Archive for April, 2010

Totoro’s Tree

April 25, 2010

Feature Story:  A Tree Grows in Nishiogi! One cold day late last year I was out riding around Nishiogi on my bike.  I came upon a recently created vacant lot, surrounded by a fence made of vinyl sheeting.  I had forgotten the building that used to occupy this space but not the tree, which still stood in the middle of the lot, spreading its now bare branches skyward.  I took a picture of it because I felt sure it was doomed to be cut down, as all trees are cut down sooner or later in our town if they stand in the way of an ambitious development project.

This is a keyaki or zelkova tree.

Zelkovas are members of the Elm Family.  For those Tree readers who have never seen one, here’s a few words about them from Kevin Short, who writes a wonderful nature and folklore column for the Daily Yomiuri:  “The keyaki is an Asian tree, growing from Honshu Island south and west to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and mainland China….Keyaki wood is hard and true, with beautiful grain.  Many of the spectacular bowls and trays covered with urushi lacquer are carved from keyaki. Temples and shrines use the wood in beams and supports, and also in the intricate carvings on the walls and pillars.”  If you visit the grounds of a shrine, you are almost sure to find a keyaki towering above you.

The other day I opened up one of my bookmarked websites (called “Nishiogi Navi”) which covers local news, and there on the home page was a picture of this same tree.  Only now it had a name:  Totoro’s Tree.  It had not been cut down after all, but instead had become a local celebrity.  And the following morning, Sunday, April 18, a dedication ceremony would be held at the site of the tree to celebrate its rescue from the bulldozer and to open officially the new park that had been built around it.

According to this and other linked up websites, this zelkova had once held the status of “Valuable Tree” under the protection of Suginami Ward.  In March 2008, however, the heir to the landowner of the lot on which the Valuable Tree stood filed a request to have the protection status rescinded so that the tree could be removed to make room for a residential building.  Apparently permission was immediately granted.  (So much for “Valuable Tree” status!)  But the local residents “rose up against the planned felling of the tree” and started a “Save Totoro’s Tree” movement.  By June of the same year, they had collected 8,000 signatures calling for the tree’s preservation.  The ward caved in, bought the land from the owner, and turned it into a park.

So last Sunday morning I actually got up early and took on the assignment of attending the ceremony.  (I asked other staff members to come with me, but they all grumbled about it being Sunday morning and so on, so I ended up going alone.)

Totoro’s Tree

The barrier around the lot had been removed, and in its place was a garden plot of straggly flowering shrubs set out in terraced rows.  The park itself consisted of bare earth, still muddy from the recent rain spell, and a couple of benches scattered around the edges.  The tree had changed too.  Its branches were now adorned with pale green fuzzy-looking leaves and flowers.  I kept looking up into those branches and wondering what the tree was making of all the fuss going on down below on its behalf.

I was not the only member of the press there.  All the “front row” spots were already filled with cameramen and their crews.  We neighborhood people had to make do with less advantageous positions around the edges.  (So no complaints please about the poor quality of the photographs.)  The ward had brought out all the requisite paraphernalia for this sort of ceremony in Japan:  a red and white striped awning for VIPs to sit behind, a red and white ribbon stretched in front of the tree for the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a time capsule (in which I later learned were placed newspaper cuttings about the movement to save the tree so that later generations will realize the “valuableness” of trees), and a display of 250 potted geraniums to be given out to the first 250 people to arrive at the park.  (I was no. 235.  And yes, I did go home with a new geranium for the Tree office.)

Press Section

The ceremony consisted of several speeches by local politicians and big wigs, the burying of the time capsule, and the cutting of the ribbon.  We heard first from the Vice Mayor of Suginami Ward, who told us that this tree was now the symbol of Suginami, and he considered it the finest example of a zelkova in the whole ward.  I was reminded of a scene in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Ikiru (To Live).  In that film, a civil servant who works at the local ward office fights on behalf of local housewives who want to get a vacant lot turned into a playground for their children.  They run into opposition at every turn, from bureaucratic red tape to big money interests and gangsters, but the lowly civil servant fights on unflinchingly and the park finally comes into being.  At its dedication, however, all the speeches are made by the politicians, who also take all the credit for the park’s existence.  Not that the vice mayor was taking all the credit for Totoro’s tree:  he was not. But not only did we not hear from any of the “non-important” people who had actually done the  hard work to make this park happen, but the vice mayor bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played the part of the mayor in the film.

Vice Mayor’s Speech

A member of the ward assembly spoke next, in the glib and flowing tones of a typical politician.  All these politicians speak the same way, very fast and all seemingly impromptu, full of high-sounding polite expressions, so reassuring on the surface if you don’t try too hard to understand what they are saying but which if you could slow down the flow long enough to hear what is actually being said would evaporate into meaningless and empty sounds.  “It’s so wonderful to have this tree here blah blah blah and thanks to all the hard work and cooperation of everyone involved we could have this tree here blah blah blah and we must do all we can to save nature which is a treasure for our children blah blah blah and something everyone wants and needs blah blah blah and I myself will do all I can for nature and will appreciate this tree in my heart forever blah blah blah.”

Meanwhile, all over the ward, as well as the entire city of Tokyo, trees are being felled and flowering bushes uprooted at an ever-faster rate. We here at the Tree are of course happy that this one particular example of a zelkova was saved, and we think that the successful efforts of the residents who led the signature campaign are an encouraging sign. But we also fear that this “symbol” of Suginami means just that:   a token payment to the natural world which can be used as a sign of  good “tree-saving” intentions, thus sparing bureaucrats and politicians the more difficult and demanding task of revising and revoking policies and regulations that hasten and encourage destruction of Tokyo’s natural environment.

[Totoro’s Tree is located in 38 Nishiogikita 4-chome.  To walk there from Nishiogi Station, go out the north exit and go left on the shopping street known as Ichibangaijoshidaidori 「一番街女子大通り」.  Walk about five minutes until you come to a cross street with a furniture store on the right corner.  Turn here and walk straight about four blocks to the park.  You’ll pass the Newbury Cafe on your right, a nice place to stop for a drink or light meal on your way back to the station.]

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THIS JUST IN: Tokyo Tree resident poet wins Honorable Mention in 2010 Kikakuza Haibun Contest. We are pleased to announce that our poet-in-residence was recently among those honorably mentioned in a haibun contest held by Kikakuza, a linked verse association here in Japan.  She will receive this award for “After a Night of Cold Rain,” a modified version of a haibun first seen in the pages of the Tree, in which she described the Grand Tour cohort’s excursion to Nikko in essay form with a few haiku thrown in.

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Found Object: I walked out of the Tree office the other day and found a gargoyle attached to my next door neighbor’s balcony.   On closer inspection, it was the household pooch, catching a few rays.

Gargoyle Sighting

“Shoulda brought my shades…”


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