blog post on Kyo Kyoku Plus.  Thank you so much, J-Canuck. It's been an honor.

Watarasebashi (渡良瀬橋), or The Bridge of Watarase, was Chisato Moritaka's (森高千里) 17th single, and it was also included in her 8th album "Lucky 7".  It was released in January 1993.  Hideo Saito (斉藤英夫) composed the song while Chisato wrote the lyrics herself.  According to Orion, the highest place it reached was 9th on its chart.

I didn't listen to Chisato's original version first.  Instead, it was Aya Matsuura's (松浦亜弥) cover version that I first listened to.  She covered it in 2004, 11 years after the original was released. According to J-Wiki, there've been 8 Japanese singers who have covered the song.
Watarasebashi was a sad song about 2 lovers.  The stage was set in a small town/village where the woman lived.  Her lover was living in the city and regularly came to see her.  Even though he loved the countryside, it's unreasonable for him to move to the village.  Unfortunately, the woman could not leave her hometown either.  At the end, they parted.  But she could not forget him though.  Every time she went to the shrine, she would pray for his wellness.  When she came across the public telephone booth outside the barber shop, she couldn't help but pick it up.  However, she didn't have the courage to call him.  From time to time, she would return to the bridge of Watarase in the evening, where they once watched the sunset together.

Personally, I like Aya's version more.  It has a slower tempo and the arrangement seems more appropriate for a sad love song.  It has this slow piano introduction that somehow puts me into the mood of the song.  To me, Chisato's introduction is a bit short and it feels a bit rush when it comes to the tempo.  I also like Aya's voice more.  Most Asian female singers, especially Japanese singers, have what we called in Cantonese "voice of a small chicken" - a high-pitched but soft and seeming fragile singing voice.  I think Aya was once criticized for that too but in my opinion, Chisato possesses a truly "small chicken voice".

What I found most fascinating is the story behind the song though.

The bridge, Watarasebashi, which is the title of the song, exists in real life.  It's in a small town called Ashikaga (足利) in the Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県).  It's north of Tokyo and around 1-2 hours by train.  Here's its google map location if you're interested:渡良瀬橋/@36.334096,139.444405,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x601f21885136e723:0xfc174907a73dd9e6

When Chisato began to write the lyrics, she set out to write about a bridge.  So she laid out a map on the table and searched for any bridge or river whose name resonates beautifully.  It was the name Watarasebashi that caught her attention.  In fact, back in 1989, Chisato had a live performance at Ashikaga Industrial University.  She remembered crossing some bridge that day.  "Was it really the bridge of Watarase?" She wondered.  With her mind set, she once again went to the town of Ashikaga to research on her lyrics.  It was Fall 1992.

Here's a documentary featuring Chisato herself, who returned to Ashikaga in May 2012, 20 years after the song was released.
Continuing with the story, soon after the song was released, Chisato's recording company got a call from the city hall of Ashikaga, asking if the title of the song was referring to the bridge in their city.  Chisato and her staff were scared.  "Did we anger them by not informing them beforehand?" "Are the residents going to blame us for inappropriately portraying the city of Ashikaga?"  "After all, what does someone from Kumamoto (Chisato's hometown) know about Ashikaga anyway?" Chisato wondered what the residents would say.  

It turned out, what Chisato and her staff learned from the city hall, that the Sunset from the Bridge of Watarase was chosen to be among Ashikaga's top 100 sightseeing spots.  The city of Ashikaga and its residents were extremely glad that Chisato wrote about that in her song!

There was a reference to a shrine called Yakumo Shrine (八雲神社) where the woman prayed for her lover.  Fans wrote her letters and asked her which Yakumo Shrine she was referring to.  In the documentary, Chisato said when she opened the map of Ashikaga, she immediately noticed the Yakumo Shrine.  "The name rhymes very well with the melody, and so I decided to use it," she said.  At that time, she knew there're 3 shrines named Yakumo within Ashikaga.  She was not referring to any particular one.  Later on, the city hall told her that they found 8 Yakumo shrines, and there might be more!

Also in the song, there's a reference to a telephone booth outside of a barber shop.  Similarly, the residents of Ashikaga flooded her with photos asking her if she was referring to the one in their photo.  Both the telephone booth and the barber shop exist as well!  According to Chisato in her documentary, she got the idea from Beatle's Penny Lane where barber shop and fire station appear in the song.  "I can use this," she thought as she noticed the telephone booth from her car during her research trip.  She was totally surprised that some residents actually found it. There's one final story about this telephone booth though.  As more and more people are carrying mobile phones, the need for public telephone diminishes.   Consequently, in 2008, NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) wanted to demolish this phone booth in Ashikaga.  The residents protested and eventually the telephone booth stayed.

In 2007, the city erected a monument around the Bridge of Watarase to commemorate the song.  During the day, the song is played continuously at the monument.

It's just a fascinating story that I could not help but share with all of you!  I hope you enjoy my first post on Kayo Kyoku Plus.


  1. Hi Larry,

    Welcome to Kayokyoku Plus! The name's Noelle, I'm also a new (well, somewhat) addition to this blog and began posting articles since September this year. I started off as a commenter too, happy to be able to talk to someone - that being J-Canuck - about my interest in Japanese music, or more specifically Enka and Mood Kayokyoku.

    For my articles, I usually focus on songs from the 2 aforementioned genres though it may seem a little weird for a person my age, and I do put up articles on Pop/Rock songs/bands that are mostly from the 90's once in a while.

    Anyway, I like your article on this song by Moritaka. Although I had no idea who she is, I have to say that 'Watarasebashi' is a nice song... that part where you mentioned that she sounds like a small chicken was hilarious! (I'm Cantonese too... but I'm not that good at speaking the language) I've taken a look at your blog, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially since you provide the translations to many songs.

    Well, I look forward to reading more of your articles, and have fun writing!

    1. Thanks. It's always good to share among friends who have the same interest. I am looking forward to reading your articles too to broaden my musical taste.

  2. Hi, Larry Chan.

    I'm Marcos, from Brazil, and I'm also one of the contributors here on the blog. Well, probably like everyone else here on Kayo Kyoku Plus, I also started as a commenter a couple of years ago. I still remember that my first comment was on a article J-Canuck wrote for Chisato Moritaka's "Benkyou no Uta" (what a coincidence). In fact, she's one of my favourite singers.

    In general, I post articles about aidoru (idol) pop or Eurobeat here on the blog, but sometimes I go out of the box with some City Pop songs as well.

    About "Watarasebashi", it surely is one of Chisato's signature songs. It's probably the one she sings the most until nowadays. Although not one of my favourites from her (I prefer her more upbeat stuff from the late 80s), it's a beautiful ballad. I was aware about the bridge, but it was great to read all the great stuff you learned through the documentary. Honestly, I can't understand Japanese language very well yet, so I remember coming across the documentary on YouTube, but wasn't able to learn something from it. So, thanks a lot for this

    As for Aya Matsuura's version, it's truly slower than the original, and maybe, like you said, more appropriate for a sad song. But as I'm a Chisato fan, I'll still go with her version. I like the stirngs in Aya's version, though.

    Like Noelle, I thought your comment about Chisato's "small chicken" voice was great. She was never the greatest singer, but I quite like her songs. Also, as an idol fan, I've seen things more scary than Chisato's vocals. Maybe her main thing is that she was able to compose and write her songs, and even played some instruments. As I have a good portion of her DVDs, I remember well how she always played the flute when performing "Watarasebashi".

    In the end, it's great to have a new contributor to this blog. It surely is a great place for us. I really like the experience, and can only thank J-Canuck for it. Welcome to the family, Larry Chan!


    1. Thanks. I was actually looking for an English translation of that Cantonese phrase "small chicken voice." I didn't know it would resonate so much :) Looking forward to collaborate with you guys.

  3. Hi, Larry!

    Thanks for your first article on "Kayo Kyoku Plus" and that is one fine story concerning the origins of Chisato's "Watarasebashi". And that's the one thing I've enjoyed about the blog...reading not just about the rankings for the songs but also the personal connection between the contributor and the songs themselves.

    I remember "Watarasebashi" from the Chisato intro since I've also got "Lucky 7" on my shelf. One of the disadvantages of having collected so many J-Pop albums over the years is that I'm often at a loss about which one to listen to again, so it's been some time since I've taken "Lucky 7" out again.

    As for me, I like both versions from Chisato and Aya. I like the former due to the slightly Beatlesque arrangement and the latter since Aya provides somewhat richer vocals. The "little chicken voice" is a Chisato characteristic to be sure and I think it's one of the reasons that I've enjoyed some of her songs. And I can name quite a few early 80s aidoru and pop singers who could fall into the category. :)

    I'm glad that you are on the blog now as a contributor. I'm also looking forward to hearing some of your opinions on Akina. Feel free to follow up on some of the articles I've written about her in the past if you feel that you have a different angle on the particular song.

    And to echo Marcos' statement, welcome aboard!

    1. Thanks, J-Canuck. I'll try to fill in whenever I could. Happy blogging.

  4. Amazing story. I only have until recently discovered this beatiful music and lyrics. Thanks for the information

    1. Thanks for your comments. I am glad that you enjoy the song as well as the story behind it. Cheers!

  5. Ashikaga happens to be my hometown. I drive by that phone booth every morning on my way to work. To this day, amazingly, fans of the song come to take pictures of the booth.

    1. Hello, Kaz.

      Just by coincidence, my student and I were talking about some of the places in Tochigi Prefecture tonight. It's quite amazing about how fans come over to take photos of that phone booth. In the age of cellphones, I'm not even sure if it's that easy to find a phone booth anymore.

    2. Kaz, thank you for your comments. The Internet is so amazing that I’m able to have a conversation with someone who is living in Ashikaga! I surely hope that the phone booth will not be taken down.

  6. I can't remember the last time I made a call from a phone booth but they ARE there still. As Larry writes in his article, NTT is gradually reducing the numbers of booths, though.

    The song has a special spot in the hearts of many of the people of Ashikaga as it sort of put their beloved city "on the map".

    As for the song itself and its many cover versions, I like Moritaka's original the best. It has this hand-made, lo-fi charm to it. The fact Moritaka herself played the drums on this as well as the piano & the recorder maybe has something to do with the reason why some people find its tempo a bit rushed. Moritaka is not a professional drummer, and it's much harder to keep rhythm at a lower tempo. I also think that her drum playing as well as her somewhat "dry" delivery adds to the song's plaintive yet not overly melancholy tone which I like.

    It seems that the song is also special to Moritaka herself as she chose Ashikaga Community Hall for her 25th anniversary show in 2013.


Feel free to provide any comments (pro or con). Just be civil about it.