Archive for the ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Category

Photo Essay: Pond in Winter

February 2, 2011

On the last day of January, the sun was shining in a blue sky above Zenpukuji Lower Pond.  It was very cold, and the edges of the pond were laced with thin patches of ice.  The ducks moved slowly or not at all.  More birds than humans were hanging out at the pond that day; the jogging path around the pond was at first deserted, though as I made my way to the other side, a couple of photographers appeared, with high-powered-looking lenses hanging from their necks, and here and there I passed someone sitting alone on a bench contemplating the quiet water.


Except for a distant wailing of a siren, the sounds of Tokyo faded away.  Everything slowed down and grew still, and all I could hear were faint whistles and coos from the ducks huddled together in the middle of the pond.  As I stood beside the water, listening, people hurried by me on the path, in a hurry to get their walk done or perhaps just moving quickly to keep warm.


The ducks had other ideas:  Find a sunny spot and stop there for a while.  When you have to move, do so slowly.  They seemed to be demanding this of the humans, even cooperating in picture-taking as long as you too moved in slow motion.



This duck seemed aware of me, and paused long enough for me to shoot, but then immediately afterwards dove into the cold water with a soft splash.





Three-quarters of the way around the pond, I stopped to watch the lone egret resting on his sunny mound of dried grass.  He was surrounded by paddling ducks.  My eyes on him, I did not see what startled one of the ducks, who suddenly let out a loud quack.  All the other ducks immediately rose up out of the water as one, making a loud WHOOSH and scattering drops like diamonds all around them.  This happened too fast for me to get a picture of it—even the heavy-lensed bird photographers missed it—but I saw it.  It was like a fountain that suddenly turns on without warning.  Jets of water shot up in the air all at the same time.  And then the fountain just as suddenly turned off.

Through all the commotion, the egret did nothing, just kept to his post on the grass, like a meditating old arhat.









Back at the entrance to the park, the water at the edges was still frozen.  Pieces of ice glinted in the sun that was just beginning to reach it.

During the walk around the pond, I looked for signs of spring, but found only some tightly closed buds on a few trees.  But from the path I could see in the garden of a house that looks out on the park a plum tree that had beat them to it.







Slowly but surely/ the suns rays reach the pond and/ penetrate its ice





Off the Beaten Path: Tokyo Aqua Line

January 10, 2011

On a brilliant morning in early December, I joined a leaf-viewing party which went by chartered bus to the Boso Peninsula in Chiba.  After departing Tokyo Station, the bus swooped southward on the elevated Shuto Expressway till it reached Kawasaki, at the edge of Tokyo Bay.  Here it entered a tunnel that took us down under the Bay, emerging about halfway across and about 10 minutes later onto an artificially constructed island called  Umi Hotaru (Firefly of the Sea).  Whether coming or going, whether in a private car or chartered bus, you stop and park here at the “island” to refresh yourself and admire the view.

How to describe this thoroughly functional structure which in every way belies its charming name?  The closest thing I can think of is the South Station bus terminal in Boston, with its curving, rising exit ramps and row after row of parking slots for the buses.
Our bus pulled into its slot, and we got off and made our way across the busy lot to an enormous structure resembling a multi-level parking garage.  Inside this, besides hordes of people including tons of children running around, were enormous public restrooms, the largest I have ever seen in Japan, the long rows of stalls replicating the rows of parking slots for the buses waiting outside.
After using the restrooms, we ascended by escalator five stories to the roof, passing on our way layers and layers of souvenir shops, game centers, Starbucks, and noodle restaurants.  Out on the roof we found the bay busy with ships all around us and the sky busy with air traffic overhead.
In one direction was Chiba, shrouded in haze from the smokestacks of the steel factories that line its Tokyo Bay shore.

In the other direction was the Tokyo from which we had just come, and beyond it Mt. Fuji’s white cone rising above the bank of smog.

On the return trip to Tokyo, we again stopped to rest at Firefly of the Sea, but this time the sun had just set behind Mt. Fuji, and the lights of Tokyo were twinkling like Christmas decorations on the far shore.

Off the Beaten Path: Sawai to Mitake

September 24, 2010

Tokyo is more than a city; it is one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, consisting not only of a densely populated urban area clustered around Tokyo Bay in the east, but also of a mountainous, heavily forested and sparsely populated area to the west.  Anyone residing in the eastern part, as I do, and feeling the lack of fresh air and greenery can easily replenish their supply by boarding a train on the JR Chuo Line and heading west.

The other day a friend introduced me to a walking route along the Tama River.  The weather was fine but hot, as the long record-breaking heat of the summer still lingered on.  We caught a train bound for Ome at Kokubunji Station, and at Ome transferred to the Ome Line, a four-car train where you had to push a button to open the door if you wanted to get on or off.  Although it was Tuesday, the day after Respect for the Aged Day, there were plenty of fellow travellers heading in the same direction, including many recently-respected-aged folks, and at one end of our car a group of noisy college-age kids, who looked like they were skipping classes for a barbecue on the riverbank.

After fifteen minutes of passing through sleepy little stations where no one got on or off, we came to Sawai, our stop.  We were the only ones to get off.  At the back of the platform rose a steep, thickly wooded hill.  The sun-heated air smelt faintly of what turned out to be sake.  We crossed the tracks, exited the station, and kept going down the hill, following a steep winding slope past a sake brewery. We had come to a main drag of sorts, and a traffic light whose main purpose seemed to be to give us a chance to cross the street without being run over by passing vehicles.

A few yards to the left we came to a short flight of stairs that took us down toward the river, past the garden terrace of a restaurant closed on Tuesdays.  We could see people sitting at tables on the terrace anyway, so we walked in among the trees and found a table next to the river where we could eat our sandwiches before starting on our walk up the river to the next station, Mitake, from which we planned to catch a train back to town.  My companion, who had been there before, explained that when the restaurant was open, you could sign up inside for a tour of the sake brewery, reached through a tunnel under the road, followed by a sake-tasting opportunity back here in the garden terrace.  I was okay with skipping the sake tour, though, because the sun was still quite high over the yardarm, and we had an hour or so of hiking yet ahead of us.

The terrace was a delightful place.  The restrooms were open, and the vending machines well-stocked with water and soft drinks for the road.  No doubt because it was a weekday and the restaurant was closed, it was not at all crowded, and in our spot by the river and under the trees, the air turned cool and refreshing.  A cloud of dragonflies flitted above the swirling jade-green water of the river, their wings reflecting the sunlight.

Between the edge of the terrace and the river bed below it, we found two footpaths, each running in opposite directions.  The one to the left, according to a sign, followed the river bed back to Ikusabata, the station before Sawai, while the one to the right led to Mitake Station by a route somewhat above and overlooking the river.  We kept to our original plan and took the path to the right.

The path was paved in a haphazard kind of way; you had to keep your eye out for potholes and spots where the asphalt buckled up, as well as for the occasional footbridge over rivulets trickling down the hillside into the water below.  Not to mention wildlife:  At one point a small black snake slithered across our path, on its way down to the river for a swim perhaps.  On the left was always the river, which changed as we walked, sometimes flowing freely, sometimes forming rapids among large boulders in the river bed.  On its opposite bank rose the hillsides densely packed with cedar trees.

Although neither the path nor the river was crowded that day, we were not alone, and here and there as we walked along we caught sight of people fishing, kayaking or sitting among the rocks at the river’s edge chatting over tea.  When we passed an area of white water, a raft of helmeted young women came downstream in our direction, waved at us, and then made it through the rapids without capsizing.

Between the river and the edge of the paved path grasses, trees and flowers grew abundantly, drooping a little as if worn out from the effort of going to seed.  Large green banana plants loomed over the path, while the more lowly but more vivid higan-bana (literally “equinox flower” but called “cluster amaryllis” in English according to our translation staff) bloomed amid the overgrown grass.

Going around a bend in the river we came upon a rustic tea hut, a perfect setting as my companion pointed out for writing a Tree article while looking out over the river and enjoying the autumn foliage.

Perhaps I'll come back in a month or two when it is cooler and those maple leaves have turned red.

There was an odd sensation here of being in two places at once.  On the left was wilderness, the river and the grasses going to seed.  On the right side of the path, however, were the back yards of homes that lined the road running parallel to the river above us.  These homes were built on the sides of the hill and could be reached by long steep pathways or stone stairways.  As we passed by these narrow passageways, we could look up and catch a glimpse of the road above.

The view on the right side of the path was quite different from the view on the left.  Here were the back yards of the homes, overflowing with flowers and bushes and assorted garden decor and gardening tools.  At another bend in the path, about halfway between Sawai and Mitake, we came upon a conveniently located public restroom.

I bought some myoga (Japanese ginger) and dokudami tea leaves here at this wayside vegetable stand.  The leaves of the dokudami (translated in our office dictionary as “a foul-smelling perennial plant of the family Saururaceae”) make a mild-tasting herbal tea with detox properties.  Also on offer was some plum vinegar, but I passed on that.

A bit further on we found signs advertising a restaurant and a coffee shop.  We followed the signs up a steep stone staircase toward the street in search of coffee.  We passed through a patio-like area set out with chairs strung in brightly colored strings, as if a large spider had attempted to spin her web here.

This turned out to be part of the "Ome Art Jam."

Moving onward and upward, we came to a hut with its doors wide-open to the public.  A helpful young woman at the entrance explained that the restaurant at the top of the stairs served traditional Japanese fare, probably not coffee, so we abandoned our climb, and instead accepted her invitation to view the art on exhibit inside.  We removed our shoes at the entrance, ascended onto the tatami floor, and in our sock feet walked around admiring the several paintings in the room.  These too were part of “Ome Art Jam,” an exhibition sponsored by the Ome Art Museum at various locations in the Ome and Mitake area, featuring the work of local artists, and promoting the idea that the area with its abundant water and greenery is especially conducive to the production of art works.  [This exhibit lasts until October 11.  For more information, visit (only in Japanese).]

We descended again to the footpath where immediately next door we found Twinkle Refreshment Parlor.  In front of an old gate signs advertised everything from beer and soba to coffee and shaved ice.  We passed through the navy blue noren and entered a compound of elderly buildings of faded beauty set in a garden full of artefacts:  large blue and white porcelain hibachi, gaudy guardian lion-dogs, statuary both European and Buddhist.  All the buildings appeared to be open for inspection, but we chose the pavilion just past the gate with its open windows overlooking the river, and ordered our coffee.

another type of hibachi

[Twinkle is open from March through November, 11 AM to 4 PM; closed on Wednesdays and in inclement weather.]

Continuing our walk, we eventually came to another public restroom, near a bridge spanning the river. The wide stone staircase beside it led back up to the road.  When we reached the top, huffing and puffing, we walked down the road to the left and found Mitake Station on our right.

Mitake Station ticket gates

For anyone looking for something more ambitious than this riverside stroll, you can take a bus from the station part-way up Mt. Mitake and hike up to the summit.  But for those who prefer a more leisurely route offering both the wonders of nature and cultural amenities like art exhibits, coffee houses and restrooms, the walk from Sawai to Mitake is highly recommended.

Train Story

March 25, 2010

Kore wa nani?

Hidden away on the back streets of Ogikubo, waiting in quiet composure, is the Suginami Poetry Hall.  The property consists of a house and garden, neither of which are very large.  It was originally owned by Mr. Kadokawa, the founder of a publishing company.  After his death, his heirs gave the property to Suginami Ward, and last year the ward opened the house and garden to the public.

The rooms of the house can be rented out by groups for tea ceremonies and poetry composing, hence “Suginami Poetry Hall.”  Its original name, however, is Gengisanbo, an expression that gave the Tree translation staff a hard time.  Sanbo means mountain villa.  The staff could find no such word as gengi, however, in any of the office dictionaries.  Apparently it is a made-up word, which Mr. Kadokawa, a haiku poet, used as his pen-name. It plays on his own first name by using different Chinese characters to spell it.  And these two characters, gen and gi, mean something like “illusion” or “dream” and “frolic” or “being silly,” respectively.

So please forgive them if they’ve got it all wrong, but the staff, after much argument, settled on this English version of gengisanbo:  The Silly Villa of Illusion.

The pictured mystery item can be found in the garden of the Silly Villa.  I will explain what it is at the end of this issue.

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Train Stories. Tuesday, March 23, 2010.  Last night after giving a lesson at the home of a private student, I boarded my usual bus for Shibuya Station.  I noticed at once that something was different.  The bus was much more crowded than usual.  I’ll do anything to avoid a crowd in Tokyo, so instead of going all the way to Shibuya, I got off at an earlier stop near Ebisu Station.  I can catch the JR Yamanote line at either station, but Shibuya happens to be one stop closer to Shinjuku, the station where I transfer to the Chuo line.

I walked up the several flights of stairs and escalator to the ticket gates, where mobs of people were standing around listening to announcements about train delays.  Two JR lines run through Ebisu Station, the Saikyo and the Yamanote.  The announcement said that due to some kind of mishap on the Saikyo line, all trains running in and out of Shinjuku Station were experiencing delays.  The Yamanote line, however, while not running at the moment, was due to start up again any minute.

After some quick thinking, I did an about-face and walked back down all the stairs.  Even if the train did start up again, I knew that it would be packed from here to Shinjuku, and I wanted to avoid being squeezed into a metal container which might experience even further delays down the line.  I considered my options:  I could go back out to the street and wait for another bus for Shibuya, where I would have a greater choice of alternative routes home.  Shibuya has several private lines besides the JR, and one of them, the Keio Inokashira, could take me to Kichijoji, one stop beyond Nishiogikubo. This is like going home the back way.  The trouble with this option was that everyone else at the big station of Shibuya might get the same idea, turning the Inokashira train too into a sardine can on wheels.

Then there was the other option:  the subway system.  The Hibiya subway line has a station at Ebisu.  If I took this line, it wouldn’t take me anywhere near where I live; in fact, it would take me right back toward the center of Tokyo in the direction from which I had just come.  But once there, I could transfer to the Marunouchi line, which would take me as far as Ogikubo, a station from which I could walk home if necessary.  I decided to take my chances on the subway, and headed downstairs into the ground.  The time was shortly after 8:30 PM.

The subway cars were relatively empty at this time of night, and I had no trouble finding a seat.  The trip home took about another hour. I stopped at the supermarket near my house to do some shopping and arrived home at 10 PM.  The TV was on because I had recorded a suspense drama earlier in the day, and I walked into a live news broadcast of the train delay story.  On the TV screen controlled chaos reigned:  People still stuck on stopped trains; people squeezing themselves into trains whose doors were about to close; people being led away down the tracks from an inoperable train; people who had fallen ill from being too long in a confined space being hauled off on stretchers.  No one yet knew the cause of the breakdown, but it seemed to have something to do with a damaged pantograph on the roof of one train car.

As we have written about in an earlier issue, train delays cause all kinds of problems for the flow of traffic here in Tokyo.  Because the city is so dense with people, we have to keep moving all the time to avoid bottlenecks and traffic jams.  A breakdown on one line, the Saikyo, has repercussions not just for passengers of that particular train or that particular line, but for everyone everywhere all over the intricately interconnected system.  I was fortunate to find an overlooked section of the system that had escaped these repercussions, was operating on time, and was not picking up the overflow from the backed up trains up above.  Once I left Ebisu Station, the only excitement I encountered was the frenzied reporting of the newsman blaring out of the TV set when I got home.

Postscript: Thursday, March 25.  A brief article in this morning’s Asahi Shimbun informs us of the details:  “A poorly fastened communications cable severed by a passing train…came in contact with a power supply line, causing a short circuit” at 7:18 PM.  Service was stopped on three lines for three and a half hours and 260,000 people were affected.

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What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping? On March 14, retired biochemist and medical doctor Masaichi Yamamura gave a talk to the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship on his research into the phenomenon known in Japanese as ki, and in Chinese as chiKi is a kind of energy that circulates throughout our body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, ki plays a major role in maintenance of health and well-being.  Ill health results when ki gets blocked or imbalanced.

Through his experiments with mice Dr. Yamamura discovered that ki is actually the sound created by our muscle movements.  “Our body is an orchestra playing a symphony,” he said.  Acceleration within a muscle creates vibration, which in turn becomes sound traveling through our bodies as the “music” of ki.

On the way home from his lecture, I recalled the zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and wondered if Dr. Yamamura’s research had provided an answer.  If you move one hand through the air as if it were “clapping” the other hand, which you actually keep down at your side, the movement in the muscles of the moving hand would create vibrations or “sound” even though you couldn’t hear it.  (Of course, a zen master might point out that “clapping with one hand” is both physically and semantically impossible, and therefore a paradox which remains unresolved by my simplistic grasp of ki.)

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According to an article (“A life of slime”) in the January 23, 2010 issue of The Economist, researchers at Hokkaido University (in northern Japan) conducted an experiment with slime molds to see if their transport networks were similar to human ones.  They laid oat flakes on a surface representing the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, placing them at the locations of major cities.  Then they put a slime mold on Tokyo Station, and it began to form links between the food sources.  Here’s what happened:  “They found that many of the links the slime mould made bore a striking resemblance to Tokyo’s existing rail network. [The slime mold] had not simply created the shortest possible network that could connect all the cities, but had also included redundant connections that allow the creature (and the real rail network) to have resilience to the accidental breakage of any part of it.” [bold face my addition]

Please note the section in bold type.  As we report in this issue, a part of the Tokyo rail network “accidentally broke” the other evening.  The fact that I was able to find a way home nonetheless is apparently evidence of the brilliance of Tokyo’s rail system planners, or maybe the intelligence of slime molds, or is it the resemblance of slime mold thought to human thought?  Now I’m not sure which…

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Kore wa nani?

Wrong if you guessed dinosaur eggs.  This is a suikinkutsuSui means water; kin means harp; kutsu means grotto.  Thus, “water harp grotto.”  It’s located just outside the tea ceremony room at the Silly Villa of Illusions.  When I dropped by the garden the other day, a volunteer guide found me in the bushes taking pictures of a stone image.  “Do you speak Japanese?” he asked me in perfectly reasonable English.  “Yes,” I answered, laughing, “but you speak English!”  Speaking from then on in Japanese, he said he’d be happy to answer any questions, so I told him I had come to take a picture of the suikinkutsu.  He led me up the path toward the house.

My guide explained that when people come to attend a tea ceremony in the teahouse, they first rinse their hands at the small stone basin in the garden, using the bamboo ladle to scoop the water and pour it over their hands.  The water drips over the blue stones in the circular area and flows down to the four white stones, where it seeps down into an earthenware pot which has been placed in a cavity hidden under the stones.  He demonstrated by rinsing his hands, and after a few seconds the plinking sound of water dropping into water in an enclosed space drifted melodically up through the stones.

Here’s an image I found at Wikipedia of what it might look like under the stones:

Cross section of a suikinkutsu

[This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at under the creative commons cc-by-sa 2.5 license.]


There’s another component to this audio delight:  Leaning against the house were some bamboo poles.  My guide brought one over and demonstrated how to place one end over the four white stones and the other at one’s ear.  I followed his example while he poured more water over the stones.

The bamboo pole, which is hollow, magnifies the sound of the water harp.  When I listened without the pole, the water drops made a light metallic ring, almost but not quite like a wind chime stirring in a delicate waft of air that you could not precisely locate.  But when I listened through the pole, I felt as if I were down there in the underground space, right in among the plinks and plashes.

I wonder if the music Dr. Yamamura says my body is making as ki flows through it sounds anything like this water harp.

Here are some websites (in Japanese) where you can listen to a variety of suikinkutsu.

Scroll down the page at the above website till you see a player and click it to start it.  What you will hear is more raucous than what I heard at the Silly Villa of Illusions.

You can hear the water harp just by going to the above website.  This one has a steadier rhythm than what I heard.

This is a Youtube page.  It includes a video as well as the sound, though the video shows only the water basin, not the suikinkutsu itself.  It was recorded at Enkouji Temple in Kyoto.  This one sounds most like the one at Silly Villa.

You can click on the other thumbnail photos at the Youtube site and enjoy a few other water harps too.  In one of them, a man and a woman are walking around in what seems to be a temple compound, and they find the suikinkutsu.  He wonders if he can record the sound, but the woman thinks not.  However, a few notes come through.  Then the man trains his camera on the ground around him.  It is all paved in concrete.

“Why have they done this?” he asks.  “What a waste!  They should have consulted me first….”

He could be saying this as a joke, meaning simply that had anyone asked his opinion as a tourist he would have said he did not want the grounds to be paved in concrete.  Yet there is something serious in his voice which suggests to me the possibility that he himself is something of an expert on landscape design.  In any case, he is dismayed at finding the ground encased in concrete, a feeling shared by the entire staff of the Tree.

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