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Thatched spring in Setagaya

by Kit Nagamura

To slough off winter sluggishness and get into step with spring, I set a course from Seijo Gakuen-mae on the Odakyu Line to Jidayubori Minkaen — a compound of late-Edo Period (1860s) thatched farmhouses in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward — and ending at Futako Tamagawa Station, about 4 km away as the crow flies.

I don’t fly. In fact, less than 100 paces into the journey I’m waylaid by the aroma of baking bread drifting out from old-fashioned patisserie Prairial Seijo. Pink mousses decorated with sakura blossoms, peaked Mont Blanc cakes, and a so-called Bavarois Natur speckled with Madagascar vanilla flecks are all tempting, but too delicate to survive a hike. I buy a loaf of sweet brioche instead.

Back on track, the pretty suburban road from Prairial Seijo tilts downward toward Tokyo’s natural southern border with Kanagawa Prefecture, the Tama River. The going is pleasant but nondescript until I reach Seijo Sanchome Park, perched on a bluff overlooking the alluvial plains of Setagaya and offering breathtaking views of Mount Fuji. The downhill path is punctuated by wooden cradles of moldering leaves built by elementary school students to provide habitat for rhinoceros beetles.

At the park’s end, I cross Setagaya Avenue, then the No River, where rice paddies lead to another time and place.

It’s midmorning at Jidayubori Park. Pigeons and moss decorate the thatched roofs of the farmhouses, women gather garden vegetables, a rooster crows, and green-feathered Japanese white-eyes flit from magnolia to plum trees. It is an oasis of profound spring peace.

Under orders from Edo’s first Shogun, Tokogawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), local residents dug the Jidayubori, or moat, for flood control and irrigation. Today, one stretch of the original moat has been preserved, along with late-Edo Period homes moved here from nearby sites.

Removing my shoes at each entrance to the three main residences, I slide over the chilly wood and tatami floors until my toes grow numb. One of the nicest features of the homes, aside from their spare lines and open-air views of bamboo and flowering trees, is their fireside “occupants.” Employees serve tea, answer questions and, most importantly, tend the irori (centralized firepit for cooking). Smoke from these toe-warming hearths is essential to thatched roofs, to keep the insect population at bay.

“Thatching lasts about 35 years,” staff member Hiromi Minowa, 46, informs me, straightening her indigo samue (traditional work garb). “We use kaya, a special grass, gathered in Kawaba Mura, Gunma Prefecture, and we rethatch the roof in sections. The line between the new grass and the old gradually blends in.”

Aside from three houses, the compound includes a small fire station and watch tower, as well as tool sheds. Displays of Edo Period (1603-1868) and Meiji Era (1868-1912) farm implements are in semipermanent stasis; no one seems inclined to hand- crank the large agricultural fan, sit at the weaving looms, or operate the rice- pounding contraption. However, most of the park’s facilities are in active use if you hit the right day. Local guilds of indigo dyers, blacksmiths, and woodworkers, among others, gather periodically at the site to practice age-old skills.

On the day I visit, a group of high school students from Canada are entertained by experts in Edo Period toys. Ready to laugh off the deceptively simple takeuma (bamboo stilts), the teenagers soon find themselves vertically challenged, falling left and right in shrieks of laughter.

Meanwhile, members of Japan’s Kobiki no Kai (wood sawyers’ association) walk by, wielding antique oga — the massive broadsaws used to cut logs lengthwise into planks. “The last of these were made 60 years ago, and no one knows how to forge them anymore,” says 52-year-old sawyer J.D. Russell, a native Missourian, showing me a storage rack of the toothed dinosaurs. “If you find one of these, let me know,” he says.

I’m encouraged to try my hand at using a madonoko, a saw with “windows” between its teeth to facilitate cutting across tree trunks. I need to find the correct posture and rhythm, and apply slight pressure to keep the saw from jamming as it cuts on the pulling stroke. Pretty soon, I’ve made a millimeter’s progress on the log, my feet surrounded by shavings of aromatic camphor.

An elderly couple wanders by, and proudly shows off bags of tsukushi (horsetail) sprouts they’ve just gathered near the Tama River. They offer the sawyers and me a bunch, and I ask how to prepare them. “Access your inner termite,” J.D. quips, dashing off to get another saw. The couple patiently shows me how to remove the hakama (stalk collars), then suggest that I stir-fry, dip in tempura batter, or simmer the sprouts in soy, sake, mirin, and dashi.

Suddenly I’m hungry. Heading south toward Okamoto Park, hoping to find a soba shop en route, I make a wrong turn. A housewife hanging out laundry sets me straight, and kindly provisions me with sun-warmed kumquats from a neighbor’s tree. I munch on the unpeeled fruits, the combination of sour skin and sweetly crunchy, seeded flesh is lovely with hunks of brioche in the spring noon. I cross Tama Tsutsumi Avenue, and pass under the Tomei Kosoku highway, taking the first left to escape the rush of cars.

Just past Eianji (1398), a temple with a pair of towering gingko trees several centuries old, I find a sign that reads: “Come Flower Design School.” With trepidation, I creep toward the back of a huge lot covered in blossoming trees. Floral-design instructor, 40-something Ami Ishii pops out of her newly built workshop and happily explains that she teaches all sorts of flower arrangement — from bridal bouquets to table adornments — to students “age 7 to 96.”

While Ishii eagerly assembles brochures, I follow her father on an impromptu tour of his extensive property. The spry octogenarian shoots up a bamboo forest path, culminating in a tiny fox shrine at the summit. Looking down on their carefully nurtured groves, it is easy to see that the Ishii family lives and breathes growing things.

Thanking Ami and her father, I head out again, following the slim Maruko River to Okamoto Park, home to another Edo Period thatched farmhouse. Any other day I would hunker down with a cup of tea and chat up the docents, but it’s midafternoon, and I have far to go.

I dash up a formidable flight of steps behind the farmhouse for a quick visit to Okamoto Hachiman Shrine (believed to be at least 200 years older than the 1804 torii gate). After enjoying the elevated view, I descend and, just off to the left, discover Tajima Nobuo Gallery. A sign outside reads “Only Woman.” Figuring I fit the bill, I enter, and discover the sign isn’t a gender prohibition, but refers instead to the subject matter being exhibited. I am greeted by Nobuko Tajima, 76, sole proprietor of a private gallery of artwork by Nobuo Tajima (1961-93), her late son.

Nobuko’s first son died just shy of 3 months old, she tells me, so she took special care of her second boy, Nobuo. “He was talented, but very sensitive, and at age 32 he just said goodbye,” she says. Of sickness or accident? Nobuko just shakes her head and smiles. Sensing the topic off limits, I gaze at Nobuo’s paintings.

“I want the world to see his work,” Nobuko says, flipping though portfolios of her son’s varied sketches. “Everybody has a path and this is mine; some people understand that, and some don’t.”

What I understand, after taking my leave and walking in Okamoto Park, is that Nobuko honors her son by embracing the communal aspects of art.

At the end of a steeply rising path, I find a monument to a similar impulse, the Seikado Bunko Art Museum. Opened to the public in 1992, the museum displays the astounding artwork and manuscript collection of Mitsubishi’s second president, Yanosuke Iwasaki (1851-1908).

Though I’d love to go in, last entrance (4 p.m.) is minutes off. I save it for another day and stride off through Setagaya’s most affluent suburbs, headed for Futakotamagawaen Station.

I am almost relieved when I hit a shopping street and find a tiny shop named Hara Donuts. Fashioned from okara (a byproduct of tofu-making) and soymilk, and in organic tea, black bean, espresso, and green tea flavors, they seem just desserts at the end of this spring training.