Under glowering clouds, I decide to explore the area around Tabata Station in Tokyo. Though recently renovated, the station is one of Tokyo’s oldest depots, dating from 1896. The station offers nifty spots for watching shinkansen trains bullet by, but I take the north exit to find the Tabata Bunshi Mura Kinenkan (Memorial Museum of Writers and Artists).
Light rain begins to fall, so I tuck my camera under my arm football-style and make a two-minute sprint to the museum. Entrance is free — a pleasant surprise — but I note that all the displays are in Japanese. Naoko Kikuchi, 34, whose business card identifies her as the museum’s “investigator,” observes that I’m moving like molasses as I slowly read the displays, and kindly squeezes out from behind the reception desk to help me navigate the facility.
Through Kikuchi’s vivid descriptions, I can picture Tabata (literally, “field edge”) as a rural village teeming with potters, painters and penmen in the early 1900s. They gathered here thanks to the area’s low rents and walking proximity to the then newly opened Tokyo School of Fine Arts (today known as Tokyo University of the Arts). Tabata’s list of 102 luminaries is a virtual who’s who of the Japanese arts scene: authors Tenshin Okakura, Kan Kikuchi, Sanjugo Naoki, and Fumiko Hayashi; painters Yumeji Takehisa and Hoan Kosugi; and potter Hazan Itaya.
But the museum’s biggest star, and Kikuchi’s personal interest, is Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Considered the first modern Japanese fiction writer to have garnered international acclaim, and dubbed the “father of the Japanese short story,” Akutagawa wrote psychologically exigent works that reflected not only his scholarship and vivid imagination, but also his broad knowledge of the world’s prominent short story authors. His name graces one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, the Akutagawa Prize. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Oscar-winning movie “Rashomon” was also based on two of Akutagawa’s short stories: “Rashomon” and “In a Grove.”
I peruse priceless letters and jottings of famous authors, and a few odd artifacts such as the exhaust pipe from Hazan Itaya’s kiln, named “Meoto” (husband and wife) because it took the potter and his wife over a year to construct it from hand-chiseled bricks. “Can I visit the kiln?” Kikuchi shakes her head.
“Though the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake caused little damage in Tabata — in fact, Tabata Station was jammed with northbound refugees because Ueno Station collapsed — the bombings during World War II obliterated the area,” she says. However, Tabata’s biggest loss, in Kikuchi’s estimation, was when Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927.
Kikuchi believes the museum’s most appealing display is a deftly constructed diorama of Akutagawa’s former home. One can peer through the roof into his writing room, where a thumb-size model of the author’s desk is strewn with miniature manuscripts, books the size of a pinky fingernail, a teeny tea set, pens and ceramic objects.
“Each item is carefully researched, and we add things on occasion,” Kikuchi says.
In the backyard of the model house, I find a Lilliputian version of Akutagawa’s favorite kimono, airing on a bamboo pole.
“It’s the one he wore when he died,” Kikuchi says, bringing immediate poignancy to the scene.
Thanking Kikuchi, I depart from the museum, and head south. Route 458’s ravine-like progress through the landscape, flanked by stone walls, offers little more to gaze at than the sky’s silvery clouds, layered like fish scales. Where the terrain levels, I almost walk past a window with a cute monkey face stenciled on it. Wait — a monkey face? Though hardly the “Pokemon Go” type, I decide I need to capture that.
Turns out I’ve stumbled on Horizaru Tattoo parlor. Behind a curtain, 42-year-old resident artist, Horizaru (a pseudonym that means “engraving monkey”) graciously allows me to observe him wield a custom-designed needle to whiten the teeth on a magnificent tiger charging over the right shoulder of client Michael Hansard, 48. For his impressive sleeve-style tat, Tokyo resident Hansard is on his fourth four-hour stint under Horizaru’s needle.
“After four hours, the pain grows less tolerable,” Horizaru explains.
Michael rolls his eyes, but doesn’t disagree as he sits up. Horizaru gently pats dry his “canvas.”
“His specialty is traditional Japanese themes, done in incredible detail,” Michael says, “and he’s famous worldwide.”
Horizaru laughs shyly and demurs: “That’s probably because I travel a lot.” But he admits that several famous rock musicians bear his artistry. Our conversation touches on the general taboo of tattoos in Japan.
“I really hope that changes soon,” Horizaru admits, but judging from the fact that he’s booked solid for the next three months, the stigma appears peripheral to his livelihood.
Horizaru’s fees start at ¥15,000 per hour. For kicks, I ask what design he’d suggest for me.
“A pine tree,” he says, with a laugh. Sharp suggestion, but that exceeds my limitation on needles for the day, so I thank the gentlemen, and move on.
Several minutes south, I locate a chorus line of storage sheds for mikoshi (portable shrines). These lead to shadowy stairs climbing to Tabata Hachiman Shrine. Halfway up, I find a Fujizuka, or mini-scale Mount Fuji, and as I hike up the tiny mountain, I meet fellow mountaineer and shutterbug Takanobu Kitsuragi, 78, who recommends I check out the temple next door. For photos, it gets his thumbs-up.
Back before the Meiji Revolution (1868) instigated a separation of religious sites, it was quite common to have Shinto and Buddhist places of worship on shared grounds. Given the proximity of the two here, I think — while descending the steps to the Shinto shrine — that was likely the situation in this case.
When I arrive at Tokakuji Temple, it is late afternoon, and the temple itself is closed. Never mind, though, because out front, an eye-popping pair of stone statues, like red-papered pinatas, appears to be the day’s second “Pokemon” hallucination. A plaque informs me that these are the Akagami Nio (Red Paper Deva Kings), originally carved in 1641 with hopes of eradicating a plague. Today, people place red papers on the statues in areas that ail them, and pray to the Akagami Nio’s healing powers. A rack tied with hundreds of straw sandals, offered in thanks for effective treatment, suggest the red guys are working.
Daylight wanes, so I meander uphill, on sloping back roads through pleasant and unpretentious residential areas. Emerging on a slightly larger road, headed for the station, I notice a small building with a sign outside advertising a school for ninja. Nah, I think. But I knock. Any ninja home?
To my great surprise, the answer is “yes.” I am invited in to talk with Suzak, the shinobi (ninja name) of Kiyomi Shibata, 18th- generation head of the Musashi clan. Shibata’s lambent white hair adds to her supremely relaxed yet alert aura as she explains her family history of serving the Tokugawa shoguns, both as general samurai and onmitsu (Tokugawa ninja).
Shibata catches me eyeing hand-forged weaponry hanging from the walls.
“Please understand that ninja were not assassins,” she says. “That is a common mistake. They were spies. They held other jobs, and trained secretly in the arts of moving around undetected, but they needed defense techniques, too.”
One of her clan, Sasuke Yaen, 15, has been studying ninja arts since age 3. Shibata asks him to demonstrate stealth-walking — a mixture of fluid and stable body alignment. I next beg for a show of target practice.
“One could use shuriken (throwing blades), or almost anything,” Yaen says, picking up a nearby chopstick.
In one sudden flick, he buries it in the wall. I want to try that. As Shibata tends to several inordinately handsome young men arriving for training sessions in the first floor dojo, Yaen teaches me the technique. I let my chopstick fly and it sinks into the wall solidly.
“Very unusual for a first try,” Yaen says, eyeing me warily.
In a rare break with tradition, Shibata’s family offers classes to non-Japanese interested in ninja arts. She stresses the focus of her clan’s ninja training is to achieve “ku” or a state of “no self” in which conflict does not exist or arise.
“It brings peace,” she says, “and that is our aim.” I can just make out Yaen’s smile beneath his mask, and I know I’ll have to come back to give this training a try.
It’s now past time to go home for dinner, so I duck into Asanoya, a soba shop Shibata recommends. I order a tempura set, the same one that Akutagawa used to order in this very shop, a century ago. At the end of my meal — the tempura heavy and delicious — the shop master, a knowing grin on his face and without a word, places a gift of two mikan (mandarin orange) on my tray. It’s a subtle reference to one of Akutagawa’s best short stories, “Mikan,” and I am moved beyond words.
Tabata Station is a 15-minute train ride from Tokyo Station on the Yamanote Line.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5