Tokyo's 'Toontown' is game for a laugh

Outsiders often associate Adachi, Tokyo’s northernmost ward, with the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult (still in residence), the recent Tobu Railway Co.’s Takenotsuka crossing accident that cost two women their lives, or the fact that the ward’s alluvial ground makes it especially vulnerable if an earthquake struck.

Reputedly plagued by crime, and built-up with post-war danchi — high-density public housing — you might think even the people who live there want to get away. They don’t. Far from it. The locals are fiercely loyal to their part of the map.

“Adachi is a wonderful place to raise kids, and it’s full of parks,” says third-generation resident Akemi Farmer. Her husband, Paul, who’s lived in Adachi for eight years, adds, “Adachi people are very foreigner-friendly, and you’ll see lots of foreigners around. They come here to find the real Japan and to blend in.”

Perhaps location plays a key role in Adachi’s singular character. Few train lines navigate the 53.2 sq.-km ward, and the third largest and fifth most populated of Tokyo’s 23 special wards is bordered by rivers. But the new Tsukuba Express brings an increased flow of people through one of Adachi’s major stations, Kita Senju, and a monorail is slated to zip from Nippori to a terminal in Adachi’s Toneri Park area soon.

As yet, however, much of the area’s charm lies off the beaten track. Officially designated as a Tokyo ward in 1947 by the Local Autonomy Law, Adachi’s connection with Tokyo extends back to the Edo Period, when the south banks of the Arakawa River provided a bedtown for travelers using the waterways for trade and transportation. Until recently, residents recall, most land north of the river was rural. Once the Arakawa’s tendency to flood was controlled by dredging and embankments, buildings popped up overnight.

Today, walking in autumn along the banks of the Arakawa, plumes of eulalia sway and a horizon of abandoned factories fades in a Hokusai-like haze. The name of one riverside snack bar — The Titanic — reminds passersby that encroaching water is still a concern.

Kenji Morimoto, office worker and father of two, has lived a decade in Adachi and claims it embodies the essence of “Shitamachi,” a working class, vibrant community with shops and businesses operating on an intimate scale. Entrepreneur Junichi Matsuzaki agrees.

“Adachi Ward has lots of oddballs,” he admits, “but that’s part of living in an area where people feel free to be themselves.” Matsuzaki, a dashing figure in designer specs and a graphic Snoopy shirt, is an example of how the idiosyncratic Shitamachi spirit pays off. His cozy shop might be jammed with hundreds of vintage radios and TVs now ludicrously bulky, but they broadcast a charm that is much in demand by museums and collectors.

“I used to wake up to the sounds of toy-making machines,” Matsuzaki recalls. “We lost lots of big industry to China,” he adds, ” but Adachi has the infrastructure to start up new businesses in order-made, quality items, such as shoes and toys.”

There is something of a “Toontown” atmosphere to Adachi: wacky and marginalized. New streets, fast-food restaurants, and chain stores have appeared suddenly, like movie sets propped against the backdrop of harder, but simpler times. On back streets, flashes of humor — perhaps indicative of that Shitamachi spirit — fill in the cracks of poverty. A huge stuffed bear appears to be hanging for dear life on to a balcony of one residency as a family of little Pooh bears looks on. Shops sport fun names, such as Cycle-Deli, a tiny motorbike parts shop. Even at Motofuchie’s Museum of Living Things, a petulant peacock attacks people’s toes, making people dance around cartoonlike.

Adachi Ward also once supplied the world with “laughing bags,” little red novelty sacks that cackle raucously when squeezed. No surprise then that comedian and screen director Beat Takeshi was born here, and first performed in this ‘hood before going off to bag a Golden Lion Award at Venice.

Even the venerable Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple, a Shingon Buddhist temple founded by Priest Kobo (otherwise known as Kukai) in 826, will give you a giggle. The complex boasts graceful gardens, clouds of incense, and fire-purified prayer papers, but also a jizo bodhisattva dedicated to wart removal. Take a pinch from the salt-covered jizo, dab it on your warts, and pray for the best.

Monthly fairs fill this temple with crowds, but on a rainy weekday visitors will be treated with extra kindness by dango vendors and Dharma doll shopkeepers. They can also snag a freshly toasted sembei rice cracker.

A stone’s throw from the army barracks-like Hanahata danchi, Adachi’s Otori Shrine (circa 1100) provides the neighborhood with a green oasis and a claim to fame. It was here that the Tori-no-Ichi Festival, originally a peasants’ harvest celebration when live roosters were dedicated to Washidaimyojin, got its start. Eventually, the crowds and their roosters moved to Asakusa, where today, the Tori-no-Ichi draws hoards that come to purchase ornate bamboo tokens (which resemble chicken feet) to rake in good fortune.

Speaking of feet, Adachi’s modern name in Chinese characters means “foot stand” and the ward symbol is a stylized version of “ashi,” the character for “foot.” However, the original name of the area comes from a different character with the same sound, which means “water reed.” Standing reeds still skirt the rivers and ponds around the ward.

Adachi Ward’s designated flowers — the tulip and sakura — also have surprising roots. Adachi’s main agricultural product and international export item in the 1930s was tulips, and the famous Japanese gift of cherry trees to Washington D.C. were culled from Adachi. In fact, decades later, when Adachi’s Yoshino trees began to show signs of aging, the U.S. capital sent cuttings back, to preserve the lineage and the connection.

One cutting from this shipment was named the President Reagan cherry tree, and thrives in a secluded corner of Toneri Park. Four friends of mine and I meant to go in search of this tree. Ironically, we lost track of the mission when a baseball team of gents in their 60s waylaid us. They insisted that we chat and join them in their feast of freshly grilled mackerel, roasted potatoes, hotchpotch soup, and crisp persimmons.

Relaxed, generous, and funny, they epitomized for us the essence of Adachi.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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