February is a tricky month for venturing out in Tokyo. Daylight hours lengthen and the light softens slightly, but the weather itself seems controlled by a sadist at the thermostat.
Blissfully warm one moment and freezing the next, it’s 50 shades of uncertainty.
Nonetheless, in the hearts of haiku poets and optimists alike, it’s the sprays of sharply beautiful plum blossoms — a precursor to cherry blossom season — that mark the official start to spring. Hoping to find them in bloom, I head off to admire the landscape.
Taking the local Odakyu Line, I alight at Umegaoka (plum hill) Station.
It is packed with itinerant hawkers selling wooden toys, bamboo utensils, pottery and lacquer wares. The air swirls with the aroma of roasting sweet potatoes, sold just outside the north exit.
I follow my nose and the leisurely stream of people who all appear to have one destination in common and it’s as though we are all planning to picnic together.
Soon, the heady cinnamon scent of blossoms catches me before I spot the source — a deep red plum tree in full bloom near the entrance to Hanegi Park.
Shutterbugs snap photos of its full-blown beauty and lovers sway in front of its lower branches. I stroll up the sloped path, through the park’s more than 650 Prunus mume (the species of trees related to both the apricot and plum families). Among the approximately 60 varieties, I note a predominance of white blossoms, bunched like tiny clouds against the blue sky.
Meeting a trio of men in silver jackets who identify themselves as managers of Hanegi Park’s annual Plum Festival, I beg a bit of their time. Takashi Saita, 74, Takayuki Suzuki, 56, and Daiichi Midori, 26, tell me this is the 38th anniversary of the festival. So, what does it involve?
They talk over each other’s words, but I catch mention of music recitals, tea ceremonies, haiku meetings, drum performances and something about handmade umedaifuku mochi — a sweet rice cake with a whole plum tucked inside. “Those are really good,” Daiichi says.
The men guide me to stalls with all sorts of festival fare and I pick up one of the last mochi cakes for ¥160. “We only make a certain number each day and they sell out fast,” the woman behind the counter says. “Watch out for the plum seed inside,” she adds as I head off.
Good thing she warned me, because the mixture of sweet rice and tart green plum does not encourage caution. I savor it as I wander along a stretch of park devoted to garden vendors displaying a spring palette of bonsai plum trees, brilliant floral margaritas, tulips and floppy pansies.
Eventually, I wander into a part of Hanegi Park that, alarmingly, smells like smoke. Sure enough, behind a large tree, I discover three children hunched around a small fire, prodding it with sticks. Pausing, I glance around and find several ground fires surrounded by both adults and children holding marshmallow and bread skewers or cooking other foods.
Through swathes of smoke, I make out what looks like a survival camp. Below tall trees, the rolling landscape is filled with tree forts, bamboo huts, mud pits, open-air workshops and tool sheds. Parents and kids race after one another with squeals of delight, saw planks of wood and dig rivers in the mud.
Jun Imada, 54, is busy helping his 10-year-old daughter Haruko learn how to get bang for her buck from a hammer. Jun tells me that Hanegi Playpark is the ultimate antidote to rule-bound urban living and his daughter nods in agreement.
Done hammering, Haruko pulls me towards her favorite part of the park — the Tarzan Swing. Here, kids perch on the roof of a shed, grab a rope, and go flying over the heads of the other children. “It’s scary at first,” Haruko admits, but in the next breath she’s air borne and laughing.
Next on the rope is a young man, who dressed as Luigi (the character in Nintendo’s Mario Bros. game) performs thrilling acrobatics to the delight of the younger children.
Back on the ground, Luigi stays in character. “I’m 26,” he says, though he appears at least a decade younger, “and I come to the park three or four times a week to play.”
Does Luigi gather coins? Thinking for a minute, he says, “Sure. You actually can find coins here sometimes. But you probably shouldn’t eat the mushrooms.”
Takeo Shigehara, 65, another park regular, is a master at controlling koma (spinning tops). Equally adept at beigoma (small metal tops), Takeo patiently tries to teach me the skill. “I’ve been doing this since age 5,” he says, setting one top spinning on his palm. “Well, I mean I worked a real job, too,” he adds quickly, “but I’ve always been into tops.”
As we chat, he launches the toy from his palm up onto his baseball cap, where it stabilizes, giving him what resembles a propeller beanie.
Tomoko Fukushima, a member of the park board, says the park area was established in the 1970s by community members who had a goal of creating a place where children could embrace — and manage — physical risk in their play.
Speaking to me at the park’s administration building, she explains that despite the chance of injuries and near-certainty of ruined clothing, the community believed in giving children freedom from endless safety rules as it would teach them to challenge themselves. “It makes for braver kids who become adults (with) less fear of failure,” Fukushima says.
Fukushima’s own children sold her on the concept. Now, she helps manage the park’s operating budget and heads up a system of play leaders (trained volunteer mentors) who facilitate play and who blend into the scene so effortlessly that I cannot spot them.
Thanking Fukushima for her time, I head off, musing over my own childhood antics of scaling wire fences, building forts and fires and slicing my finger to the bone as I learnt to use a pocketknife. Did it make me braver? Perhaps.
I soon come across a beautiful boulder on one of the park’s hills, inscribed with a haiku poem by Teijo Nakamura (1900-1988). The Japanese reads: “Osoto nimo deyo, tsururu bakari ni, haru no tsuki.” I take a stab at translating it and come up with: “Come outside, within reach, the spring moon.”
I glance around to see if the moon is visible yet, but no such luck. Instead, I explore the park’s information center, located between two teahouses dedicated to serving matcha (powdered green tea) and koicha (thicker, opaque matcha). Here, I learn from the receptionist that up until the late 1920s, Hanegi Park and its surrounds were predominantly fields planted with tea and other produce.
As we chat, a handsome young duo of performers, dressed formally in kimono and hakama (men’s formal skirt), walk by. Marika Komatsu, 8, has been learning koto (13-stringed Japanese zither) since the age of 5, while Takahiro Sasaki, also 8, has just debuted as an accompanying singer, their teacher Ayane Watanabe tells me. I have missed their recital, but with the theme of bravery still on my mind, I ask Takahiro if his first performance made him nervous. “I was 100 percent nervous,” he announces proudly. Ah, but it takes bravery to admit that, I muse.
After parting with the young artists, I head out into an afternoon on the sharpened edge of bitter cold. I hustle back to Umegaoka Station, but can’t resist a peek out to the south-side exit. There, I find a well-tended stone Enmei Jizo (life-prolonging bodhisattva). I toss a coin in and make a wish that you, too, gentle readers, will have time to see the plums bloom this spring.
Getting there: Hanegi Park is a five-minute walk from Tokyo’s Umegaoka (plum hill) Station, which is on the Odakyu Line.
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