PEAKS & PILGRIMAGE
I seemed to spend half my waking life on the Chuo Line when I lived in Tokyo. Now I was once again jumping into one of the familiar orange carriages at Nishi Kokubunji, playing a little game of Guess the Next Station from Memory as our kaisoku (rapid) train sped inbound: Kokubunji, Musashi-Koganei, Higashi-Koganei, Musashi-Sakai, Mitaka — and then the next stop on my high-speed visit to places from my Tokyo past: Kichijoji.
I used to love just about everything about Kichijoji, starting with its name, but not counting the crowds surging park-wards down the backstreets on weekends and holidays. Today, though, a lovely Thursday morning, was something else. Time for some caffeine (the Starbucks was still there; the green-tea gelato joint, sadly, was not), and then I descended to Inokashira Park, a favourite hangout in 2000-2003 and again in 2007-2008.
No time, regrettably, to stretch out like I did in the old days, with headphones, latte and novel, watching the gals go by. In fact there weren’t many gals there at all, which helped immensely with my tight schedule.
I’d seldom seen the place this quiet. On weekends it was always buzzing, with craft stalls, buskers and couples a-plenty doing a circuit or two around the pond. But for crowds, noise and atmosphere, you couldn’t beat Hanami — cherry blossom season. Around 250 cherry trees, venerable specimens leaning onto crutch-like supports, their trunks often swathed in protective straw matting, surround the pond, many leaning far out from the banks to shed blossoms oh-so-poetically into the water.
For that brief week or two when the park was roofed with pink and cream, every square foot of Inokashira was precious real estate. Companies, it was said, would send scouts there early to claim a space for their colleagues; evenings were rowdy and uncharacteristically laid-back, for Japan, the ground a patchwork of blue-plastic tarps. Families, friends and cubicle-neighbours would sit late into the night, among rising peaks of garbage, eating, drinking and singing — some would still be there when the mid-morning sun broke through the blossoms.
I wonder why I have no photos from those evenings. Too busy celebrating the ephemeral brilliance of the blossoms and life itself by getting hammered out of my skull, probably.
(This being Tokyo, you had to take your nature hit when you could get it. I remember being moved to compose a haiku on one early Springtime visit to the park (I was young, or at least younger). It started promisingly — carp, or blossoms, or bamboo, or crows — but ended with a fantasy of bringing down a pesky news helicopter with a surface-to-air missile. Basho had it easy…)
It seldom snows convincingly in Tokyo, but I remember one day in early 2008 when we got some and I rushed to the park to test my Winter gear (and rabbit hat!). Chris and I were living near the park at that time. We started off house-sitting for this western couple who wanted us to mind their guinea pigs. The place was filthy and the pigs were smelly and obnoxiously squeaky. Plus we still had to pay rent!
We moved to a Kichijoji guesthouse for a month or two before our big Japan walk, sharing a tatami-mat room, doing private English lessons, living with an international assortment of nice people and annoying nutjobs. Here we are with our gear — way too much gear:
But today it was warm and I was packed light. I circled the pond (clockwise, of course), which, fed by seven springs, was an early water source for Edo (Tokyo)…
..with a brief detour to the boat rental place where (it embarrasses me to admit) I once spent an odd half-hour in a swan-shaped paddle-boat with two other (male) English teachers on my first visit to the park.
I would like to say that we were drunk but I don’t think we were. I don’t know what we were thinking — maybe we thought it would be a good way to meet girls? If so, it didn’t work, for some reason. I’m just glad that nobody took pictures:
I concluded my visit with a quick visit, via the footbridge, to the Benzaiten shrine perched over one end of the pond:
But my Kichijoji pilgrimage wasn’t quite over yet — I had one more highly pragmatic quest. That was to locate the foreign-foods store I used to frequent in the alleys on the far side of the station. I had almost given up the search, close to tears (I don’t eat well in Korea) when at last…
After some grateful aroma-inhaling and label-savouring, I also got the chance to practise some absolutely crucial Japanese:
Sumi masen, bejimaito-ga arimasuka? (Excuse me, do you have any Vegemite?)
Hai! the lady answered. Arimasu! I bought two jars, enough to see me through my remaining time in Korea. But I didn’t stop with the Vegemite. I could have done without the weight, but for the next couple of days I ate like a god:
I’m still a jar and half, writing this, from desperation. And I’d be back to the park, for one last dose of Tokyo weirdness. Stay tuned…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote