From the moment you step off the Keio Inokashira Line train, and the bells stop ringing on the platform at Kugayama Station, you have reached Inokashira Dori (street) and the quiet envelopes you; the natural world returns.
Forty-five minutes ago, when the journey began in central downtown Tokyo at the peak of rush hour, black soot stained the sidewalks, cars, windows, bicycles and even noodle vendors. Chrome doorways with enormous glowing signs written in pink and blue Chinese characters mark each entrance on the way to the subway entrance. Green fluorescent light bathes the platform underground as swarms of businessmen and office secretaries in dark blue suits line up at the wicket to enter the platform. On the cold granite runway that stretches the length of a sixteen-car train, people smoke, drink tea or read fat comic books.
Bells ring and a pink light is visible in the distance of the tunnel. The roar increases and then it becomes overwhelming as the brakes are applied and the engines shift gear, the doors open and you are literally pushed into the mouth of the still-rocking machine.
The train is so packed that six different young Asian men in blue suits broadcast the scent of six different stinky, smoky offices into your face. Ads for love hotels, loan sharks, penis enlargement and wedding salons dangle on glossy paper right in your face, if you’re taller than 5 foot, 4 inches. Old men seat themselves next to junior high school girls in short “sailor suit” uniforms and leer inappropriately down at them.
The train tumbles through sixteen anonymous stations that you can shout out in your sleep, you have heard their names so many times. But you couldn’t say which one is which while awake. The bumping and screeching becomes calming and familiar only after 200 round trips or so. The train enters daylight again, the noise becomes less intense, and you know that home is not far. Two more stations and you can disembark for home. The bells ring, the voice reminds you to get your bags, and you shove past some drunks and kids to get out. Pssssht. The doors close, you’re home.
As you go down the stairs and the train goes wherever it goes at night. The warmth of the neighborhood greets you with pink and orange banners and streamers. It hugs you with the noise of children singing nursery rhymes while carrying lunch boxes and 20 pounds of books home from school. It comforts you with the familiar neighborhood shopping association’s jazzy jingle that plays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on loudspeakers positioned every 30 meters along the one-mile length of Iwatsu Dori, the main drag between the station and your apartment.
As the jingle plays its 9 millionth round of happiness and jingle jingle, the cicadas become audible in the background and you hear a brook. A hundred feet south of the station, you cross it, and read the marker (in English): The canal is the Kanda river, and it was dug in 1640, by two brothers commissioned by the Emperor to bring fresh water into downtown rice fields. The word Kanda is made from the characters for god and rice field. Originally it was at grade with the homes around it, but because of erosion, it is now running in a culvert almost twenty feet below the street. A circular mosaic tile illustration is set into the sidewalk and almost 12 feet across. It informs you of what’s in the neighborhood: The school for the blind is 500 meters to the south, Mount Fuji is 33 km. to the southeast. Mount Takao is 10 km. to the west. Kichijoji is just northwest, Ogikubo is just north, and downtown Tokyo is 10 km. to the east.
As you cross the street and pass Mitsubishi Bank, a line of people going shopping is hitting the ATM machine to pay bills, get cash and send e-mail to each other. Next door, the glowing green sign of “Summit” grocery advertises that eggplant and burdock are in season, and that sushi-quality tuna is discounted. A gaggle of bicycles is piled outside, and the 3-story grocery is packed with housewives rushing before dinner.
As you go up Iwatsu, the street ascends slightly onto the hill known as Kugayama. It means mountain apart from all others, and in fact it is a high point for a mile around. The street is only 15 feet wide, and it’s strung with garlands of gold mylar and pink flowers for the springtime.
The temperature on the bank sign said 25 degrees, but oh damn what is that in Fahrenheit? You don’t need a jacket, but you’re happy you’re not in a tee shirt. The smell of frying pork, steaming vegetables and baking breads begins to waft through you.
First you pass an electronics shop, with six televisions set out on carts, and big red plastic “sale” banners. Then it’s a flower shop where they never seem to keep the tulips turgid or the carnations unwilted. A used bookshop is always busy with kids running in to get reading assignments the professor has left with the shop keep. A uniform shop is always open, but with nobody ever present. Except the nurse mannequin and the cleaning lady mannequin standing at attention, headless. Perhaps their heads are at a wig shop or hat shop somewhere.
Halfway home, and now the food part begins. The chicken shop has teriyaki chicken and salted roast chicken, chicken loaf and chicken nuggets. If you want pork slices, you go next door. The pork butcher has sliced pink, smoked gray, red spicy or glazed sweet pork. But if you want burger, keep walking. None of the shops sells more than one specialty.
The rice snack shop is serious, sterile, perhaps enigmatic, and very Asian. It sells fist-sized steamed sticky rice balls wrapped in seaweed. Japanese eat these things like Americans eat cheese sandwiches: as comfort food. They contain either smoked salmon flakes, oily cod, tuna salad, a plum confection or a fresh strawberry. (And if you like beans in your rice, better look in Miami!) In four years their menu has never changed. And in four years they never failed to sell every last treat at about $2 each.
After you pass under a huge Norfolk pine and the fire station, donut shop and adult education center, you will encounter the dining district.
The soba shop is a squat white building that looks like it could be four hundred years old. . A fluorescent lamp flickers in a plastic cabinet outside with wax replicas of the noodle dishes they offer inside. They sell buckwheat noodles in hot broth with fresh wild
vegetables picked off the mountainside, and some mashed potato for about $6. With a fish filet, it’s about $10. And they make a lot of money because nobody goes away hungry, and they all put away a liter of Kirin beer for about $8 each.
The grilled meat shop is always noisy because they have a karaoke machine and a whiskey bar. Their specialty is grilled Korean beef. The noise and the smell protrude into the street as you pass. They, too, have a cabinet outside with wax replicas of their menu.
And the best restaurant, Tao, offers any Buddhist’s fantasy menu of tofu, fried fish, seaweed, pickles, miso soup, soybeans, rice cakes, green tea or red bean ice cream, and plenty of sake. Peaceful world music performed live by an assortment of local high school hippies looking for an excuse to wear baggy Indian leggings while learning to play flute, sitar, tabula or congas.
Finally you arrive at Bear Heights.
A stoic gray, 5-story apartment. The primary beams were erected on May 7, 1990, which was an auspicious day on the Chinese calendar and therefore commanding of a slightly higher rent. (I moved in to Bear Heights #304 in late April 1991). Your abode for four years. From the balcony you can see the length of Iwatsu Dori, and you can see the offices of Iwatsu Electric (maker of fine telephone equipment that dominates the Asian market). Across the street late at night, you can watch Mrs. Matsuda sewing with a single lamp, doing piecework for her husband the tailor. And downstairs across the street, a rice shop with its traditional Shinto shrine, and chalkboard for the prices and grades of rice available today.
It’s identical to many other apartment buildings in suburban Tokyo, except for the stories you can tell about the loves and dreams that took place here. The marriage and the divorce, the one nighter and the all-nighter, the traditional tea service and the blowout party that brought the cops. The chili peppers growing on the balcony and the half-dead geranium suffering above the stove. The cool digital heat control for the bathtub, and the infuriating lack of insulation in the floors or walls. The tiny white plastic refrigerator, and the tiny gray
plastic washer/dryer with fuzzy logic controls.
The apartment is a neighborhood of its own. It’s American soil, and it welcomes you home.
November 10, 1999, Robertson G. Adams,
for “Writing Strategies”