Ota Ward is totally fly. For starters, it hosts Haneda, the only airport actually situated in Tokyo’s 23 wards. Although a plane would come in handy in navigating this southernmost and largest of the city’s wards, you’d miss out on roasting wieners at Ota’s weekend barbecue hot spot, Jonanjima Seaside Park.
On weekdays, locals laze around the park’s boardwalk, plane-spotting the departures of Haneda’s nearly 3,000 weekly domestic flights as they curve directly overhead.
Haneda pilots have nothing on the inhabitants of nearby Tokyo Port Wild Bird Park, near Ryutsu Center Station on the Tokyo Monorail. Urban planners have let this area of landfill go back to a (somewhat) natural state, and now it’s “for the birds.” Nature-lovers flock to watch for cormorants, gray herons, grebes and coots. Peering through one of the not-yet-stolen public telescopes (the remaining two are chained in place), I caught sight of a massive female goshawk, a raptor usually found in mature forests. “She’s often here,” a photographer remarked, adjusting his meter-long telephoto lens.
Birds of paradise, the petaled variety, can be spotted at the flower market in Ryutsu Center, Tokyo’s largest wholesale auction arena. Spectators can prowl an elevated catwalk to watch bidding on the buds, starting from 7 a.m. With a little discretion and Japanese-language skills, visitors can also sneak down later in the morning to bag a bargain bouquet. “We’ll give you the regular discount, as long as you buy a certain amount, and come at a quiet time,” confides 36-year-old Kazuaki Yui, a flower wholesaler for 15 years. “It’s busy as hell at midnight,” he says, “but there aren’t many guys in this business, so think about it — lots of girls and lots of flowers — it’s a pretty good gig.” Nota bene: Christmas trees, poinsettias, and other holiday flora can be uprooted for less than half retail price — provided you can haul them home.
Each of the locations above was built on landfill, and as a result nori (seaweed) preparation, once Ota’s financial mainstay, is finished because there’s no place left to gather it. A few sea lots are still packing in the garbage, but experts agree: Ota Ward can’t cram more into Tokyo Bay without irreparably damaging the ecosystem.
The solutions are, literally and figuratively, up in the air. From October, 2007, Ota Ward began collecting plastic garbage with burnable trash, claiming new technology would prevent harmful levels of dioxins from escaping incinerators. Some environmentalists are skeptical.
The fishermen who live along the southern edge of Haneda, where the Tamagawa River eases out into Tokyo Bay, say they’ve dealt with plenty of environmental challenges, not the least of which was being evicted from their lands when Haneda airfield was expanded to serve as a U.S. Army air base in 1945. The local shrine, Anamori Inari (built in 1818) — popular with devotees who pray for good crops and success in business — was dismantled and rebuilt several hundred meters away. Only one giant torii (shrine gate) remained behind. When soldiers and construction crews tried to move it, they reportedly had accidents or mysteriously fell ill. Only after proper rites and purification ceremonies were completed in 1999 was the gate repositioned on a promontory where Haneda passengers can easily admire it.
Harder to spot is a tiny nearby shrine, perched on an unsteady quay beyond the breakwater walls. It marks a 50-meter shoal devised to deflect river floods, and commemorates fishermen perished at sea. Anglers still tie up all along this edge of Ota, where the tangle of salt-crusted nets, the slight stink of bait, and tidewaters gurgling beneath weathered boats adds up to an oddly haunting tableau.
The old Tokaido highway ran through current day Omori on its route from Edo (present-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Ota resident, 75-year-old Hiroshi Suyama kindly guided me to Mochi Jin, a Japanese sweet shop with more than 300 years’ history. The owner’s daughter-in-law, Kyoko Fukumoto, greeted Hiroshi warmly (“My father knew her grandfather,” Hiroshi explained) and set out a box of abekawa mochi (rice sweets with soy powder and brown-sugar syrup). I’ve eaten this before, but Mochi Jin’s version is feather soft, and explains the shop’s longevity. Hiroshi, spry and spirited, walked me around for six hours, almost enough to work off the mochi calories.
While superstitions are clearly part of life in Ota, if Anamori Shrine is any indication, witches are not why the ward’s sister city is Salem, Massachusetts. Anthropologist Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925), discoverer of ancient shell mounds both in Shinagawa and in Ota Ward, made his home in Salem. Much loved for his detailed observation of Meiji Era (1868-1912) culture, Morse is also said to have promoted in Japan the natural selection theories of Charles Darwin.
In the luxurious neighborhood of Denenchofu, some Darwinian survival theories are obviously in play. The “garden suburb,” developed and designed during the Taisho Era (1912-1926) by financier Eiichi Shibusawa and publisher Tsuneta Yano, survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II bombings and looks just as it did 20 years ago. Tokyo’s answer to Beverly Hills features leafy slopes and lavish homes. Even the ducks in Horai Park act entitled, pecking at your pant leg for handouts. “They’re quite bossy,” said an employee from the nearby Den-en, but he obliged nonetheless.
Time flies in other areas of Ota. My first Tokyo apartment was in the northern tip of the ward. The only train servicing that neck of the fields was the Mekama Line, a humble trio of dill-pickle-green cars. Then, 20 years ago, any building over two stories was considered high-rise, nights were filled with the cluck of geta (wooden sandals), and someone kept deer in a pen at Senzokuike Park. Today, the deer and my apartment are gone, everyone’s in sneakers, private homes are now at least three-stories high, and the new trains are generic silver.
Tokyo Institute of Technology (acronym alert!) is still around, with a modernized campus and an enrollment peppered with international undergrads. “They actively recruit foreigners,” says Floridian engineering student 21-year-old Brett Davenport, “and companies like Honda, Sony, and Panasonic sponsor research, so you also get practice on your business skills.”
A walk from TIT to Senzokuike (meaning foot-washing pond) threads through neighborhoods so quiet you can actually hear clocks ticking on window ledges. The pond scene is another story. Once the footbath of famous Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222-1282), Senzokuike now resembles a giant birdbath. Ducks, gulls and herons join swan boats in the water, kids and dogs run the circumference, and kingfishers fly by like blue lightning.
Ota’s prize flight, though, consists of 96 steps leading up to the temple, Ikegami Honmonji. Sacred to Nichiren, who passed away on the site, Honmonji features two important cultural properties of Japan, Tokyo’s oldest five-story pagoda (1608) and a small wooden sculpture of Nichiren.
Born a poor fisherman’s son and exiled twice for his outspoken criticism of Buddhist beliefs, Nichiren persevered to found a branch unique to Japan, which suggests that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime by chanting the Lotus Sutra.
From Honmonji, the panorama includes Ikegami Plum Garden, as well as two distinct factions of Ota. The Magome highlands to the north were once home to writers such as Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima and artists such as Ryushi Kawabata and Shotei Takahashi, but little remains to be seen today; to the south, the lowlands of Kamata host machikoba, or small manufacturing companies. Though their numbers are dropping, thousands still operate, and the ward is working hard to convince its innovative and highly skilled workforce to choose fight over flight.