Wind gusts airborne detritus down toward Ichigaya-yanagicho, an intersection in central Tokyo infamous for having the highest density of carbon monoxide in Tokyo during the 1970s. Researchers at the time linked this poisonous gas to the area’s high incidence of lung cancer, and the outcry from citizens helped stimulate stricter automobile emission standards in Japan. Today, thanks to wind, as well as the winds of change, the air seems pretty clear.
Ushigome-yanagicho, literally “Cow-Packed Willow Town,” may seem an odd train station name, but it holds the keys to the area’s greener history — Ushigome is believed to once have been bovine pastureland. In 1555, the area was acquired by Lord Ogo from Kozuke (present-day Gunma Prefecture). Ogo eventually adopted the area’s name as his personal moniker and became Lord Ushigome. Even after the bovine farming ended, and people probably wondered “where’s the beef?” Lord Ushigome’s name lasted. By 1878, when Tokyo was divided during the Meiji Period, Ushigome was designated as a city ward, as was nearby Ichigaya-yanagi. After World War II, however, the city was divided once again, leading to the present division of Tokyo into 23 special wards. The old names would have disappeared if not cobbled together for use at intersections and train stations.
Heading west along a shadowed backstreet behind Okubo Avenue, I find neither livestock nor willows, but am shaken out of my wind stupor by frantic crying. Following the sound, I discover a cat at the gateway to a temple, yowling at full capacity. I approach, and the cat simply flops over in a patch of grass, his goal accomplished, apparently. Surely it’s just a matter of suggestion, but this cat with black-spotted fur reminds me of nothing so much as the hide of a miniature Holstein cow.
Outside the temple gates, I explore a curious octagonal building. Standing in front of its wooden doors, I trigger a sensor that causes them to automatically slide open. The interior is an unlit, incense-impregnated enclosure. I enter with trepidation, and sure enough, the doors shut behind me, leaving me in the pitch dark. I shuffle backwards, and to my great relief, the doors open again. As I emerge, the cat eyeballs me, with a been-there-done-that expression.
Exploring the grounds, I learn that the newly rebuilt Kokokuji Temple was founded in 1630. Head priest Taijun Yajima, 63, kindly points out that the temple’s two magnificent gingko trees, one of each sex, are estimated to be more than 500 years old and predate the temple. Registered as Shinjuku City Natural Monuments, the trees are approximately 5 meters in girth, stretch to more than 16 meters in height and are lovely in new leaves.
So what’s with the octagonal building? I ask Yajima. “Oh, that’s our ruriden. Ruri means lapis lazuli (a blue gemstone), and it’s also an old word for glass,” he tells me, further explaining that the structure is a crypt designed for those with limited means or no family to maintain a costly gravesite.
One wall comprises the crypt’s entrance, where Yajima taps in a code to activate the lights. Suddenly we are awash in the glow of glass Buddhas on six walls — 2,046 of them to be exact — illuminated from behind. The eighth wall, front and center, holds an altar to a large, golden-glass Buddha. “This is how people find their personal Buddha,” Yajima explains, typing in a name at the entrance computer. A single Buddha lights up, distinguishing it from the others. “We also change the lighting with the seasons,” Yajima says, cycling the Buddhas through their range of jewel-like hues. It’s a beautiful, if slightly theatrical, place of rest.
Outside again, I bow to Priest Yajima and the temple’s beckoning cat and I’m off again with the wind. Following the scent of roses blooming on a residential street, I explore the town area of Haramachi, stopping at an ochre-colored wall. Inside, I find Hosshinji, a 1631 Zen temple affiliated with Engakuji in Kamakura.
Priest Daitetsu Kosuge, 73, waves me inside, where he promptly prepares me some thick green tea. The wind outside and the swish of the bamboo chasen (whisk) frothing the tea mingle nicely.
In conversation, I gradually learn that Kosuge harbors a special passion for the bamboo shakuhachi flute, an integral part of the Fuke-shu sect of Zen Buddhism. “Monks once practiced suizen, a form of prayer through playing basic meditative pieces, which were known as the honkyoku,” he explains. “These monks — many of whom were samurai that had lost their commissions once Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate — were known as komuso.”
Throughout the Edo Period (1603 — 1868), komuso, wearing their distinctive tengai (a woven bamboo or rattan hood meant to render their own egos void), were offered rare license to wander across the country’s borders freely, so as to visit other temples and sustain their mendicant lifestyle. Kosuge suggests it might have been this freedom of movement, plus their samurai training and secretive hood, which led many to suspect the Komuso of moonlighting as spies for the shogunate.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 greatly curtailed the practice of Buddhism in favor of the Imperially-preferred Shinto religion, and the practices of Komuso monks were banned. “The main Komuso temple was only about 2 km from here,” Kosuge says, “So many of the monks took refuge in this temple.” I contemplate the horror of being an egoless priest, only to have even that practice voided.
Seeing that I’m keen on the subject, Kosuge guides me to a temple room where he has stored more than twenty shakuhachi. He plucks one off the rack, and as his breath enters the bamboo, the sound blows away the afternoon. For all its overuse in documentaries and by restaurants hoping to evoke a taste of Japan, to hear a well-played shakuhachi in person is stirring.
Kosuge next shows me upstairs to his museum of shakuhachi, Komuso songbooks, rare ephemera, woodblock prints and unusual flutes. After the Meiji Era, the shakuhachi was taken up as a purely musical instrument, but Kosuge sees a revival of interest in the classical pieces these days, too.
At last, I request a try at the flute, ignoring the sexual innuendo often associated with women and shakuhachi. Kosuge laughs as I struggle to establish an effective embouchure. When a note purls out, it feels, frankly, as though my whole soul follows it as it floats off. Kosuge nods. This makes sense to him.
I could blow off the rest of the day with Kosuge, but knowing he must be busy, I excuse myself. Heading back toward Okubo Avenue, the priest’s gentle humor and hospitality lingers like notes well-played.
Asako Sakai, 30, and her 2-year-old daughter Chizuru are strolling my way, and we strike up conversation. Chizuru, excited as only a 2-year-old can be, points out what for her is the neighborhood’s highlight, a store’s windows chock-a-block with owl figurines. Inquiring inside, I learn that the head beautician at hair salon Beaute Royal was once gifted a small ceramic owl by a foreign customer, and thereafter decided to collect them. Who would have guessed?
While still on the avenue, I enter the street’s tallest building, a pink multistoried tower called Pet no Ken 21 — owner Kensuke Hirakawa claims it is Japan’s best pet hotel. In addition to boarding and grooming facilities, Pet no Ken 21 is renowned for its pet treats, including kangaroo jerky, palm fruits, and 100 percent organic snacks. “This is incredibly healthy,” Hirasawa says, shaking out a sample of his Osama Kobo dog food. “It’s better than what most humans eat.” Would he eat it, I ask. “Sure,” he says, tossing back a handful. Woof. I know what comes next. I select the tiniest nibblet, and gnaw. It’s a bit fishy — “there’s bonito in there,” Hirakawa confirms — but not bad.
Now that I’m sort of in the kennel club, Hirakawa allows me a quick peek at the boarding facilities. They’re digs Liberace would have loved. For ¥5,400 a night, small dogs can enjoy a gold-trimmed double bed, luxuriate in a jacuzzi, hang out on velvet loveseats, and dig in the room’s herb garden. Hirakawa is clearly passionate about making sure every dog has his day. I thank him, and take myself for the rest of my walk.
As the sun sets and the winds quiet, I climb to the west entrance of Ushigome-yanagicho. I’m almost too exhausted to navigate the sudden crowds of young men that pour down the hill. I stop one group to learn the guys hail from nearby Seijo High School. We joke around for a while, and I find that the company of such polite, and ebullient young men helps me catch a second wind.
Getting there: Ushigome-yanagicho Station is an 11 minute train ride from Shinjuku on the Oedo Line.