Kawasaki risen from the grit with plenty to offer


Back in December 1972, having just taken a job with a Japan Airlines subsidiary, I moved into the company’s bachelors dormitory at Miyauchi 2-chome in Kawasaki’s Nakahara Ward.

Situated in an industrial area near Musashi Kosugi on the JR Nambu Line, my lodgings were pretty Spartan. The ¥3,000 monthly rent got me an unheated room in a barracks-like building that was probably typical of wood-frame edifices of the late 1950s. It was accessed by turning onto an unpaved road that formed huge puddles after it rained. I fastened my room’s sliding windows by turning an elongated screw; the panes clattered audibly on windy days, and coal particles from nearby factories seeped though the cracks, coating the room with a gritty film.

It was a place that rekindled not-so-fond memories of my early childhood in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s. Fast forward to 2009, and my lifelong buddy Motoi Hayashi declares, “The driveway would have been right about here,” as he first points to a map he is holding and then gestures toward a new apartment block.

“The building you stayed in would have been here, and the other building, with our dining room, was over there.”

In mid-April, I met up with Hayashi and several other “old boys” from Jalpak, my former employer, to visit the neighborhood and mingle with the ghosts of our times passed (and past).

Considering these deep-rooted memories of my days in this gritty, smoky, mostly blue-collar factory town, it’s hardly any wonder I’d felt little inclination to return there. But not long ago, the fortuitous circumstance of that reunion led to my dropping in on central Kawasaki again — and its transformation left me gaping with amazement.

The smokestacks are no more, and the roads are all paved. My old dorm, now long gone, had been in what has become a genteel and completely unrecognizable residential area. And the city’s central district, which once boasted such mundane attractions as the Lotte Orions’ home stadium, a horse-racing track and a block of erotic bathhouses, has become a fun place to shop and be entertained.

Why wear myself down on long trips to the countryside, I said to myself, when there’s a neat place to visit right next to Tokyo?

A short history.

Kawasaki, some believe, can be taken to mean “river delta.” The kawa (river) in this case is the 138-km-long Tama River, which forms Tokyo’s southern and western boundaries. Travelers on the old Tokaido (Eastern Sea Road) linking Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo) were ferried across at a spot called Rokugo no Watashi. A bridge had been erected in 1600, but it was washed away in a flood in 1688, and it was almost 200 years before another, more robust one was built. Until then, the river had to be crossed by small ferrymen’s boats.

A paved section of the original Tokaido runs right through central Kawasaki, and history buffs with a couple of free hours can go to Kawasaki municipality website and print a map (in Japanese) showing interesting old landmarks along the route.

The city of Kawasaki began as a Tokaido post station with overnight lodgings. But for many centuries beforehand, the area’s claim to fame was the Heiken-ji, a temple more familiarly known as Kawasaki Daishi. Erected by the Buddhist Shingon sect in 1128, the temple typically ranks as one of the Kanto region’s three largest attractions for worshippers at the new year and is a good place to start your familiarization tour.

On the 10-minute stroll from Keikyu Kawasaki Daishi station to the temple grounds, you’ll encounter an impressive variety of shops and stalls, dispensing various omamori (talismans), eyeless Daruma dolls and all kinds of take-away snacks, many produced while you wait. Frequent trains and city buses run between the temple and the Keikyu or JR Kawasaki stations.

The Tokaido and its temples notwithstanding, from the early 20th century Kawasaki (current population 1.4 million) developed into a hub for heavy industry — then, more recently, electronics. Incorporated in 1924, the city is presently home to more than 200 research and development organizations, giving it the highest proportion of any of Japan’s major cities of R&D employees (2.74 percent) in the overall working population.

Close to JR Kawasaki Station, meanwhile, are a number of spots definitely worth visiting. * Lazona Kawasaki Plaza: A one-minute walk from the JR wicket takes you to one of the biggest shopping centers in Japan. Lazona, which opened on Sept. 28, 2006, on the former site of a Toshiba factory, is managed by the same group that operates the huge Lalaport center in Funabashi City, Chiba. The Kawasaki facility’s 172,303-sq.-meter area puts it in Japan’s top 10; but it’s probably the biggest located so close to a major rail terminal.

The main building, around a U-shaped plaza, incorporates dozens of specialty shops, a cinema complex and 39 food and beverage outlets, of which I selected the friendly Patrasche Belgian beer restaurant on the 4th floor to stop in for a drink. * Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall: Also adjacent to JR Kawasaki Station is the Muza — its name an amalgamation of “music” and za, meaning a place where people gather. The hall seats 1,997 and boasts one of Japan’s largest pipe organs, produced by Switzerland’s Orgelbau Kuhn AG, with 5,248 pipes and 71 stops. Since opening in July 2004, it has hosted many classical music events, including Festa Summer every July-August. * La Citadella: Cross the main street in front of the station, walk past the Saikaya department store, turn right . . . and you’ll find you have traveled back in time to Renaissance Italy. The 63,000-sq.- meter La Citadella (Fortress) opened in November 2003, and its centerpiece is the Cinecitta cinema complex with 13 screens and more than 4,000 seats. Incidentally, from its first full year of operation, Cinecitta posted Japan’s top theater box-office receipts for four years running. The area also has a central plaza where outdoor concerts are held, plus sidewalk cafes, restaurants, two bookshops — and even a small wedding chapel.

Even apart from Cinecitta, though, Kawasaki is really into cinema, with two other multiscreen complexes, the TOHO Cinemas Kawasaki (nine screens, 1,902 seats) and 109 Cinemas Kawasaki (nine screens, 2,125 seats) located close to the station.

However, the city is also involved in the cinematic arts in other ways, such as frequently providing shooting locations for the popular “Tantei Jimusho (Detective Office)” series. Earlier this year, Kawasaki City also announced the establishment (pending education ministry approval) of Japan’s first four-year university dedicated to the cinematic arts, which will be built on the grounds of a defunct primary school in Aso Ward. Projected to open in April 2011, it is expected to have a student enrollment of 640.

All this sightseeing can make a person peckish, and while Kawasaki is not short on a wide range of eateries, its Koreatown boasts a lively market and some 40 ethnic restaurants. They’re a bit spread out along Semento-dori and in the district called Sakuramoto, and a lot of places seem to be closed Sundays. Fortunately, though, on the Sunday that I was peregrinating there with a friend, the Totenkaku restaurant ([044] 355-1234) at the end of Semento-dori was open for business. So in we went with no further ado, shortly to enjoy two plates of kalbi (ribs), assorted spicy vegetables, soup and rice. Our bill, with a couple of drinks, was a little over ¥3,500 each, but if you go on a weekday, most establishments offer cheaper lunch specials.

Finally, among Kawasaki’s many other delights, let’s not forget the Nihon Minka-en (Japan Open-air Folk House Museum) in Tama Ward.

The largest of the city’s 23 museums, the site features 25 traditional farmhouses and other historic buildings, all of which have been designated as important cultural properties and brought there from all over the country. Most date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Events and activities are regularly arranged. Plan on spending several hours.

Summing up: Not only can Tokyo’s neighbor make a strong claim to being Japan’s most impressive model for urban revitalization, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my old hangout is now a fun place to visit, with good shopping, tasty and affordable dining, stimulating entertainment, historical landmarks and even attractive natural surroundings. And it’s just minutes away!

Getting there: From central Tokyo, Kawasaki is less than 30 minutes and a couple of hundred yen away on the JR Keihin Tohoku, Nambu and Tokaido lines. It is also served by the Keihin Kyuko Line from Shinagawa. Kawasaki Daishi can be reached by city bus from JR Kawasaki Station (stop no. 24, ¥200) or by a spur of the Keikyu Line (¥230 from Shinagawa with transfer at Keikyu Kawasaki). Buses to Sakuramoto (Koreatown) depart regularly from JR Kawasaki Station, stop no. 3. The Open-air Folk House Museum is a 13-minute walk from Mukogaoka Yuen Station on the Odakyu Line, about 20 minutes by express from Shinjuku. Admission ¥500; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. For details of events and activities, call (044) 922-2181. More details of Kawasaki Daishi at www.kawasakidaishi.com/english/index.html; a directory of Koreatown restaurants (in Japanese only) is at www.yakinikutengoku.com/ korea—town/; and the Folk Museum site is at www.city.kawasaki.jp/88/88minka/home/minka—e.htm