Koiwa: A pine, a pilgrimage and a mountain tsunami.

At a house party last week I met a 27-year-old office girl from Tochigi.  We had a brief but fun conversation.  She giggled a lot, I giggled a little, the main thing I remember was how much she said she liked living in Koiwa, in downtown east Tokyo. 

Giggly girl told me Koiwa people say hello to each other; she loved this sense of being part of a local community.  Now she lives in Itabashi-ku in central Tokyo where nobody bothers with aisatsu (greetings).  Excited by the possibility of seeing Tokyo aisatsu, I took a brisk stroll around Koiwa yesterday, keeping my eyes open for uncommon friendliness.    

Departing the JR station, the streets seemed narrower than west Tokyo, I kept having to swerve to avoid people.  Perhaps ohayo and konnichi wa are not greetings here but euphemisms for “get out my way!” 

The weather was cold and cloudy with rain and snow forecast.  Food seemed a good start before trawling the streets.  Outside a promising looking sushi restaurant, two girls in mini-skirts were chatting to a shifty old man wearing ill-fitting navy trousers.  I had seen them greet each other.  He looked friendly; the girls looked mean, one of them had a pout fierce enough to frighten me off the sidewalk.  I fiddled with my mobile while waiting for them to finish chatting, then went inside.  

There was only one table in Edoyoshi – and the chef and his wife were sitting at it.  While chatting to a customer on the phone, the chef turned to me and smiled.  He wore a white coat and sported potentially award-winning bushy grey eyebrows.  Completely bald, his brown head resembled a polished egg-shell crowned with a rolled up navy and white handkerchief.  

A friendly, chatty couple, hearing it was my first visit to Koiwa, they insisted I visit a legendary black pine tree at nearby Zenyoji temple. 

The chef then spent a painstaking 10 minutes making a map for me, even though Zenyoji was only a 5 minute walk away.  To be fair to him, map-making is not an important qualification for sushi chefs.  When he could not recall the Chinese characters for some of the road signs and landmarks, his wife came to help him. 

The map, which started as a spur of the moment scribble, was growing into a sacred document.  Saying “hai wakarimashita” several times did not seem to convince them I understood the way.  In fact, the more I said “I understand,” the more labels he seemed to add.  My stomach groaned when at one point, a different colour pen came out.  The importance of correct navigation was growing by the minute, as if now I was to be entrusted with carrying a sickly infant grandson to the gates of heaven.    

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I am glad they made the effort though, Zenyo-ji, the temple they directed me to, was a revelation.  “It has the biggest black pine in Japan,” he told me, three times.  The tree was huge, dominating centre stage in the temple grounds, the temple buildings were side shows.  

The pine stretches 28 metres in diameter to the north and south, and 31 metres to the east and west.  Over 600 years old, its huge branches are suspended on wooden supports; two gardeners were carefully trimming it while I was there.  A recently completed long-running project to treat the tree has ensured it`s immediate survival.  So much money and effort expended on one tree; other pines must be green with envy.

Also within the temple grounds, you can complete the famed 1,200km 88 temple pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku.  A compressed version of the real thing, you only have to walk 20 steps.  Imagine the fury of pilgrims who discover this short-cut to enlightenment after spending months doing the real thing.    

A good view of the branches of the sprawling pine comes from on top of Yokozuna Mound, named after Tochinishiki, a locally born sumo-wrestler who advanced to the top rank of yokozuna.  A statue of him in pre-bout pose stands inside Koiwa station.   

Near the main entrance gate to Zenyoji is a memorial tablet to the victims of a yamatsunami (mountain tsunami).  Mountain tsunami?  Yes, mountain tsunami.  Danger doesn`t just come from the seas or beneath the ground but above us too.  Perhaps Japan should just give up.  Either that or move somewhere less seismic.  Greece should be going quite cheap right now.

Mount Asama, a huge volcano north of Tokyo erupted in the 1780s spreading lava up to 18km away and destruction and famine far further.  Climactic changes caused by the enormous explosions at Mount Asama have been linked with the agricultural disturbances that led to the French revolution.  Why the memorial at Zenyoji?  According to the sign dead bodies were washed down to the Edogawa river which flows behind Zenyoji.   Koiwa residents fished the corpses out of the water and gave them a proper burial. 

Unfortunately no youtube footage of this volcanic disaster exists so the whole story will be considered a lie by nuclear safety experts.  Plans are probably already advancing to build a new plant on Mount Asama right now.

My short tour of Koiwa finished by the river, looking out to the many bridges that cross the wide waters of the Edogawa.  Across one of those bridges, riding trains back and forth to Narita airport, I often see baseball matches being played along the river bank – river banks are about the only suitable place for pitches in crowded Tokyo. 

While climbing stone steps leading to the top of the bank, I planned to walk down to the riverside.  But when I reached the top, I dithered: a brutal gale was blowing.  The umbrella I was clinging to made two sustained bids for freedom, the rain was torrential and the usually busy golden grass playing fields deserted.  Even the homeless had retreated into shelter, there was not even a mad dog about to say hello to.  I will wait until next time.  A mountain tsunami, a monster pine tree and a 1,200km pilgrimage were enough for one afternoon.

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