Animal magic in the jungle of Setagaya


Taxi drivers claim that, unless you’ve lived there all your life, Setagaya is nearly impossible to navigate. Major thoroughfares pulse straight across the second largest of Tokyo’s 23 wards, but off the highway a maze of tapering, winding one-way alleys will often as not dead-end you in someone’s back yard. Forget the map, bring a ball of string.

Setagaya’s labyrinth is made up of residential structures, accounting for over 65 percent of the ward’s land use. Its tallest building, Carrot Tower, near Sangenjaya station, represents modern commercial growth in some of the remaining 35 percent. The tower looms over its humble surrounds like a 26-story Minotaur.

Though unlikely to swallow up the local charm of Sangenjaya or the bargain-hunting, thespian-loving youths from nearby Shimokitazawa, vertical urban development and the planned construction of new routes through the ward are certain to alter the character of both areas.

Indoor fishing

Just behind the chain-cafes and fast-food emporiums that circle Carrot Tower, boutique restaurants cling to clientele who seek out unique cuisine. Down one narrow lane, it’s a kick to come across Tsubiron, a tiny indoor fishing pond that Katsuyoshi Suzuki and his mother have run for 40 years.

When the place opens at noon, a few coins will buy a squeeze bottle of fish-goo for bait, a rental rod, and the luxury to cast away by the hour. On weekends, the place is booked solid, and on a recent weekday afternoon, teenagers and elderly people were lazily eyeing their bobbers in the stocked holding tank. One customer who looked like an ordinary housewife was methodically packing her bucket with goldfish and carp. “Dinner?” I asked. “Certainly not! They’re for my pond,” she said.

The words could have sprung from the mouth of Setagaya’s comic heroine, Sazae-san. Something akin to Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts” in terms of popularity in Japan, and the world’s longest-running animation series, Sazae-san was conceived and drawn by Machiko Hasegawa (1920-1992).

Her newspaper strip debuted in 1946 in Kyushu’s Fukunichi Shimbun, where Hasegawa lived and walked the beaches that apparently inspired nautical names for her trigenerational cast of characters; Sazae, the loopy but spirited homemaker protagonist, means “turban-shell snail”; her mother’s name, Fune, means “boat”; and Sazae’s husband’s name, Masuo Fuguta, translates as “trout blowfish field.” Rumor has it that once Hasegawa moved to Setagaya in 1949, simultaneously relocating her Sazae-san characters to Tokyo, an actual neighboring family provided inspiration for many episodes.

Hasegawa’s life story, art collection, an architectural model of Sazae’s home, and a short illustrated history of how the series came to be published can be found at the Hasegawa Machiko Art Museum in Sakura-shinmachi, at the end of what is known as Sazae-san Avenue. The avenue sports banners and cartoon placards of Hasegawa’s creation, but the neighborhood itself, with children running in and out of shops and old gentlemen sipping tea, echoes the artist’s vision of a vital, multigenerational society unrattled by the vicissitudes of modern life.

Magical cats

Opening credits to each televised Sazae-san show features a plump dancing cat that pops out of a seasonal fruit or nutshell. Setagaya’s most famous feline beats that act. On the grounds of Gotokuji, toward the rear of the temple, one area is reserved for maneki neko (beckoning cat statuettes) believed to grant wishes.

Local legend has it that in the 1630s, wealthy Lord Naosuke Ii was on the road when a violent thunderstorm broke out. Seeking cover under a pine, he spied a cat that appeared to be waving him into the shelter of a humble monastery. Was the cat waving, or merely washing its face? Luckily, Lord Ii didn’t stop to wonder, but followed the cat’s gesture, and turned in amazement when seconds later the pine he had been standing under was split by lightning.

In 1633, Lord Ii chose the monastery as his family temple, erected lavish new buildings and dubbed the temple Gotokuji. Supposedly, Edoites caught wind of the story and immediately began to make clay figurines of beckoning cats, with their left paw up to attract company and right paw up to attract wealth.

There are animals everywhere one turns in Setagaya, and the sprawling green parks are no exception. Kinuta Koen, near Yoga Station, was once a municipal golf course, which accounts for its layout: vast grass fairways, wooded areas, and a wild bird sanctuary. Weather permitting, a woolly double-humped Bactrian camel from Ichihara Elephant Country makes an annual appearance at Kinuta’s Setagaya Animal Festival (Nov. 5).

The nearby Setagaya Art Museum, on the north side of Kinuta, specializes in the school of primitivism (think Henri Rousseau’s gorgeous jungle beasts), and the exhibition “Rousseau Envisaged” runs through Dec. 10.

In another park, Komazawa Koen, stands architect Yoshinobu Akihara’s pagodalike tower, and in its shadow, children play in areas named Squirrel, Pig and Horse. Casual is the dress code for canines and their owners who flock to the park at weekends.

A hippophile’s dream

Baji Koen was the site of the equestrian competition in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The 18-hectare park, now managed by the Japan Racing Association, is a 15-minute trot from various stations (Yoga, Chitose-funabashi) and a hippophile’s dream. Horses nicker from open stalls, trainers teach their charges on lunge ropes, and ponies can be seen in paddocks, surrounded by kids. In addition to major events on “Horse Day” (Sept. 23) and an annual show during Golden Week, one Sunday a month is designated a “Meet the Horse Day” during which free rides are available through the flowers and greenery of the park.

Just outside Baji Koen’s main gate, the Tokyo University of Agriculture’s Museum includes an airy cafe and an eclectic display of items related — sometimes indirectly — to agriculture, such as a slice of 1,000-year-old cedar, samples of the world’s rice varietals, and sake bottles that whistle when heated. But the attached Biorium run by the Research Institute of Evolutionary Biology is a real scream — at least if you approach the nearly 70 lemurs that live there and shriek at the slightest provocation. Madagascar plants and animals in the Biorium dovetail with the Agricultural Museum’s current show “Under the Baobab Tree” (through Nov. 12).

Few people who reside in Setagaya claim to know all the twists and turns of the massive ward. You’d need to be Daedalus to fully appreciate its complexity and allure, and it would definitely help to borrow a horse to get around.