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Never mind the love hotels: Negishi is home to haiku, tea and famous pines

by

Special To The Japan Times

Alighting at one of the JR Yamanote Line’s quietest stops, Uguisudani Station, I chat with the stationmaster about its name, which means “Bush-Warbler Valley.” Apparently, the area used to have limpid streams and a bucolic setting that attracted the feathered songsters, also known as Japanese nightingales. A recording of the passerine’s liquid song is broadcast on the platform in the early morning hours, the stationmaster tells me, but a quick glance around the vicinity makes me doubt the actual birds still sing here.

Uguisudani Station serves the quiet neighborhood of Negishi, where the famous poet and critic Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) once lived. Though born in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, Shiki lived out the last years of his short life, bed-ridden from tuberculosis and bone-related complications, in Shiki-an, as his house was known. I’ve secured permission to photograph inside Shiki-an, something usually forbidden.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Shiki’s birth, and as though in celebration of that fact, a long-missing notebook of his handwritten work, including five unpublished haiku and two self-portraits, has just been located and is now on display at Shiki-an. I’m eager to see the home of the man who not only introduced Japan to the rules and regulations of baseball, but also gave the world’s shortest poetry form its name: haiku.

Heading north along train trestles painted a light shade of uguisu green, I find there’s really no choice but to pass through a warren of slightly demode “short stay” establishments. These hook-up hotels have amusing names. Hotel Kahni, for example, unfortunately brings to mind the Japanese word for “crabs,” and then there’s the unsanitary-sounding Hotel P-Door. Hotel Seeds is not much better, so I’m relieved when I locate a ramshackle old home with a rusty staircase, the kind I imagine a poet might be able to afford. Drawing closer, I find a wee sign in Japanese. In translation, it reads: “This is NOT Shiki-an.”

But Shiki-an is directly next-door, and more dignified. The original structure that Shiki lived in from 1894 to 1902 with his mother and sister, and which served as a poets’ salon, was destroyed during World War II bombings in 1945. The current home was faithfully reconstructed by Shiki’s friends and family in 1950.

Paying the ¥500 entrance fee, I doff my shoes and step into the humble tatami rooms. Displays of ephemera, the newly recovered notebook, and Shiki’s loose and compelling ink sketches are wonderful to see, but it’s the small abode’s garden, which I recognize from Shiki’s haiku, that I keep turning to. Its pergola of pendulous hechima (sponge gourds) frame some distant stalks of magenta cockscomb rising from a scattering of autumnal plants.

I gaze down at Shiki’s writing desk. It has a unique square cutout, designed to accommodate the scribe’s left leg, which, due to complications of his disease, he was unable to stretch out straight or fold beneath him. Crouching down on the tatami behind the desk, approximating the sight-line that Shiki might have had from his bed, I clearly see the brilliant green leaves and hanging gourds that he wrote about on this exact day, Sept. 18, 1902, during the last hours of his life.

One of his three final poems reads: hechima saite tan no tsumarishi hotoke kana (in my translation: a sponge gourd blooms / choked with phlegm / the enlightened dead). The juice from gourds was believed to relieve coughing attacks from tuberculosis. Shiki knew he was beyond healing, yet he immortalized the plant’s blossoms and his own approaching death. This moves me more than I have anticipated. I step down into the garden, to gather myself.

I decide to explore Shiki’s beloved Negishi, and head north of the neighborhood of bouncing beds. Ducking behind Halal restaurant Sakura, I find it’s quiet enough that the sound of crow wings overhead startles me. The tinny broadcasts of kitchen radios float out into the sun-dappled alleyways.

Standing in front of Saizo-in, a relatively new-looking Shingon Buddhist temple, I’m about to give it a pass when I spy, down the temple’s side alley, what appears to be a small sotomon (roofed outer tea garden gate). Ringing the temple’s electric doorbell, I talk to Yoshitaka Tsuzura, 34, head priest of what I learn is the area’s oldest temple, dating back approximately 700 years.

When I ask if Saizo-in has a garden in the back, Tsuzura emerges in elegant black robes, his sa (surplice) adorned with bellflowers, the kamon (crest) of the Shingon Chizaha sect. He beckons me and kindly warns of the tenacity of autumn mosquitoes, but once I lay eyes on the rich, dense garden, designed in the style of Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), I forget all about the little biters. “My father loved the tea ceremony,” Tsuzura says, “and since we had a lot of land back here, he gradually built six tearooms.”

Tsuzura opens one of the garden’s Rinzai-style tearooms. It is a bare, clean space, where leaf shadows play on the shoji. We sit for a few moments, absorbing the silence. A mourning dove somewhere in the garden sends out a throbbing call. “To enter a tea room is to enter another world,” Tsuzura says. “Remember the path of stones we walked on? They are purposefully placed in a way that challenges you. They slow you down, so that you can prepare yourself for the transition.”

As we chat, I learn that Tsuzura, following his father’s passion, studied the art of tea for four years, and for 200 days of each of those years. This leads me to ask him about the scroll hanging in the tea room’s tokonoma (alcove). “It is 400-year-old calligraphy by Kobori Enshu,” he explains, revealing that we are admiring the kind of treasure that is usually sequestered away in museums. “It’s characters mean kakei, or beautiful view,” Tsuzura says, pointing to where Kobori has rearranged the elements of one of the kanji to place the radical for horse literally on top of the radical for hill to emphasize what constitutes a beautiful view, or how to achieve one. “People of old were very free in their thinking,” Tsuzura remarks, “and these handwritten works actually have far more impact and are more creative than Instagram.”

Thanking him for the gracious gift of his time, I bow. Before heading off, though, I ask Tsuzura about the painting I glimpsed in his main temple hall, which depicts a massive pine tree. He tells me it’s the Negishi-no-Omatsu (Negishi’s big pine) that drew admirers from afar during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and that his temple oversees the nearby site devoted to the tree.

Following Tsuzura’s directions north, I reach a crossing at a street lined with willow trees. A sign identifies this as Negishiyanagi Dori (Negishi Willow Street). When I ask a passerby about it, he admits that it was once a popular red-light district. Checking a map, I realize the street leads directly to the Yoshiwara Shrine, in the eponymous Edo-Period pleasure district. Suddenly, there’s a suggestiveness in the willows’ long branches, swaying in the autumnal breeze. I push further north, and soon come to a concrete fenced-in area commemorating the Ogyo no Matsu (formerly known as Negishi-no-Omatsu).

A 1902 photograph of the pine shows a massive tree, that from a 4.09-meter girth grew 13.63 meters high. It is said to have served as a navigational landmark from Tokyo Bay, and it was celebrated by artists and writers, including Masaoka Shiki. Though designated a natural living monument in 1926, the pine suffered environmental stress and died two years later. A part of its roots was carved into a statue of Fudo (an esoteric guardian of Buddhism), which is now enshrined at the site. The current pine, planted in 1976, will be closely watched.

I wander toward the station, but I’m drawn in by gusts of sweet air issuing from Anzu, a small taiyaki stand owned and operated by Masao Watanabe, 67. These fish-shaped pancakes are usually stuffed with red-bean paste, but at Anzu, as the shop name suggests, the sea bream are filled with apricot jam. Watanabe collects miniature whisky and cognac bottles as a hobby, but has no plans to add alcohol to his treats. “This is a family place,” he says, placing in front of me a taiyaki filled with ice cream and apricots.

As I partake, Watanabe’s granddaughter comes home from school. “Tadaima!” (“I’m Home!”) she calls from inside the house where Watanabe himself grew up. Afternoon light plays on shiny fish-shaped waffle griddles, and I find the sweetness of the moment brief, but so perfect.

Note: In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Masaoka Shiki’s birth, the Setouchi International Photo-Haiku contest now welcomes submissions through Nov. 30: bit.ly/2ylU0LC.