|

Good fortune in the Tokyo suburbs

by Kit Nagamura

The Tokyu Setagaya Line, a sweet little tramline, makes stops between Sangenjaya and Shimotakaido stations. A mere 5.1 kilometers long and one of only two trams left in Tokyo (the other being the Toden Arakawa Line), the Setagaya Line boasts a sleek fleet in candy colors. I hop onto a cherry red one headed toward Sangenjaya.

When the tram pulls into Miyanosaka Station, I spy from the tram window a green vintage-train carriage basking in the sun along the west platform like a Brobdingnagian grasshopper. I disembark to get a closer look. The station is unmanned and the carriage turns out to be locked, but peering though a passenger window, I can make out worn wooden floorboards and velvet seats the color of a billiard table. From a signboard, I learn this conveyance dates from 1925. It first ran the rails in Setagaya and then was sent south to join the Enoden fleet in Kamakura where it carried passengers to Enoshima until 1990.

There’s something charming about a town that cherishes its retired train cars, I think, and I find it fitting that the carriage is parked in front of Miyanosaka’s Silver Center for the elderly.

Winter sunlight etches the facades of humble low-rise buildings around Miyanosaka, and it’s terribly quiet, with only the occasional cyclist passing by. It’s so pleasantly tranquil that I decide to explore further. Heading west, I stop to admire a bonsai plum tree in full bloom, perched on a little shelf jutting out from a takoyaki (octopus dumpling) stand.

“It’s blossoming extremely early this year,” says pony-tailed owner Taro Tanaka, 68, popping his head out of the corner stand he has been manning for 27 years. As we chat, a young couple arrives to buy two plastic trays of his dumplings for a picnic.

They head off to eat lunch at the nearby Setagaya Hachimangu, a shrine sacred to Hachiman, the god of archery and warriors. I tour the expansive shrine grounds, reputed to have been founded by Minamoto no Yoshiie, in 1091. Minamoto, or so the story goes, was returning home from a victorious battle in Tohoku (northern Honshu), but his journey was obstructed by heavy rains and extensive flooding damage. Forced to linger for about two weeks in what was then Setagaya Village, Minamoto seems to have taken the delay as a sign that he should give thanks to Hachiman in this very spot.

The shrine’s current structures are colorful, and relatively new. Still, a small corral of Edo Period (1603-1868) chikara-ishi boulders once used to measure men’s strength and an arena built for sumo wrestling exhibitions held at the shrine in late September, hint at its origins. Three smaller shrines share the grounds, including a pretty Itsukushima one with red lanterns, graceful landscaping and a duck-filled pond.

Because I’m a sucker for such things, I snag one of the shrine’s omikuji (fortune-telling papers). It’s a bit more expensive than usual (¥200), but includes a detailed English translation and a color-coded bell charm as well. My fortune suggests that I strive to achieve “a strong mind as if a mossy rock has been never moving for a thousand years.” For someone who puts in the miles I do, that’s a tall order, but I’m delighted with the “very good fortune.”

Hardly gathering any moss, I roll off north alongside the tram tracks. The day is so profoundly peaceful that even clothing drying on sunlit tiny balconies takes on a bucolic aspect. Quite suddenly, I notice a delicious aroma wafting from the door of a tidy little restaurant, Balearic Inshokuten.

Balearic owner and chef Kai Kunimoto, 36, says he aims for a casual southern vibe, with island-style fusion cuisine. Currently his coconut curry is the star of the menu, and since I think that’s the scent that had lured me in, I order a bowl (¥900).

An island of soft rice arrives, surrounded by a rich moat of mildly picante yet slightly sweet coconut curry, jazzed up with crunchy fried onions and a tender slab of chicken. It completely blows away the winter chills, and if I didn’t have walking in my plans, I’d be looking for a hammock in which to practice making my mind like a mossy rock.

Thanking Kunimoto, I pay. While waiting for change, I ask the restaurant’s youngest customer, 3-year-old Kotaro Miyaji, what he thinks of the fare. With a winning grin, he gives it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

On Kunimoto’s suggestion, I check out the recently opened wagashiya (Japanese traditional sweets shop) next door. Mahorodo-Sogetsu displays the standard sweet mochi rice and azuki bean treats, but also offers a charming concoction shaped like Otafuku—Japan’s goddess of mirth. Clearly a cut above the usual, I put the place on my mental map for later and continue on.

Crossing the Setagaya Line’s tracks and wandering eastward, I find a sign that points out the way to Gotokuji Temple. The entrance to the Zen temple (1490) is impressive, lined with mature pines soaring to extraordinary heights. To match this grandeur, the grounds boast a three-story pagoda, many plum trees in full bloom, and the gravesite of Ii Naosuke (1815-60), an ill-fated politician executed for making agreements with Americans who arrived aboard Commodore Perry’s Black Ships in 1853.

But what has put Gotokuji on the map is its maneki-neko (beckoning cat ornaments), and I run into visitors from France, Italy and Russia, all who have come specifically to see the clowder of figurines that celebrate the temple’s origins.

The story goes that Gotokuji was once little more than an impoverished hut inhabited by a monk whose only companion was a white cat. In gratitude for his keep, the cat one day beckoned the attention of passing warriors by raising one paw and waving. Since an ominous storm was brewing overhead — Setagaya gets some major rain, it seems — the warriors, chief among them Ii Naotaka (1590-1659), the lord of Hikone (current-day Shiga Prefecture), followed the cat to shelter. Some versions of the story claim that minutes later, lightning struck where the warriors had been standing, which could have killed them all. Impressed by the waving white cat and the monk’s teachings, Naotaka sent generous donations to the monk so that he could establish a grand temple at Gotokuji.

The place dedicated to the maneki-neko is off the left of the main temple buildings. There, thousands of white cat figurines, offerings placed there by those who wish to call love or good fortune to themselves, cozy up to a statue of Kannon (the Japanese deity of mercy). Maneki-neko can be purchased in several shapes and sizes, and the temple still profits from the white cat, it seems. There is even a large cat placard for photo ops, and when someone offers to take my photo behind it, I think it’s a bit silly, but agree.

Continuing on, I stroll through a quiet suburban neighborhood until I come to a thoroughfare and a French flag waving in front of Patisserie Religieuses. Of course I go in.

If you’re trying to resist the temptations of pastries, chef Hiroshi Mori, 46, will leave you without a prayer of a chance. Mori lived and worked in Paris for 18 years where he ran his own patisserie, so the man knows his chou from his creme.

Mori has been back in Tokyo, running Patisserie Religieuses for five years. Walls hung with whisks and piping tips attest to his skills. Aside from Mori’s signature cake in the shape of a Catholic nun, I learn that he also makes photo-cakes — confections with a customer’s photo transferred to a gel and used as decoration.

Can Mori put my Gotokuji snapshot on a cake? “No problem,” Mori’s wife says. “It usually takes a couple of days, but go next door, have a cup of coffee and we’ll get it done for you.”

I’m not a huge fan of coffee prepared by just anyone, so I enter Brewing Room, a shop with quirky furniture, numerous opera posters, and a single barista, with trepidation. But owner Ryo Matsuura quickly puts paid to my fears. His latte art skills, superb as they are, take a backseat to the rich bitter-free brew he painstakingly pours through a cloth sock.

“Some people call this a hamburger,” he says, as the grounds form into a mound as he pours, “but I think it’s like a chocolate cake.”

I’m on a second cuppa when Mrs. Mori arrives to deliver my cake. It’s a fruit-festooned, picture-perfect celebration of the day. I thank her, and bid Matsuura farewell, with a promise to return. As I’m half out the door, he suggests that I drop in on the tailor down the street. “I collaborate with him to make these,” he says, holding up a sweet pouch fashioned from used coffee sock fabric.

With my cake on one arm, I duck into Denim Repair Owati and talk to owner Shin Miyazawa, 46. For the past 22 years, Miyazawa has made his living repairing jeans.

“The material is thick, and the fix is often tricky,” Miyazawa says, “but if you have a pair of jeans you love, it’s possible you’ll never find ones that fit that well again. Better to repair them.”

Because it is late, I bid farewell to Miyazawa. Heading home, my mind sits quietly, like a mossy rock, on the variety of kindnesses and shows of gratitude I have seen here today.