Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Yumenoshima: Tokyo's past trash packed into pleasure

by Kit Nagamura

Yumenoshima (literally, “Dream Island”) in Tokyo’s Koto Ward is aptly named because as in real dreams, the island’s narrative encompasses both bucolic and nightmarish elements.

I alight at Shin-Kiba Station, the final stop on the Yurakucho Line, and stroll north to Yumenoshima Park for a bit of dream analysis.

When Tokyo Bay was dredged in the 1930s, to provide channels for ships, an island of sand castled up and was dubbed Minami Sunamachi (literally, “Southern Sandtown”). Eventually, the reclaimed land grew large enough to support infrastructure and plans were made for an airport. Foundation construction commenced in 1939, but World War II redirected resources and progress stalled. After the war, Allied forces mandated that Tokyo International Airport (aka Haneda airport), which was already in existence nearby, be expanded to serve Tokyo instead of the island.

From 1947 through 1950, the island was restyled as a recreation beach for the public. Perhaps with visions of Waikiki, developers optimistically renamed the island Yumenoshima. Sadly, typhoons and a lack of funding saw the scheme fail and the island slid into its worst incarnation: a grim dump site. News stories from the 1960s mention serious fly infestations in Tokyo swarming from Yumenoshima, and it was not until the early 1970s that plans were activated to expand the island, using garbage and trash as landfill.

Entering Yumenoshima Park, I pass a running track and watch school children stretching infield. Rooted in the island’s generous covering of topsoil, sizable trees shade the park and I gradually forget the fact that I’m walking on compacted trash. Acorns crunch underfoot, and a small sign constructed of the nuts announces that I’ve stumbled onto Donguri Michi (Acorn Alley).

Ryotaro Hara, 4, and his mother Yuka, 39, are collecting samples — some with their cupules intact. “I found a chestnut, too,” Ryotaro pipes up, before dashing off to continue his hunt.

Zigzagging down a gradual slope on the west side of the park, I find a striking steel structure. Upon entering, I’m dwarfed by the looming hull of a 28.5-meter wooden fishing vessel. Staring up at its hawseholes far overhead, it’s sobering to realize this is the ill-fated Daigo Fukuryu Maru (SS Lucky Dragon 5), which was coated in radioactive fallout from the H-bomb Castle Bravo, detonated on March 1, 1954, by the United States on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. All 23 crew members onboard at the time suffered acute radiation poisoning, despite being outside the “danger zone,” and the boat’s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died about six months later at age 40.

In the gentle company of Yusuke Hasunuma, the 24-year-old staff intern at the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall, I gaze at displays, including heartbreaking letters sent to Kuboyama during his hospitalization, maps tracking the spread of toxic radiation from bomb tests and even a sample of the fallout itself — the “ashes of death.”

I keep glancing back at the graceful lines of the 126-metric-ton Wakayama-built wooden boat. “During the postwar years,” Hasunuma remarks, “all boats this size were made of wood because we didn’t have other materials. This may be one of the last surviving examples of such a ship, so I’m glad we preserved it.”

The ship was, in fact, nearly lost. Once decontaminated and renamed, it was employed as a university fisheries training vessel and, later, for commercial work. Finally abandoned, it bobbed amongst floating refuse near Yumenoshima until media brought attention to the ship’s plight. Loath to let this reminder of the destructive force of nuclear weapons sink, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government built this exhibition hall to house it. The building — designed by Shigehiko Sugi, Mitsuaki Miyata and Shinichi Izumi — is worth admiring; it mimics the simple, protective strength of a clam shell.

As we walk, Hasunuma and I discuss Yumenoshima. “How’s life working on Dream Island?” I ask.

“Well, you’ll note that the floor here is uneven, so things are obviously shifting,” he says with a smile. My eyes widen as I note the undulations. He continues, “Plus, up until a few years ago, we couldn’t use gas or fire out here, because of methane levels. We used to meter the air daily.”

Now, Hasunuma assures me, the air is safe. Thanking him, I leave the museum with ruminations on how devastating humans can be.

Returning the way I came, my path is brightened by red and white higanbana (spider lilies), sunflowers and an arch of morning glories. I find plantings of young papaya trees and even a patch of “monster” pumpkins. There is a peaceful quality to the place, and though it’s not quite William Butler Yeat’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” it still has no shortage of “bee-loud glades.”

Strolling past a grassy crater, I find a different kind of “B” — BumB, a public sports facility (pronounced “bunbu” in Japanese). The reception clerk proudly informs me that BumB’s indoor pool is heated utilizing energy from the nearby Shin-Koto Incineration Plant. Ditto the island’s tropical greenhouses, she says.

Behind BumB, I locate the Yumenoshima Tropical Greenhouse Dome, an impressive series of interconnected glass structures, graceful as a structural cloud. Shelling out ¥250, I enter and immediately get my money’s worth. Hanging from a pergola, a Dutchman’s Pipe vine (Aristolochia gigantea) proffers reddish-purple flowers resembling floppy slabs of roast beef; they’re not exactly pretty, but I’m grateful they’re devoid of the rotting odor the plant usually employs to attract pollinating insects.

Inside, the greenhouse is cleverly divided into three sections. Dome A features tree ferns, black mangroves and a waterfall-fed pond covered with lily pads. What catches my eye are the pendulous and slightly gaga blossoms of the perfectly named Hibiscus schizopetalus. Dome B introduces a 28-meter greenhouse apex, which houses towering palms and edible tropical foods, including bananas, carambola, cacao and ginger. Dome C houses plants native to the Ogasawara Islands, with the exception of its Madagascan Traveller’s Palms.

Fingers pocketed, I take a quick peek at a room of carnivorous plants, then meet facility Manager Hiroki Ueno, who informs me that residual heat energy is collected from the daily processing of 1,800 metric tons of waste at the Shin Koto Incinerator. It’s then piped over to warm the greenhouse or air-condition it during summer months. Environmentally sensitive waste management often seems like a pipe dream but Yumenoshima’s arrangement seems brilliant.

Bidding the lush landscapes farewell, I enter an alley behind the greenhouses, following the faint sound of Hawaiian music. I’m surprised to discover a marina, with halyards slapping in the breeze, tan men lounging about like old salts and boats squeaking against their bumpers.

“Tokyo Yumenoshima Marina is a mysterious place, hard to find and very quiet,” says Submanager Masakazu Yokoyama, 38, showing me the layout of the 23-year-old marina. With berth capacity for 660 craft, a fueling station, a rooftop restaurant and barbecue, and a repair boatyard, it’s a dock rat’s paradise.

Admiring the sleek lines of a pleasure craft — a literal dreamboat — I happen upon the perfect accompaniment: a party of 28-year-old women, all wearing white and all single. They all talk at once, too, but I learn that they’re snowboarding friends, who have chartered a cruiser for a reunion. Judging from their glowing smiles and discovering that the charter fee divided five ways is reasonable, I add this to my dream list of adventures.

Sauntering past the boatyards, I search out Yumenoshima’s shoreline, but alas, it’s inaccessible. Instead, my consolation prize is Inu no Mori Dog Garden. Members (and drop-in visitors) pay fees to let their dogs enjoy the garden’s extensive off-leash, timed run and obstacle courses. The park has refreshment facilities, provides free dog-training lessons and even offers chaises longues for posh pooches, as 48-year-old employee Reiko Hirose points out. Inu no Mori’s project leader, and the marina’s manager of general operations, Masahito Tagami, eagerly invites all with canine crushes to a charity cup event on Nov. 23, some proceeds of which support the training of guide dogs.

As the sun sets behind the masts of yachts and seagulls wing for home, I head to the marina’s terrace restaurant, Dimare, for a drink. Looking out over the waters, I recall the Daigo Fukuryu Maru exhibit. Radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama’s dying words, uttered almost 60 years ago to this day, were: “Please make sure I am the last victim of atomic and hydrogen bombs.” When we are awake, I think, choosing a dream or nightmare is in our hands.

Getting there: Yumenoshima is a short walk from Shin-Kiba Station, which is 10 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Keiyo Line and also accessible on the Yurakucho Line.