Harboring dreams

Second of two parts

At 4 a.m., southern Minato Ward’s Shibaura Pier is an indigo city of shipping containers, wind-borne detritus and flatbed cargo trucks. It is spooky and unlit but for Rainbow Bridge and its sparse predawn traffic.

By 5 a.m., fishing boats and tugs head out into Tokyo Bay toward sea, and truck drivers turn over their engines, warm their cabs, light cigarettes.

From an abandoned office chair beside the water, I watched the harbor (minato in Japanese) fill with a wash of rose light, a J.M.W. Turner painting in motion. Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” came to mind, and though I was too cold to even contemplate whistling the tune, it reminded me that many in Minato have “2,000 miles roamed” to make this ward their home.

Minato Ward hosts 75 embassies, according to Minato City Mayor Masaaki Takei, and more than one in every 10 residents is a foreigner (of Minato’s 194,000 residents, 21,000 were registered foreigners as of December 2007). With land prices some of the highest in Japan, it would seem to be everyone’s dream domicile. Not so, say three men mixing cement to build the high rises springing up along the harbor.

“Rich people live here, but I wouldn’t want to,” said 67-year-old Hiroshi Yamaguchi, filling bags with fresh mortar. “The air is bad and there are too many buildings.”

You’d think that Minato Ward would enjoy fresh sea breezes, but large developments inhibit air circulation to parts of the ward, creating “heat islands,” where temperatures rise nightmarishly during summer months.

The ward urges citizens to plant roof gardens to help beat the heat, but Meguro Shizen Kyoikuen has its own natural solution. The 200,000-sq.-meter park is what Tokyo might have looked like several hundred years ago and boasts massive pines and maples dating back centuries. The land became a Meiji Era (1868-1912) gunpowder storage facility, was made an Imperial preserve in 1917 and then designated an institute for nature study in 1949.

There, quiet pods of students and naturalists study birds, wild berries, insects and seeds. Mandatory pink plastic ribbons, of which there are 300, limit entries to preserve the peaceful atmosphere.

Next door, the grounds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teian Art Museum, with rose gardens, sculptures and a Japanese teahouse are so popular that exhibition fees and garden entrance fees are separate ( The museum, former home of Prince Asaka Yasuhiko (1887-1981), is an elegant 1933 Art Deco reverie, featuring details by painter and designer Henri Rapin and stunning glasswork by Rene Lalique. “Remembrances of Places Past,” the current museum exhibition (through March) focuses on Meiji Era photographs and contemporary architecture. Concerts on Feb. 4 and 25 at 1:30 p.m. are free after paying the regular admission cost and add to the museum’s upscale atmosphere.

It’s hard to go further upscale, at least in terms of rent prices, than in the Azabu area. The enclave swarms with Porsches, trendy restaurants, and Lilliputian lapdogs in Juicy couture outfits. But it’s not just bling-bling here; to many, the place epitomizes the achievement of multicultural living.

Azabu, Hiroo and Mita nurture “junior ambassadors” from childhood. Encouraging an open-minded approach to the world are Nishimachi International School, a bilingual institution founded in the aftermath of World War II, along with Seisen International School and Tokyo International School, Global Kids Academy, and even local public schools such as Kogai.

Similarly, Temple University, the first and largest foreign university in Japan, and Keio University, founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), an intrepid Meiji Enlightenment leader, reinforce the global identity of the area.

Fukuzawa’s dream, of inspiring independent thought through practical education, impacted on Japan’s modernization. His face graces the ¥10,000 note, so no one is likely to forget him.

Fukuzawa’s tomb is at Moto Azabu’s Zenpukuji Temple (built 774), the same one that served as home to the first United States legation in Japan under U.S. Counsel Townsend Harris. Fukuzawa sailed as the Shogun’s envoy to San Francisco in 1860 to help ratify the Harris Treaty of 1858, securing the trade demands pressed by U.S. Commodore Perry’s so-called Black Ships.

The gains and losses of modern assimilation are clear to Azabu Juban’s merchants. Fiercely shitamachi (old downtown) in spirit, they once banded together to protest the development of subway stops in their area. Bowing to the inevitable, however, “the Juban” finally welcomed passengers from both the Oedo and Namboku lines. Foreign chain stores and sidewalk bars then sprang up, irrevocably altering the atmosphere.

While some old establishments have closed, others have grown with the crowds. Mamegen, purveyor of traditional soybean snacks since 1865, does a brisk trade. The aroma of okaki (deep-fried rice crackers) cooked on the premises and sold piping hot, draws in hoards of elderly and young alike.

“Things have changed a lot,” says 52-year-old shop assistant Natsuo Hoshino. “We started out as Mame no Genbei, a soybean peddler with baskets on a bamboo pole.” Today, the store stocks treats such as candied nuts in coffee and brandy flavors.

Hasty excavations at construction sites in southern Minato Ward frequently yield Jomon Period pottery (ca. 10,000-300 B.C.), proving that the district has long appealed to settlers. Climbing to an elevation once known as Misaki no Tsuki (Moon Cape), a Mita promontory from which people used to admire the moon rising over the ocean, I found Kamezuka (Turtle Tomb) Park. Not a pet cemetery, as I first supposed, the park was named for the turtle-shaped mound off to the left, which some conjecture was a kofun (ancient tomb), though no digs have produced evidence.

Stone steps, now crumbled, used to connect Misaki no Tsuki with Shibaura far below. Now a dreamlike walkway juts out into space and ends in a freestanding elevator with only two stops, eight stories apart. The exposed perch offers a vista south past the Shibaura Sewage Disposal facility to the forlorn location of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau.

To the east, waterbuses depart from Hinode Pier to Odaiba, Minato Ward’s prebubble dreamland, a futuristic pachinko game of colors, lights and even a suspended silver ball (architect Kenzo Tange’s 1,200-ton Fuji TV observation and restaurant sphere). Named for the six daiba (fortifications) built by the Tokugawa Shogunate to fend off outside threats, Perry’s Black Ships among them, Odaiba today survives as a mecca for foreign and local shoppers.

As my waterbus breached the old battery walls, I found myself chatting with South Korean and Chinese tourists, in our only common language: Japanese. Hundreds of years ago, who could have dreamt up such a scenario?

With all wards walked, this marks the end of Kit Nagamura’s column.

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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