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The hidden charms of Nerima

by Kit Nagamura

Do you have daikon ashi (giant-radish legs)? Let’s hope not, as the Japanese metaphor usually applies to fat, lard-white and water-laden gams. If the daikon in question is from Nerima, however, it’s no insult, as the northwestern ward’s famous daikon is a long, slender and highly prized variety.

The Nerima daikon often grows to a meter in length, and once dried by winter winds and bedded in rice bran for several months, it makes excellent takuan, a crispy yellow pickle.

Nearly every shopping arcade in Nerima features stores selling manju (bean-jam buns) shaped like a daikon. The manju made at the tiny Umemura Wagashi in the neighborhood of Sakuradai have won national awards and have been nominated to be the ward’s official sweet.

“We declined that honor, though,” purveyor Reiko Kono explained, “because we didn’t want to get too busy.” On an afternoon when Sakuradai’s main drag seemed deserted, waves of customers dropped by Umemura for a daikon fix.

“We get a lot of business from carpenters,” laughed Reiko, a 40-year resident of Nerima, “with all the development going on around here. We’re urbanized now.”

Shizu Ishihara, 57, works the desk at the freshly remodeled Nerima Cultural Center, right beside the Heisei Azalea Park, which blazes in May with 650 varieties of the ward flower, including one named for the ward: Nerima no Kagami (The Mirror of Nerima).

“Nerima is far behind the rest of Tokyo,” Ishihara says. “We’re still the countryside out here, with cabbage patches everywhere.” Cabbage? It turns out many Nerima farmers have recently shifted from the autumnal crop of daikon to the more easily harvested cabbage. Nerima grows about 40 percent of Tokyo’s cabbage supply, and following Ishihara’s directions, I found patch-side stands where you drop a couple of coins in a box and cart off a head or two. There’s even a monument to the upstart cruciferous veggie, a gleaming silver cabbage on black marble, near Shakujii Park.

Nerima is hardly storybook countryside, but if you poke around, you do find cows. Seriously. Forty of the big girls inhabit Koizumi Bokujo, a Holstein dairy farm surrounded by residential apartment buildings. Owner Koizumi-san says the farm has been producing milk (and ice cream) for 70 years, but relations with the neighbors, especially those downwind, are testy.

“Recently, schools have been bringing their children here, though, and I think that contact with real animals is crucial for education,” Koizumi says, as one of his cows catches me with a lick.

Domesticated animals of all sorts, even rabbits, strain against their owners’ leashes through the ward’s luxuriously large park areas. Hikarigaoka Park — once the Japanese Imperial Army’s Narimasu airfield and later the post-World War II U.S. Army housing base, Grant Heights, until 1973 — is today a spacious oasis of greenery.

Centrally located in the ward, Shakujii Park gets the most ambulatory traffic. The action is divided between Shakujii Pond to the east, a Shibuya Crossing of swan and paddle boats, and Sanpoji Pond to the west, the source of the Shakujii River and a bird preserve. Nearby, the barest remains of Shakujii Castle — a stronghold of the medieval Toshima clan that once held sway over the area — conjure up the sound of horses used in battle at the time. The second kanji of the ward’s name, in fact, means “horse,” and some suggest the ward’s name came from local training grounds for military steeds. The ward’s insignia today sports the katakana ne with a fat horse hoof stamped on it.

The site of another Toshima castle is today a popular amusement park, Toshimaen, and here, it’s all about horsepower, in the speed of thrilling rides and in one of the world’s most gorgeous carousels, the El Dorado. Carved by Hugo Hasse of Leipzig, Germany, in 1907 and installed at Coney Island in 1910, the ornate menagerie with three, multispeed tiers was eventually bought by Toshimaen.

The Nerima residents I met were unpretentious, delightfully quirky and generous with their time. Master brush-maker Masafumi Kamei and his wife, Hisako, spent hours of their valuable time sharing the intricacies of their craft with me. As we talked, Hisako assembled mink fur into perfect, acorn-shaped brush tips and Masafumi performed sa-rai, the culling of only the straightest strands from the handful of fur taken from the chests of 1-year-old Chinese sheep. Masafumi somewhat begrudgingly completed the 20-year apprenticeship his father required, but his son, 29-year-old Akio, is eager to ply the trade. Machine-made and polyester core brushes are flooding the markets, but Masafumi said, “An artist knows the inferior product with a single stroke.”

Nerima has called to a wide variety of brush-wielders: Toei Animation Studios and Mushi Pro studio, home of Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy, are both located in Nerima; Rumiko Takahashi not only lives in Nerima, but also set her famous manga series, Ranma 1/2, there; Chihiro Iwasaki, beloved illustrator of children, lived in Shimo-Shakujii, where her former home is now the Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo; and “The Father of Japanese Botany,” Tomitaro Makino, spent his last 30 years working on exquisite plant illustrations and classifications in his Oizumi studio, surrounded by his botanical garden, still preserved today.

Last, I felt compelled to visit Nerima’s Chomeiji, reputed to contain one of Japan’s spookiest sights. The Sugatami well on the premises of this early Edo temple, if peered into, is rumored to reveal the nature of the viewer’s death. Unable to locate the well, I asked an aged gentleman for help. “Yes, it was terrifying as a child,” he explained, “and its reputation may stem from the fact that children used to fall in. They certainly saw their own deaths.” The well is bolted over with steel mesh for safety now, but you can still look into its profound depths, if you dare.