In Tokyo, when the going gets hot, the cool go to Hawaii, or flee to mountain resorts. Others plunk down their yen for a dip in a hotel or amusement-park pool. The rest of us steam in the stupefying humidity and hope our flip-flops don’t fuse to the tarmac. Surely there’s some inexpensive, convenient, and not-ridiculously-crowded relief available?
Surfing satellite images on Google Earth, I’ve spotted what looks like an underwater tennis court near Nishi Kasai. I hop on the Tozai subway line to Edogawa Ward to check it out.
From the south exit of the station, I follow a gaggle of moms and toddlers toting plastic ring floats, cheered by the notion that we are headed to the same destination. We’re not, I discover.
Instead, they detour into a niche park — a sandy patch of concrete dinosaurs — and abandon their floats on the benches. I’ve been walking for a grand total of five minutes, but in the heat, I don’t want to go dripping in the wrong direction. Housewife Satoko Ito, 41, laughs when I ask her about the submerged tennis court.
“Well, where we’re sitting right now used to be underwater,” Ito says, referring to the fact that much of southern Edogawa is built on reclaimed land. “But you’re probably talking about the Pool Garden. They drain it mid-September and use it as tennis courts.”
This mystery solved, Ito, her two friends, and I shelter under a trellis of lush wisteria, watching kids pop in and out of an angry-looking Dimetrodon’s concrete maw.
Edogawa claims the largest birthrate per couple in Tokyo (1.33), and Ito and her pals have moved to the ward to raise their children. Greenery, convenience, and child-raising subsidies were key motivators, they confide, but they’re happy to tick off the area’s other highlights.
There’s a free bus from Nishi Kasai to Gyosen, home of the Shizen Zoo (also free) with its petting, fishing, and animal-ogling opportunities. The local sports center (¥200 for adults, ¥50 elementary and junior-high students) features a trampoline in addition to courts and an indoor heated pool. There’s also an “oasis” en route to the Pool Garden that the moms agree is their favorite hangout.
To find this oasis, I have two choices: a broiling thoroughfare or a shady path with parallel dog-run and pungent back-street eau de pooch. I choose the latter — it won’t kill me — and happen upon Sports no Mori (Forest of Sports). It’s a silly name, but I feel as though I have stepped into an idyllic play of light and water in the air, a pointillist painting. Sprays of mist catch dots of sunlight, fountains are filled with leaping children and their translucent plastic floats, and parents stand around as though transfixed by the beauty of summer. The jabu-jabu (splash park) is grand, but today’s heat nudges it toward a human shabu-shabu (hot pot), so I move on.
Veering on a gentle curve left, I smell the Pool Garden long before I see it. Following the chlorinated airstream, I cough up ¥500 at the entrance (less for kids), and find that “garden” is a bit of a misnomer. A fringe of trees provides swimmers with a minor buffer from the rest of the world, but that’s it. The facilities are clean, with lockers, a restaurant, parking, shaded rest areas, and five pools, named Jabu-Jabu, Jump-in, Jumbo, Slider (with two slides) and Flow, which is a circular current pool. I can see the tennis baselines under the bigger pools; after Sept. 3, they’ll be high and dry.
Though I am tempted to grab a cold one at the poolside, I have another destination — Kasai Rinkai Park — on my list of alternatives to Hawaii. From the pool, I venture south under a merciless midday sky the color of a clamshell.
At the water gate controlling the level of the Shin Sakon River, remarkably pretty for a city river, I find Ryosuke Sada, age 14, and Keisuke Sedo, age 12, manhandling a red rubber boat.
“That Pool Garden is boring,” explains Keisuke. “Yeah,” chimes in the more diplomatic Ryosuke, “Summer is all about boats.”
The young sailors are not certain whether they’re allowed to launch right here on the river, but they’re thinking about it. A last-ditch option would be the marina 10 minutes to the west.
I leave them to their navigational woes and return to my own, plodding my way past a truck terminal, the Lotte golf practice range, and the shuttered Kasai Central Wholesale Market. This is one of the grimmest stretches I’ve ever walked in Tokyo. It’s not a back-street, per se, but it’s also definitely not for the gregarious, unless you’re a worm. There are literally hundreds of desiccated worms on this street.
“They squirm around here after it rains, and it’s squishy going,” remarks a passing cyclist.
I’m giddy by the time I reach the highway bridge to Kasai Rinkai Seaside Park. The 117-meter Diamonds and Flowers Ferris wheel looms up, the second-largest in Japan. In the pavilion below, perhaps inspired by the Ferris wheel’s romantic name, couples ignore the ambient heat and stoke their own.
Paths to the left weave past ponds brackish and fresh, part of the Bird Park sanctuary, today a bit like duck soup. A quick circuit delivers me to the air-conditioned glass dome of Sea Life Park. The entrance fee (¥700 adults; kids under 12 free) has me humming “I Loves You Porgy” at the Atlantic Ocean display, but it’s hard to beat the drama of feeding time at the tuna tank — mad chaos!
The daylight hours are waning, so I jog the Mizube Cruising Line dock (boats depart here for Odaiba and Ryogoku) over to the man-made islands Higashi Nagisa and Nishi Nagisa, which cup Tokyo Bay like a bikini top.
Higashi Nagisa is a bird preserve, but the beach at Nishi Nagisa is open to the public, and families wade and splash in the shallows. Full-on swimming is forbidden because, according to lifeguard Tatsuya Shinohara, “The bay bottom is very soft, and there are dangerous gullies.”
While that’s a bit disappointing, I meet a professional-looking pod of shutterbugs, members of the Kodak Photo Club, all dogging the perfect sunset shot. They generously share tips on the best angles to capture a twilight shot of the Ferris Wheel, which I try out later.
Homeward bound, I’m astonished to hear Hawaiian music coming from the Seaside Hotel, a charming and inexpensive establishment right inside the park. Leilani, a local troupe of hula dancers, performs at Seaside’s terrace restaurant Saturday nights at 5:30 and 7:00, through Sept. 6. I can’t see the ocean from here, but the breeze is slightly salty and the sunset lovely. With a glass or two and the right company, it’s pretty nice. It’s Hawaii Lite.