Decades ago, I strolled around the quiet neighborhood of Kaminoge in Setagaya Ward with professor Shuichi Kato, the scholar who convinced me to come study in Tokyo. I vividly recollect, on my first day in Japan, encountering the fragrance of tiny orange kinmokusei (fragrant olive) blossoms as Kato spoke passionately of Japanese art on our walk to the Gotoh Museum. Even then, I knew I’d recall the day with joy.
A whiff of the same flower blooming this September brings with it potent nostalgia, so despite the danger of displacing old memories with new realities, I jump off the Oimachi Line at Kaminoge Station. Kaminoge — the name means “upper fields” — has seen a lot of change from its agricultural days and, alas, both my professor and his abode are no more. Still, assuming that the Gotoh Museum has been lovingly maintained, I look for memories that direction.
Crossing the midday roar of Kanpachi Road, I stop to check out a hand-painted sign reading “Uncle Sam’s.” It’s a U.S.-style sandwich shop, filled with customers calling out conversations with staff behind the counter. I slide onto a heavy wooden bench and order the shop’s premium sandwich — Sam’s.
What arrives is a triple-decker club sandwich, accompanied by two rings of raw onion, a scoop of potato salad and homemade pickles. Biting in, I realize that Sam’s bread is superlative. It’s delicately golden and crisp on the outer surface but chewy inside, and pockets a kitchen’s worth of fresh fillings, including tuna and roast pork.
“We love our bread,” owner Megumi Kiuchi confirms, scooting onto the bench next to me. “It’s made to order, and we toast it directly on a hot grill.” Why? “If you don’t know that, you can’t manage a sandwich business,” she laughs, putting paid to that topic.
Kiuchi, gregarious and ebullient, doesn’t look anywhere near her 67 years. She attributes her youthfulness to hard work and loyal customers.
“We’ve been open for more than 38 years,” she says. “My husband went to the United States, tasted the sandwiches there, and came back to Tokyo to start this place. He died 20 years later. Then, you know, I just kept going.” She looks around the shop she has managed on her own for 18 years, then adds, “This place was my husband’s greatest gift to me.”
As we talk, Kiuchi effortlessly juggles a traffic of friends, delivery personnel and customers simultaneously, the Maypole around which so much joie de vivre revolves. At the cash register, she asks where I am headed. The Gotoh Museum, I tell her, and she whips out a ticket to the current exhibition. I demur, but she deftly changes the subject again.
“Afterwards, you have to see Kimura’s Vineyard,” she insists. “His grapes are amazing, and he’s something too. I’ll call to say you’re coming,” she says as I jot down directions.
Leaving the bustle of Uncle Sam’s, I’m almost too full to move. The neighborhood, though, is so quiet I can hear pine needles drop and the whoosh of crow wings overhead, and it soon settles me.
Minutes later, I am at the Gotoh Museum. The 1960 building, designed by architect Isoya Yoshida (1894-1974) in a minimalist tsukiya (teahouse-inspired) style, houses the art collection of Keita Goto (1882-1959). Goto, a business tycoon who created Tokyu Corp. through clever ties between railway expansion and real estate investments, amassed an impressive art collection during his travels throughout Japan. Though he did not live to see his museum completed, Goto’s National Treasures, including the oldest extant illustrated hand scroll of the “Genji Monogatari” (“The Tale of Genji”), delight visitors today.
Kiuchi’s kind gift of a ticket covers my entire ¥1,000 entrance fee to explore the museum’s two wings. The current exhibition (through Oct. 18) focuses on Buddhist sutra scrolls and calligraphy by Zen monks. I marvel at the concision and concentration in each work, particularly one sutra exactingly brushed in gold on deep purple paper from the Nara Period (710-794).
In the other wing, I find a good collection of predominantly Momoyama Period (1573-1603) ceramics, including the famous tea bowl named “Mine no Momiji” (“Maples on the Peak”). The iron-rich nezumi (mouse-gray) slip gives the work an earthy warm texture and the lip of the bowl swirls along its circumference intriguingly.
The museum itself is compact, but the gardens behind cover approximately 20,000 sq. meters. Teahouses, Buddhist sculptures, beautiful wooden gates, lanterns of every style and an impressive stone pagoda enliven the steep and shadowed topography of the garden, built into the Musashino ridge that plummets toward Tama River. I wander for the best part of an hour, commenting to an on-site gardener about the size of the place.
“I spend a couple days tidying this area,” he confides, smiling. “Then I move around the garden in a circuit. By the time I get back here, it needs care again.”
Cycles and circuits of care are on my mind when I leave the museum grounds and its fragrance of sweet olive flowers. Wandering southward along the Musashino ridge, I come across Kaminoge Catholic Church. Invited inside, I meet Father Bernardo, 89, a native of Parma, Italy, who has lived in Japan for the last 65 years. He and I admire the chapel, erected in 1959, and its lovely linear beams that reflect Japanese aesthetics.
I ask Bernardo what it was that drew him to Japan. With a twinkle in his eye, he says, “I came to meet you.” There is something so Italianate and deep about that charming response, I can only smile. With a bow, I reluctantly move on.
Now hunting for Kimura’s Vineyard, I navigate a suburban area of new spec houses and apartments. It seems unlikely, but suddenly I spy a few vegetable fields. A kind farmer points toward an underpass painted with sunflowers by local elementary schoolchildren. Walking through it, I’m assaulted by a whiff of chicken ammonia on the other side.
It comes from Kimura’s Vineyard. Below the laden vines, in dappled sunlight, a flock of chickens range freely. It’s easy to locate owner Koichiro Kimura, 46, a burly and deeply tanned force of nature, whose family has been tending agricultural fields for 14 generations.. His wife, Hitomi, 42, mans a table where locals line up to purchase table grapes that they have snipped to take home. “This is the last entrance we offer this year, so you’re lucky,” Hitomi says, handing me a basket and special blunt-tipped scissors designed to protect the fruit.
Koichiro guides me under the shadowed trellises, where perfect globes of sweet fruit sway, and you can’t smell the chickens any longer. I ask about the challenges of an urban vineyard. “The first five years were killers,” Kimura says, checking one vine. “And the hardest thing is that plants can’t talk. They can’t tell you what they need, so you have to know.”
Watching a few children stand on milk cartons to cut fruit, I realize the height is perfect for adults to tend the grapes. “But not high enough to keep civets from stealing the fruit,” Koichiro says. Civets? “Yes, and raccoons have eaten half my chicken flock too.”
Unexpected wildlife and fluctuating weather are hardships Kimura faces annually. Nonetheless, in addition to fresh eggs and grapes, he plans to sell strawberries and bamboo sprouts, and open a small cafe soon. “This work is grueling, but when you see people line up, and they’re happy, it’s good,” he says.
I pay out for an outrageously plump bunch of Honey Venus grapes, a cultivar first produced in Hiroshima in 1998. Blowing kisses to the Kimuras, I circle back toward Kaminoge Station.
Just before I reach the station, I note a strange tableau in a shop window. It’s impossible to tell what goes on in Loyd’s, but from outside, I see man playing an eight-string ukulele to a large woolly cat who watches him from a perch above. On the window, a notice reads: “This is not a pet shop.” If not a pet shop, then what? Opening the door, I hear Kaname Matsubara, 53, strumming out a version of the Beatles’ song “Something,” as Senna, his Norwegian Forest cat, moves gracefully down to check me out.
“She likes you,” Matsubara says, as Senna rubs her head on my hand. Producer of a cat cafe in Sakura Shinmachi, Matsubara is an ailurophile of the first order. In fact, a carpenter by trade, he specializes in creating indoor feline furniture. As he describes his various products — a litter box cleverly enclosed in a bench, climbing towers with sturdy cotton scratch posts, and catwalks featuring the perfect 20-cm width that cats prefer — Senna begs to be brushed. “When I have a lot of work, I can’t bring her to the shop because she won’t leave me alone,” Matsubara says, smoothing her soft ruff.
Melding his love of cats with his woodworking skills, Matsubara has found part of the joy of life that seems to linger in the air of Kaminoge.
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