In blistering midday heat, traffic blasts by, spitting out exhaust and grit at the busy intersection of Yotsume and Shin Ohashi Avenues. I’ve exited Sumiyoshi Station on the Toei Shinjuku Line, eager to find Sarue Onshi Park, said to be pretty with streams and water features. About to produce a water feature of my own (sweat, that is), I take desiccative action by ducking under the fresh white noren curtain flapping in front of soba shop Oedo.
A little zaru (bamboo strainer) of cold, hand-cut noodles and tempura seems like the perfect refresher before exploring this area of Koto Ward. My order arrives with a mystery item in the tempura, something resembling a cactus flower.
“That’s a dragonfruit bud from Miyakojima,” 64-year-old chef Masao Ooka calls out from the kitchen. “I scour the markets at Tsukiji every morning to find unique seasonal treats. We used to have five other soba restaurants on this stretch of road and now they’re all gone; for my business to survive these days, I’ve got to be very serious.”
Ooka leans over the kitchen counter on very serious sculpted triceps, bulging from his A-shirt. I ask if he works out. “I didn’t get these at the gym,” he laughs, “but from rolling soba. My muscles really aren’t that big yet — I’m still just a baby chick at this work, cause I only started 10 years ago — but wait ’till you see my arms next year.”
Polishing off the last delicious dragonfruit bud, I pay and promise to return for a muscle check-in during my next flex time.
Outside, the sun pulls no punches. Luckily, Sarue Onshi Park is not far off, a green oasis several degrees cooler than Shin Ohashi Avenue, which divides the park into north and south sections. Unluckily, the water feature in the northern portion of the park is less than riveting. It’s a quiet tank of murky water being fished by local retirees.
From 1733, Yoshimune Tokugawa designated the area as the Edo Shogunate’s lumberyard. Following the Meiji Restoration (1868), Sarue stored logs flumed in from around the country for Imperial use. The tank the oldtimers are fishing from, they tell me, is just like the ones once used to store and soak logs that were then peeled, like rolls of wrapping paper, to produce wood veneers. When I ask for details about that process, the conversation sinks into crude “woody” jokes and I head for the southern section of the park, on the other side of Shin Ohashi Avenue.
While the northern section of the park is relatively new, developed when the timber industry floated off to Koto Ward’s Shiomi area in the 1970s, the southern part of Sarue was donated to the public by the Imperial Household and it opened as a park back in 1932. Here, mature landscaping includes ponds, pines, boulders, tortuous streams, and fields of lush yoshi (reeds) swaying soporifically.A sign, oddly positioned in a marsh, prohibits unauthorized sleeping in the park. I move on before giving in to an illegal lull.
Heading East, I find the Yokojukken River, an Edo canal dating from 1659 and named for its width of 10 ken, or about 18 meters. Expecting a typical concrete-banked city canal, I’m surprised by pleasant boardwalks along the water, cooled by breezes. Rowing teams feathering over the river surface, cyclists navigating the undulating path, and the faint tang of salt in the air draws me south, toward where the Yokojukken intersects with the Onagi River. I cross the blue Clover Bridge, named for its four “leaf” points cross-stitching the two rivers.
Further downriver, I pass a water-control lock, and, just beyond, a landing stage of squat paddle boats tended by men in broad-brimmed jute hats. With rentals at ¥100 per hour, it’s a cheap date, and the further south the river goes, the greener it gets. At one point, I see a blue heron on the banks, and at another I’m buzzed by a flying insect with a built-in vuvuzela.
Here and there, the waterway is posted with statues of kappa, mischievous water sprites said to be fond of eating cucumbers and children. The figures warn would-be bathers that, though the Yokojukken runs a mere 1.8 meters deep, kappa no kawa nagare (even the kappa drowns).
I stop to chat with two boys who have snagged from the river not kappa, but large America Zarigani, an invasive American crawfish that has nearly wiped out Japan’s native species. The boys rinse out plastic aquariums for their feisty speckled invaders. “They make great pets,” chortles one.
I pass a launch area where local volunteers pilot a fleet of six traditional wooden Japanese boats offering free river rides, but only on Wednesdays, in fine weather, between 10 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Alas, I’ve totally missed the boat. However, at the end of the riverwalk, I’ve timed it right at Hana Shobuen, an iris garden planted with more than 1,000 bulbs in 90 varieties, verging on full bloom.
Reluctant to leave the riverside, I backtrack a bit to Notori no Shima (Bird Island) and jag west. I’m a bit surprised to find, of all things, a totem pole peering out over the landscape. It’s one of three gifted to Koto Ward in 1984 by the Canadian Cedar Club of British Columbia, Canada, and it reminds me that the history of this area is all about logs.
As I make my way back toward Sumiyoshi, I zigzag west and north, passing welding factories, steel plants and construction crews lounging in the late afternoon light. A friend has given me the workshop address of a lacquerware artist, and in an alley too narrow for a car, I locate master craftsman Hitoshi Maeda.
In a 4.5-tatami mat room flecked with dried urushi (Japanese lacquer), Maeda, 74, sits on a single cushion and polishes a tray, his hand moving so swiftly it all but disappears. Each of Maeda’s creations requires many months to complete, the product of a painstaking process that begins with a poisonous substance.
Contact with urushi, or an exudate milked from the Toxicondendrum vernicifluum tree from which lacquer is made, causes violently itchy skin rashes and can provoke fatal allergic reactions. When I move my hand toward one of his hake (a brush made of human hair) gleaming with semi-dry lacquer, Maeda’s soft voice goes sharp. “Don’t touch it,” he warns, and I immediately snap back. Apparently, even breathing the vapors, which smell pleasant to me, can set off a severe reaction in some. I begin to measure my breaths.
Regaining his composure, Maeda explains that lacquer must be applied in multiple layers of varying viscosity, some of pure lacquer and others mixed with clay or ash, then polished with different abrasives between each layer. The works are placed in a muro, or closet, where they don’t dry, but rather absorb humidity, and through a chemical reaction take on a hardness and durability that is nonetheless alive and soft to the touch.
“People think lacquerware is fragile,” Maeda says, “but it’s incredibly tough and useful. Just wipe it with a cloth, and you’re done. A little care, and it will long outlast your grandkids.” Maeda whips out his cell phone, which he says cost him nothing. “I personalized it with a single layer of lacquer,” he says. The cheap phone’s flawless red glow renders it priceless.
Maeda began training with his father from age 15, learning not by words but by watching. “My father never said anything to me. I never imagined I’d follow his path,” Maeda admits, shyly, “but I recall the exact day I started to do so, June 26, 1951.”
I ask Maeda how long it took before he felt himself qualified to perform the most challenging skill of his craft, the final polishing of a lacquer piece. “Only when my father no longer could do it by himself,” he answers.
Pulling out wooden boxes storing some of his finest works, Maeda gingerly hands me a featherweight, baby soft bowl in lambent black lacquer. Behind such works of art, Maeda tells me, there are many professionals — those who procure the lacquer, those who create the substrates, or wafer-thin wood bases for the pieces, and those who paint or apply designs later. “Some of those people just aren’t around anymore,” says Maeda.
While I admire Maeda’s lacquered cell phone, I tell him that I’d hate to see the finest manifestations of a centuries-old tradition disappear in Tokyo. Maeda agrees, and in an effort to share his passion, he offers bi-monthly classes at Koto Ward’s Morishita Cultural Center. Anyone who sees his work will be itching, perhaps literally, to give it a try.