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Arisugawa-no-Miya’s no mere people’s park

by Kit Nagamura

Tokyo’s weather in February is unpredictable, so when the day I have set aside for exploring features a record-breaking blizzard, I’m not surprised. So, bundled up like Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary, I exit Hiroo Station in Minato Ward to find the air feathered with swirling flakes and the streets already hushed by drifts. I might as well be on the moon.

I hike past two coffee shops, glowing like base camps. Caffe Appassionato looks cozy as a java-scented library and Italian chain Segafredo Zanetti’s place is fogged up with lucky customers inside, unable to enjoy its European-style sidewalk seating. Snow swallows both in my wake.

Heading east, I stop at a traffic light, entertained to see valets assist a few intrepid shoppers park their four-wheel sleds at National Azabu supermarket. Long beloved by both foreigners and Japanese for its food imports and community spirit, the grocery has been in the same location since 1962. Closing briefly after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, public campaigns saw the store completely rebuilt and opened again in 2012.

Across the street is a small park named Arisugawa-no-Miya Memorial Park, which is widely referred to as the gem of the neighborhood. Today, it’s a scene as elegant as a black-and-white dendrite opal.

I scrape snow off the signboards at the park’s entrance to find topographical maps of the Hiroo area, once farm fields bifurcated by a river. I discover that, during part of the Edo Period (1603-1867), this hillside held the city residence of a feudal lord named Minonokami Nambu from the Morioka domain, which straddled parts of today’s Iwate and Aomori prefectures.

In 1896, the property was acquired by members of the Arisugawa-no-Miya branch of the Imperial family before, in 1913, being conveyed to the Takamatsu-no-Miya line, headed by His Imperial Highness Prince Takamatsu (Nobuhito), third son of Emperor Taisho.

A supporter of the Japan Baseball Association and the Japan Red Cross Society, among others, Prince Takamatsu championed the idea that children should learn and play in natural surroundings. To honor this conviction, as well as the name of his Arisugawa-no-Miya forebears, the prince donated approximately 3.6 hectares of land to the city of Tokyo in 1934.

There have clearly been children on the lower tiers of the park today, but the only trace that remains of them now are snowmen here and there, already muffled in fresh heavy falls. I take a clockwise turn round the pond, passing a flotilla of snow-dusted ducks desperately hoping to score (forbidden, a sign says) handouts.

Next, I climb treacherously snow-packed stones to a terrace of plum trees groaning under their increasing loads, then practically toboggan down to one of the park’s narrow valley paths. There, surreally, a man in a snowsuit materializes from the blizzard and starts to tape off my exit route. “You may pass here,” he says kindly, nonetheless firmly securing the tape, “but there’s a risk of falling branches.” He smiles, appealing to my common sense, as snow whips our faces. I glance upward where branches sway wildly, dumping billows of white. I nod, and follow him back the way I came.

In fact, I trudge right up to the door of the park’s maintenance offices. It turns out my friendly snowman is 43-year-old Atsushi Kuraishi, one of a 10-member team charged by Minato Ward, the park’s current proprietor, with site upkeep. He invites me in out of the storm. Needles of feeling prickle back into my hands as he offers me a desk chair and we chat.

I learn that although the park’s lower levels were designed in the Edo Period to be a rinsen-kaiyu (scenic-promenade) style of garden, the maintenance crew purposefully does not engage in formal trimming. “We don’t want to charge admission and make everyone uptight about the place,” says Kuraishi. “We want to have it look neat but we also want forest-like places, too, to keep it fairly natural, so kids can play freely. It’s a delicate balance.”

Considering the park’s two waterfalls, pond, bridges, paths, playground and fountain, I wonder aloud if the maintenance is grueling. Kuraishi shrugs. “Only the huge trees are a challenge,” he says. “We have to watch them.”

We’re then joined by Seiichi Ito, 62, a member of the ward’s Silver Jinzai Center, a human-resource pool of elderly employees. “I’m the guy who cleans the fountain once a month,” Ito tells me, with a big grin. “I just did it, in fact.” I peer out the window, and sure enough, the fountain gushes preternaturally blue, surrounded by snow.

It strikes me that Ito would be the perfect person to ask if the rumor about an alligator in the park’s pond is true. He and Kuraishi exchange looks. “I haven’t seen it,” Kuraishi says, “but people abandon pets here sometimes, so we get lots of odd fish, insects like rhinoceros and stag beetles — and turtles that can grow immense.” Ito adds parakeets and parrots to the list.

Then it occurs to Kuraishi to show me something. “Are you afraid of snakes?” he asks, in a gentlemanly fashion. I shake my head and thank Ito who, also quite the gent, has brought me a cup of what he calls “really disgusting” coffee.

I forget all about the coffee, though, when Kuraishi unwinds in front of me a lengthy shed snake skin, its whole head and eye caps intact. “It’s a Japanese Rat Snake,” Ito pipes up, and Kuraishi concurs. Apparently, rat snakes mostly eat rats — duh! — and are harmless to humans. The coffee, on the other hand, has a vicious bite.

We are discussing the other park inhabitants — bats at dusk and the odd nocturnal drunk — when a third man enters.

Arborist Wataru Oshima, 43, has popped in to discuss proper identification of the park’s cherry trees. “It’s not as easy as you would think,” he says, suggesting that the 11 or so varieties on the park’s books need an expert evaluation. Oshima only drops in infrequently — “You’re lucky he’s here,” Ito says — like a country doctor doing the rounds of his charges. He looks for weakness or decay in trunks, branches, leaves and root systems, periodically having the soil around root balls replaced, or ordering trimming when necessary.

What changes would the three like to see in the park’s future, I ask. In unison they answer “barbecue space” — though they all agree that’s unlikely to be allowed.

Mention of barbecue makes my stomach growl, audibly. “There’s a good cheap restaurant on the fifth floor over there,” Ito offers, pointing to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library, officially part of Arisugawa’s park complex, which also hosts public tennis courts and a baseball field on the now more than 6.7 hectares of parklands.

Bidding my new friends farewell, I pass the park’s three bronze statues, only one of which is dressed for the weather. A mounted Prince Taruhito Arisugawa (1835-95) is snug in full military regalia, but the slender newspaper delivery boy, erected by the Japan Newspaper Sales Association in 1958 in hopes of raising funds to school its delivery force, sports a summery shirt and shorts. Meanwhile, a Pan-like “Youth Playing a Flute” by Iwate-born sculptor Yasutake Funakoshi (1912-2002) wears only muffins of snow.

At the aforementioned library, my interest in the collection of 1.8 million books makes food take a second shelf. Anyone over the age of 16 may apply for a reader’s card, I learn, and rotating exhibitions featuring the history and handcrafting of Japanese traditional books are free.

I meet the quietly charming Satoe Kato, 46, with whom I arrange a tour of the facilities. The sweet odor of stored books hits me as we navigate the floors, highlights of which include vast periodical and newspaper resources, and priceless special collections of Edo Period and Meiji Era (1868-1912) books, maps and even sugoroku board games. But Kato has somehow divined my predilections, and with a novelist’s sense of plot, she has saved the most intriguing area till last.

In the basement, she introduces me to Setsuo Shinno, head of the Maintenance and Preservation Room and a miracle-worker for books. Some, lacy with worm holes, or torn, will under his care be restored with starch paste and gossamer hand-made traditional washi paper in a process as intricate as skin-grafting.

Though he primarily conserves the library’s holdings, Shinno, 62, sometimes takes on special projects. For example, mud-covered books from Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture — a city reported as having been “wiped off the map” by the March 2011 tsunami — receive his utmost attention. He gently brushes them page by page, desperate not to lose a single kanji. Then, he painstakingly sandwiches what remains between washi fibers so fine they nearly disappear. The rest of the world, too, seems to disappear as I watch Shinno work, while outside the snow falls and falls.