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History and humor lap Hamamatsucho’s shores

by Kit Nagamura

Tokyo hosts plenty of pint-size public sculptures, but none so “wee” as the brazen boy standing on the platform between lines 3 and 4 at Hamamatsucho Station in Minato Ward. Just back from a trip to Brussels, I am stunned to glimpse there a bronze replica of the Belgian capital’s most cheeky landmark, the Mannekin Pis (Peeing Boy). I hop off the Yamanote Line train to investigate.

This whiz kid is a dandy, in both senses of the word, being dressed in Japanese New Year’s attire of patterned hakama (men’s formal skirt) and kimono, and carrying a hobbyhorse toy — a nod to 2014′s zodiac animal.

Like the boy in Brussels, this tyke relieves himself nonstop, into a recycling pool, and enjoys the attention of volunteers who change his costumes with the seasons and for celebrations. A stone nearby explains that the sculpture was donated in 1952 by Hikaru Kobayashi, a dentist commissioned to treat employees of then-Japan National Railways, to mark the company’s 80th year of operations.

Better not to ponder the possible connections here too deeply, I decide, and head off to explore instead an expanse of green just to the east. This turns out to be Kyu Shiba Rikyu Teien, a garden flanked by New Year’s kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations). A mere ¥150 snags me entry and a pamphlet. Crossing a metaphorical sea of pattern-raked pebbles, I find a bench near a pergola of dormant wisteria and read up on one of the city’s oldest extant daimyo gardens.

Reclaimed from the wetlands of Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the 1650s, this area was occupied in 1678 by a feudal nobleman and high-ranking court elder named Okubo Tadatomo, who supposedly entertained the ruling Tokugawa shoguns at his residence, whose Rakujyuen (loosely, Pleasurable Longevity Garden) they must surely have admired.

Then, after passing through several hands, the property was purchased by the Imperial Household Agency in 1871, when it served as the Shiba Detached Palace. However, the buildings and greenery were all razed in 1923′s Great Kanto Earthquake, and in the following year the site was gifted to the city of Tokyo to commemorate the Emperor Showa’s nuptials. Once restored, it was opened to the public.

It’s generally not fair to judge a garden in the bleak month of January, but Kyu Shiba’s landscape features hundreds of impressive black pines, their needles glistening in the winter light, and an expansive central pond, the Dai-Sensui, sprinkled with migratory ducks. A kaiyū-shiki-teien (stroll garden) such as this is designed to offer “hide-and-reveal” vistas and employ “borrowed scenery” techniques to expand the perception of space. At first, I am distracted by skyscrapers and neon signs reflected in the pond and looming over the trees. Eventually, though, I learn to focus on the horizon and below, at which point the beauty of the place opens up.

For a better vantage point, I climb the garden’s highest manmade hill, the Oyama. Halfway up, I appreciate the pond’s three islands — Oshima, Nakajima and Ukishima — and note landscapes meant to evoke famous scenes from ancient China, such as Hangzhou’s West Lake.

Upon reaching Oyama’s summit, I startle a couple playing there — with dolls. In fact, Minami Mori, 24, and her boyfriend Jin Kimura, 26, are busy photographing Kuroe, a glass-eyed, ball-jointed mannequin in kimono, while another doll friend chills out in Minami’s bag.

I ask about Kuroe’s origins. “She was born in Kyoto,” Minami says. How long has Minami had her? “Her age is a secret,” she says, laughing. After learning that Kuroe has a fine wardrobe of kimono and dresses, I’m about to leave, but ask if I can first take a snapshot of Kuroe. Minami and Jin kindly agree.

Through the lens, I am surprised by a frisson between fantasy and reality. Both garden and doll are constructs, after all, but from certain angles they blend in a striking fabrication of reality. It is a whole different way of seeing the world. Thanking Minami, Jin — and, of course, Kuroe — I head off.

Down the hill, I detect the practiced snip of pine-trimming scissors, and locate the source: Hiroshi Tomikawa, 66, is tending to one of the garden’s 220 kuromatsu (Japanese Black Pine trees).

“They are strong against the wind and salt,” he says, “which is necessary in this site.” Though he also mans the garden’s reception window, Tomikawa has gardened since age 15, and it’s outdoor work that he loves. “When you shape a pine,” he informs me, “you should imagine a baby’s hand, palm up.” I nod, realizing I will never look at Japanese pines the same way again.

A shinkansen (bullet train) sizzles through Hamamatsucho Station as Tomikawa walks me over to the garden’s traditional kyūdō (archery range), where one of his jobs is creating the precipitously angled azuchi (sand and sawdust mound) behind the target that’s designed to absorb the impact of costly arrows.

Thanking Tomikawa for his time and kindness, I part ways, and head east. Nautically themed clues — a sculpted anchor, a building mural of nautili shells, even a clock shaped like a ship’s wheel — suggest I’m near Tokyo Bay. When I reach a plaza under what resembles a ship’s mast and rigging, I realize this is Takeshiba Pier, from where ferry services go to Tokyo’s islands — Oshima, Toshima, Niijima, etc. In late afternoon light, clearly between boats coming or going, the area is so quiet and empty, I can hear the water lapping against the docks.

As I stroll along, I note that tiled walkways on the pier are impressed with kanji characters on a maritime theme. From the water’s edge, I spy a nicely situated French restaurant, T’suki de la Mer. Opened 13 years ago, the establishment has one of the city’s nicest bay views, and an haute cuisine menu that looks fabulous. That’s the place to go when your ship comes in.

As the sun tints the Rainbow Bridge orange, I follow a tip from gardener Tomikawa, to catch the view from the World Trade Center’s Seaside Top Observatory. En route, however, I discover a brilliant red door and a small neon sign reading “Zen Boo,” a play on the Japanese word zenbu (everything).

Peeking inside, I take in everything: a sharply modern interior in pinks, reds and mylar, and painted faces reminiscent of Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka’s work. The decor includes two hookahs, and a mop on the floor. Calling out a tentative “hello” conjures up Tatsuhiko Ikeda, the establishment’s president.

“We’re not open right now,” he tells me, “and this is a gentlemen’s club, a sort of cabaret.” I apologize, ready to evaporate, but Ikeda eagerly shows me around. “We have hostesses and stuff, but we have a variety of acts. In fact, Kenichi Ebina, you know, from “America’s Got Talent,” performed here a while ago.” Ikeda points out the three poles the stage has for dancing, and asks if I’d like to try one out. This is my cue to say farewell to Zen Boo, which I do, cordially.

The World Trade Center was the tallest building in Tokyo in 1970, the year it was built. For ¥620, I hop an elevator up 163 meters to enjoy a 360-degree panorama. As the sky blushes, I set up my camera facing east. A man approaches and, puzzled by my actions, kindly informs me that Mount Fuji can be seen on the opposite side of the building. I thank Takashi Kobayashi, and let him know that I am actually waiting for the rise of the full moon — often a dramatic color if you can catch it low on the horizon.

As we linger in the gradually darkening observatory, Kobayashi tells me he has just left hospital after heart surgery. “It was scary, and I came here to see the world again,” the 53-year-old confides. As though in recompense for his rigors, the moon appears, enormous and the color of a pickled plum. “Never in my life have I seen a moon that color,” Kobayashi exclaims. Though left unsaid, both our hearts get a workout at the sight.

Kobayashi than suggests I join him hanging out in front of the Bunka Hoso (Nippon Cultural Broadcasting) building across the street. He’s heard a rumor that pop singer-songwriter Megumi Mori will be giving a street performance there. I’m hesitant, and it’s freezing out, but when Mori finally appears, she is no less surprising than the moon. Her soulful pipes and fierce slide guitar sink into the crowd’s down coats, and for that short time all of us in the dark feel thrilled to be alive for another year.

  • DA

    Pure class as always by Kit Nagamura, perhaps the best JT writer now that Donald Richie is gone.