Seek the Hemingway within at a concrete-jungle pond


“It was light. We stood by the pond. The fish were biting.”

I wonder how it would have been if Ernest Hemingway, fond of such clipped prose as he was, sojourned in Tokyo instead of lollygagging in places like Africa, assisting large animals toward their place on the endangered-species list.

Here, I would fondly like to think that, far from the marlin-hooking grounds, the whiskery author would have kept his predatory skills honed by popping over to his nearest fishing pond.

This grand little institution is a place where, for just 500 yen an hour, you can sit on the bank with your fellow anglers, content in the knowledge that the waters are richer in finny creatures than the seafood section of your local supermarket.

Lest all this should evoke a sweet, bucolic image, though, let it be noted that the “pond” is usually a stark rectilinear construct in ferroconcrete.

Upon paying my money and approaching one such — the Musashinoen fishing pond in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward — I was given a dish of green, evil-smelling, puttylike bait. As one almost utterly unversed in fishing, I had to ask the man who handed me my rod how exactly you worked the thing. He shot me a scowl of disbelief, scooped out a piece of bait, squeezed it around the hook, dropped the line in the water and — literally — within three seconds was yanking out a carp.

Like shooting fish in a barrel, I thought.

Sadly, however, that seems to depend on who’s doing the shooting.

While fish by the shoalful were slithering over themselves to be hoisted out of the water by the middle-aged man next to me, they appeared to be pointedly ignoring my bait. My float remained steady as a rock, but oddly, every time I hauled the line out to inspect the hook, the bait had vanished.

Clearly, these local fish had mastered the art of shaking down at least this idiot foreigner.

In terms of fish, there was no lack. The five, 10-meter-square concrete tanks at Musashinoen are teeming with carp and goldfish. One of the tanks is practically indoors, so fair-weather anglers can practice their “sport” regardless of rainstorms or searing sun. On a good day, though, fisherfolk sitting on upturned beer-crate seats are as thick around the sides as are the fish in the waters below.

The keener breed of Musashinoen anglers, the ones who pay their 2,500 yen to angle all day, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., keep well away from the inside pool. That is stocked just with goldfish, while they are out for the heftier carp.

World’s greatest amateurs

The fishing pond regulars typify the spirit that makes the Japanese the greatest amateurs in the world: irrespective of ability, they pursue their pursuit kitted up like pros. A fair number of the chaps there had brought along their own rods and gear. If one of these fishy fellows caught a sizable carp, he was applauded as though he had landed a marlin off Cuba that Hemingway would have been proud of.

But my hour had come — and gone — and the rod man informed me accordingly. My keep-net was still a fish-free zone. I had noticed that the etiquette was to give leftover bait to other fisherman. But when I offered mine, there were no takers — presumably they could do without the association with abject failure.

It was still light. I left the pond — the one who got away.