Even now, after more than a decade of visiting and photographing around Mount Mitakesan in western Tokyo, R. and I still find new pictures to take. Sometimes it’s something new or that we didn’t notice before, such as the goblins “hidden” in the renovated stairs which lead to the summit-top shrine, or a new lookout spot to the green serrated ridges of the surrounding mountains on the trail from Hinodesan to Tsurutsuru onsen; other times it’s a new way of seeing an old subject, such as the backlighting on the tengu tree this trip.
Mitakesan continues to be enjoying its moment, as there were far more visitors than we’re used to, and far more tourists at the shrine and on the trails. On the plus side, work crews have done some serious maintenance leading from Hinodesan down to the Tsurutsuru onsen; this section of the trail used to have steep, knee-aching stairs but have been replaced by far gentler, knee-saving steps.
Another great day at Mitakesan. Despite the growing crowds, I expect we’ll continue to return to one of our favourite power spots in Japan…
Shinjuku North Side: Kabukicho; Golden Gai; Hanazono Shrine; Skyscraper District
Almost two decades ago, I landed in Japan on what was to be a three-year overseas adventure from my home in Canada. I’m still here, but that’s another story…. Those first days in-country, while my then-partner — I’ll call her Achan — attended orientation training at the Keio Park Plaza hotel before being posted to rural Hokkaido to help “internationalize” the countryside (but that’s still another story…) I spun out a jet-lagged fugue through the neon canyonlands and narrow sidestreets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me. Minus the hair. And Scarlett Johansson.
After three years Achan returned to her family in suburban Calgary. After another year, in central Hokkaido this time, I relocated to Tokyo for some big-city adventure.
Now, thirteen years later, I live in a comfortable if un-cinematic neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Every day, on the commute, I pass through labyrinthian Shinjuku Station.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” to paraphrase The Naked City. And more than three million of them pass through Shinjuku each day. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shinjuku Station as the“world’s busiest station”. Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest: Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.”
A “vertical garden city” for the people, or gated community of 1%ers? Still not clear on this myself. Maybe a bit of both? Mori Tower stands as the centrepiece of the complex, 54 floors of mostly office space with top-shelf tenants including Apple, Barclays Bank, Google, Lenovo, Nokia, and The Pokemon Company. True, Mori Art Museum and Skyview is open to the public, but access is by way of a separate entrance. Also true there are a variety of facilities around the base of the tower, including shops and restaurants, a movie theatre, a stroll garden, and event space, again all open to the public – though separated from the surrounding neighbourhood by walls breached in a couple of places by staircases and the glass, guard-tower-like Metro Hat.
Another Friday, another trip to Golden Gai. Not that I’m complaining. It’s actually great to have such an interesting part of Tokyo on my commute line. No doubt the area is changing, and not wholly for the good: last night, for the first time, a tout hit me up within Golden Gai itself – albeit near one of the entrances:
“Good evening sir! We have a new international bar. ‘Happy Endings.'”
At first, my new neighbourhood in Nerima comes across as any other near-city suburb in western Tokyo. Acres of boxy, two-storey houses with blue or rust roofs and little or no yard radiant from the train station. Functional low-rise walkups with open hallways and stairwells. Light-industry factories and warehouses. Grim schoolhouses. And in the between-spaces, fields of cabbage and onion and corn.
So very, very different from the hip, upscale neighbourhoods in central Tokyo, aka The Big Sushi, where R., my wife, and I commute every day for work.
We moved here, bought a house and everything, after eight years in nearby, semi-rural Kodaira. And that – eight years – is the longest I’ve lived in one place. Ever. So much for my “three-year adventure in Japan! Sorry, Ma. But that’s another story…
Compared to Kodaira, Nerima at first feels claustrophobic: houses, fields, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, all share too little space. Stepping out our front gate the first night in our new home, SUVs menace on the narrow, poorly lit, sidewalkless streets. Headlights swerve to the left of us, to the right of us, straight at us… and that was just in front of our house!
As we settle in, however, and on laid-back weekends explore our new surroundings, the character of the place starts to open up. Across the street from our house a spooky parkette with the copper-green statue of a child but never any real children — or anyone else, for that matter. The Muscle Gym around the corner — that’s the name, by the way, in English and Japanese — with a jacked-up 4×4 in front, a middle-aged guy with a punch perm and sweat suit smoking by the door and joking with a knot of young men. Next door two kindly obasans, middle-aged women, make bento box lunches by hand among great dusty sacks of rice from all over Japan.
Mornings, I wake before dawn brightens the skylights. A rooster crows as I hit the shower. By the time I start my walk to the station, the farmers are already hard at work trimming cabbages with long knives and loading the heads into barrows. Back from the road carrots, cauliflower, broccoli are left for sale on tables and clear-fronted, coin-operated vegetable lockers. Only in Japan….
A forty-minute commuter express ride each way takes us to and from the sky islands and neon canyonlands of the Tokyo that you, gentle reader, likely imagine. We squeeze into trains packed tight as sushi rolls, jack into iPods same as everyone else, do our best to tune out the discomfort. Lately I’ve taken to passing the time with meditation podcasts.
After a day in the workaholic city, I return to our quiet little home and even quieter neighbours, mostly retirees – or gentlemen farmers. Sometimes I catch a sunset, all cherry-blossom pink; other times I watch the moon rise through the skylights.
R. has a different schedule from me, so weeknights I am often in bed before she gets home, dreams of cabbages dancing in my head…
Maybe this isn’t the adventure I expected when I left family and friends back in Toronto all those years ago now. But as I become mindful to the details of this residential suburban life, I find myself growing and deepening in experience. And isn’t that what adventure is all about?
Recently I’ve been hanging out with a camera in Roppongi, specifically Roppongi Hills — MORI Minoru’s vision of the radiant city, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. I’ll have more to say later in the season; for now, I’m at work on a couple of other writing and photography projects, including a short trip to Kanazawa this week…
I’ve put together a — still-growing — curated set of pictures from Roppongi Hills. Meantime, here’s some of the more popular pictures, as selected by viewers at 500px.com: