Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Kokubunji: Signs of the times on Tokyo's western front

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

From the south exit of Kokubunji Station, in Tokyo’s western reaches, a geographical rift propels me downhill, into the depths of the area’s history.

Where the slope levels off, I find a narrow canal of pellucid waters spanned by a small, nondescript stone bridge; dubbed Ishibashi back in 1745. Locals erected a monument in 1832 to thank the bridge’s stones for allowing pedestrians to tromp on them, and also to request that the gods prevent diseases and plagues from crossing into their village. Another memorial boulder nearby is dedicated to Fudo Myoo (a Buddhist deity, also known as Acala), and this, a nearby signboard reads, might account for the current name of the bridge: Fudobashi.

Continuing along the canal upstream I cross another bridge, this time unnamed and unthanked, and discover the waterway nearly covered by steel H-beams, set at close intervals. I ask a few locals if they might know anything about the structures, but no one has a clue.

Kokubunji resident Ryokichi Inoue and his comely cabbage. | KIT NAGAMURA
Kokubunji resident Ryokichi Inoue and his comely cabbage. | KIT NAGAMURA

A distinguished gentleman, slightly resembling Chishu Ryu in Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953), pauses to gaze at the waters, a large cabbage peeking out of his shopping bag. Does he know? Ryokichi Inoue, 75, shakes his head. “No,” he says, tilting his head with consternation.

Inoue moved from Kanda to Kokubunji 50 years ago. “The air is fresher and the weather always several degrees cooler,” he says, “which is nice in the summer, but not winter.” Noting my admiring glance at his bodacious cabbage, he points me in the direction of several farmers’ produce stalls and tells me to keep an eye out for something called “Otaka-no-Michi” (Road of Hawks).

Thanking Inoue, I meander on, inhaling the quiet of the residential area under gray midwinter clouds. On the edge of a vacant, grass-covered lot, I find owl cafe Fukuro Sabou. But inside I’m startled to be greeted by neither owl, nor hawk, but a high-strung toucan.

“That’s Kyoro-chan,” says Kinue Machida, 77, the petite owner of the shop. When she calls to him, Kyoro-chan — whose name in Japanese means “look around” — swivels his foot-long beak toward her. “If he doesn’t like you, he can put a dent in you,” Machida warns. I smile and back away slowly. I have my own look around the place: an ordinary coffee shop except for the view out the window, where two huge owls preen on perches in an enclosure. Smaller owls snooze in separate glassed-off areas, each balanced on one foot.

Foot-long pecker: A toucan greets customers at the entrance of owl cafe Fukuro Sabou. | KIT NAGAMURA
Foot-long pecker: A toucan greets customers at the entrance of owl cafe Fukuro Sabou. | KIT NAGAMURA

“When you see owls on one foot,” Machida says, “they are relaxed. If they are swaying back and forth on both feet, they’re stressed.”

We discuss the current trend of owl cafes, where the birds are tethered side-by-side all day under fluorescent lighting for the pleasure of squealing customers.

Machida feels Fukuro Sabou is different. As an owl breeder, she is protective of her charges and knows them by name, weight, lineage, temperament and voice. The Machida family lives with 80 owls, she tells me, but only 15 or so are on view at the cafe at any one time; the rotation system means most owls are “off duty” more than on. Despite my qualms about wild animals in captivity, I am transfixed by Machida’s favorite, a Eurasian eagle-owl named Rai-chan.

“Rai-chan thinks he’s human,” Machida says, going into his enclosure and coaxing him onto her arm. “He rides our building elevator by himself, says ‘Ho!’ when we get home, knows the way to his own room and sits in the grocery cart when we go shopping.”

Raised by Machida’s son, Rai-chan has imprinted on the family, meaning the owl can no longer survive in the wild. He nuzzles Machida when we walk out into the sunshine, fluffs his intricate plumage and fixes me with enormous eyes, the orange of cautionary lights.

Hoo's who?: Fukuro Sabou's owner Kinue Machida and her Eurasian eagle-owl Rai-chan. | KIT NAGAMURA
Hoo’s who?: Fukuro Sabou’s owner Kinue Machida and her Eurasian eagle-owl Rai-chan. | KIT NAGAMURA

Thanking Machida and Rai-chan for their time, I wing off in the direction of Otaka-no-Michi, which I’m told was used by the Tokugawa shoguns for training their hawks.

Before finding Otaka-no-Michi, however, I happen upon soba restaurant Kinutaya, which, a sign outside warns, “serves only soba.” I assume the menu still includes the regular line-up of noodle dishes, topped with tempura, duck and other favorites.

I’m wrong: At Kinutaya, it’s all about the buckwheat. Chef Akitoshi Yamanaka, 67, might occasionally, if the spirit moves him, serve a delicious tomato or choice shiitake mushroom as a side dish, but there’s no guarantee of that. Instead, what you go for is one of three types of hand-milled soba, chosen daily from Yamanaka’s roster of 15 varieties from across Japan.

Nabbing a seat at the counter, I taste-test Yamanaka’s three soba types, all served cold to preserve the delicate flavor.

Soba at Kinutaya, topped with purple daikon radish. | KIT NAGAMURA
Soba at Kinutaya, topped with purple daikon radish. | KIT NAGAMURA

The first is pale green, festooned with a heart and maple leaf cut from soba dough; the second is an earthy al dente type speckled with buckwheat skin; and the last is delicate and buttery, topped with a pinch of purple daikon radish. I see that the late, great chef Joel Robuchon enjoyed a meal here, leaving his signature, with three stars scribbled below, on a poster in Yamanaka’s shop.

However much I’d like to linger and sip some of Yamanaka’s sake collection, winter afternoons are brief, so — feeling the sunlight growing anemic — I bow to chef Yamanaka and head on.

The Otaka-no-Michi is mere minutes from Kinutaya. What’s left of the training ground is a pretty path that threads homes on both sides of the canal. Near the entrance, a sign touts this as a habitat for fireflies and asks visitors not to collect the river snails here, a favorite of the bioluminescent insects.

The further upstream I go, the more rural the scenery. An elegant Edo-Period (1603-1868) nagayamon (long-house gate) indicates the entrance to the Musashi Kokubunji Temple Remains Museum (tickets ¥100, at the nearby Ota Cafe). In 741, Emperor Shomu decreed that approximately 60 provincial Buddhist temples be built throughout Japan, and Musashi Kokubunji was one of the largest. The temple brought fame and prestige for centuries — and loaned its name to the area — but was burned down in 1333 during the Battle of Bubaigawara, which signaled the end of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The museum holds scant displays of archaeological finds — pagoda roof tiles, vases and nails — as well as a model of the former temple.

Master of the house: Soba chef Akitoshi Yamanaka | KIT NAGAMURA
Master of the house: Soba chef Akitoshi Yamanaka | KIT NAGAMURA

Behind the museum is something even more interesting. A sign points out a hole in the cliff-side that, it claims, is the spring source of Tokyo’s No River. Further along the Otaka-no-Michi, however, I find another spring source. Locals, filling bottles with its potable water and making purchases at the nearby produce honesty stand, explain that the river has many springs.

The waters flow from here into Masugata-no-Ike (Masugata Pond), a body of water believed to have healing powers. The legend goes that a Heian Period (794-1185) beauty, Tamatsukuri Komachi, contracted a disfiguring skin disease, but after bathing in the pond her skin was restored to its masugata (true form). Today, a small shrine to Benzaiten — one of Japan’s shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods) and goddess of water, among other things — overlooks the magical reservoir.

Late afternoon brings me for a turn around the present-day Musashi Kokubunji temple. It has a pair of impressive gates: one a graceful rōmon (tower gate) moved here in 1895 from Beishinji temple in Higashikurume, Tokyo; the other, a 1764 niōmon with carved Nio guardians flexing muscles inside their dark enclosures.

It’s the Manyo Botanical Garden surrounding the temple, though, that grabs me. The garden, created just after World War II by temple priest Ryosho Hoshino, features the 162 plants that appear in the 8th-century Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of classical waka poems. Accordingly, each plant has a sign bearing its name and the poem in which it appears. In winter, plants such as rabbit ear iris, spike rush, autumnal arrowroot and clover are hibernating, so I make a quick circuit of the sloping paths around the temple, vowing to return in spring.

As I head home, I pass several old farm estates tucked into the late winter landscape. From one, I catch a slow snap, snap, snap sound, emanating from an open garage. In the gloaming, I venture over to find farmer Tomoaki Honda, 49, sitting by a small heater, quietly shelling soybeans one by one.

We chat until the sky grows dark. As I leave, Honda resumes his patient work. I take it as a good sign for the new decade.

Reach this portion of Kokubunji via the Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station, alighting at Nishi-Kokubunji Station (30 minutes, ¥400). It is about 15 minutes on foot to Musashi Kokubunji, Otaka-no-Michi and Musashi Kokubunji Temple Remains Museum. The latter is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m (except Mondays); admission ¥100. Part one of Backstreet Stories’ exploration of Kokubunji can be read online at bit.ly/kokubunji1.