My mind map of Tokyo quickly goes stale. It needs regular refreshing. In an effort to see something new, I took the Nanboku subway line out to Oji on the edge of old Tokyo, a former scenic spot popular with day-trippers.
Oji is not beautiful any more, WW2 bombs burnt down the old and concrete is an underwhelming new. Fortunately for me though, Oji still boasts the essentials for an indulgent afternoon stroll: a foxy shrine, a wooded park and a large bakery.
An incline along a residential street leads to the side entrance of Oji Inari Shrine. Built into a hill above the Keihin Tohoku line, the Oji Inari Shrine claims to be the most important Inari shrine in the Kanto region. Important or not, there were few people about on the Tuesday afternoon I visited, just plenty of stone statues of foxes, the guardian and messenger of the Inari deity.
Something felt wrong about the Oji Inari Shirne. Shrines are often quiet remote places, yet all I could hear was the sound of children screaming. Peering over a fence, I looked down to the main torii gate entrance. Inside the gate, at the bottom of the stone steps, was a slide. Next to this cheekily-placed slide was a cheekily-placed swing. Next to the swing were play-fighting four-year olds. The shrine shares its grounds with a kindergarten.
Under parched ginkgo trees, staff in pink aprons tottered around supervising the infants. The carefree kids, dressed in mauve tracksuits and sky blue smocks, charged about screaming, seemingly without taking breath. My shoulders shuddered at the thought of working there, a starker vision of hell than any religion can produce.
Shinto is a simple religion; it does not bother with stories of hell, it just has lots of closed doors, statues of foxes and collecting boxes. The idea is simple: Just chuck 5 yen in a box and make a wish, no need to dawdle or listen to any sermons. A fox will scamper off to help your wish come true. You don`t even have to bother buying or reading any sacred texts – there is no Shinto bible. It is a religion done on the move and on the cheap, perhaps ideal for a recession.
I dropped 5 yen in a box and prayed I would never need to wear a pink apron.
Next to Oji Inari Shrine is Nanushino Taki Koen, a small wooded park with a waterfall at the end. Parks are precious in jam-packed Tokyo legoland: air pockets of greenery where the trees give your eyes and lungs a rest from the exhaust fumes and drab greyness.
One of my new year resolutions is to learn tree names. Right now I can only identify one tree, and I won`t see that again until Christmas.
In Tokyo many trees wear name badges. A considerate gesture, it makes them easier to identify. But going badge-spotting is a bad habit; I now find myself searching for the badges and ignoring what they are attached to. Take the labels away and I would be blind.
With each tree I have to learn two words, both the japanese and english. For instance, the keyaki tree is called the zelkova tree in English. Zelkova? Sounds like something you would spread on ryvita. Learning the words for Japanese seafood raises the same problem: uni=urchin. Urchin?!
Walking the winding dirt path in Nanushino Taki Koen, one label caught my attention: tonezumimochi – the China rat hold tree. I nearly missed it, if it had not been for the sign, I would have gone past its ugly grey trunk and grimy green leaves.
Tonezumochi, the China rat hold tree, is distinct from both nezumochi, rat hold tree, and mochinoki, hold tree. I am sure you will not confuse them. I know for sure they are different; they each come with different labels.
So why rat tree? Its black berries look like rat poo.
Just telling future tour groups: “this is the rat poo tree,” is probably insufficient explanation so I have done a little research. The oily evergreen leaves of the rat hold tree give them strong resistance to fire. Often planted along roadsides, they grow all over Japan except Hokkaido. Sounds like I will see them again – hopefully labelled.
Feeling triumphant after learning a new tree, I ascended the hill at the back of the virtually empty park. Just a handful of lone adult males lurked in hidden corners. An old man in a navy baseball cap sat on a bench unwrapping himself a private picnic. As I rose, the endless racket of Tokyo traffic was joined by short bursts of flapping.
At the end of the path was a green wire cage, the size of a one car garage. Perhaps a dozen crows were inside, the cage just high enough for them to flap their wings once before reaching the roof. They looked confused. So was I. Tokyo has started putting crows in prison.
Why? Good question, very good question. A considerate sign gave the answer; I include a rough translation below:
In the 13th year of the Heisei Emperor, the city of Tokyo began Karasu Taisaku (The Crow Counterattack). It is a drastic but unavoidable measure. There are simply too many naughty crows in Tokyo. Nobody wants to see crows in prison, but they need to learn to behave. We ask for your understanding and cooperation with our counterattack against these verminous pirates of the skies. For details of visiting hours, please contact reception.
The afternoon in Oji changed my mind map of Tokyo forever. It is now speckled with rat poo and images of incarcerated crows and mauve tracksuit wearing devil-children. It needs refreshing again quickly.