Saturday, June 27, 2009

In Hot Water Again

A beautiful day in the heart of tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season - no rain, warm and breezy - greeted the Ajimi team this Saturday. A brief look-see at Sumiko Enbutsu and Mimi LeBourgeois' Water Walks in the Suburbs of Tokyo, a little homespun guide to off-the-beaten track walking tours throughout the greater Tokyo area, and we decided to take a quick train ride to Izumi Tamagawa station and explore a section of the mighty Tamagawa. The promise of finding some remnant old farmhouses piqued our inquiring minds.

First off, though, was lunch. In the shoutengai just south of the station we stopped in an unassuming soba shop, Maruya, where we found thoroughly delightful summery zarusoba to fortify ourselves for the afternoon. A short walk through the neighborhood and we hit the Tamagawa, where there was some serious teen action - grilling, flirting and showing off stuff - going on under the massive pylons of the Tamasuidou Bashi. The upriver walk took us past spits and embankments where people were fishing, wading or merely staring at the flowing water, wasting away a sunny afternoon. Makeshift blue-tarp homeless shelters hid in the sparse copses that dotted the wide riverbank, their residents sunning themselves.

Looping back into the neighborhood we followed the guidebook's directions to the farmhouses of the Ishii clan who dominate this area. It seems that since the 2000 publication of the Water Walks book, the Ishiis have done the classic Japanese thing - torn down the historic farms and replaced them with spanking new houses and apartments made of particularly repellent building materials not found in nature. Ah, well, such is progress.

Hot and sweaty, we jumped on the train and headed even further west to Miyamaedaira Onsen (宮前平 温泉). On a hill above the station in the somewhat severe suburb, sits the modern, well-appointed onsen. When the Ajimi team soaks we have three criteria that we look at - the quality of the water, the amenities and/or amusement level of the baths, and the general ambience and feel of the place.

Like many natural onsen in the Tokyo area the water that feeds the baths at Miyamaedaira Onsen is kuroyu (黒湯) - black water. Strange and wonderful, soap-silky, dark as cola, the water has a slight tingle and leaves your skin about as soft as your grandma's inner arm. There were plenty of different baths at different temperatures, a pleasant rotenburo, a sauna, a salt steam bath for the ladies, jet baths and a wonderful utataneyu (うたた寝湯) bath (the napping hot water bath) - a bath partitioned with shallow, bed-like units, with just enough hot water to immerse one's back, leaving the ventral side open to cooling breezes and the perfect conditions for a good snooze. All in all, a wealth of options with subtle variations. For a few yen extra one can take advantage of the stone bath.

In the lounge were the usual phalanxes of TV/Barcaloungers. The room was softly lit and the low sounds of piped in mood music mashed up with the patter of variety shows that bath-drained customers slept to. Ice cold beers completed the after-bath ritual chill-out.

The Ajimi team loves to get into a bit of hot water after hitting the urban trail. Country trails too. It's the only way to hike.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Henjin

Tokyo parks on Sunday afternoons are great places to witness all sorts of pretty out-there performances. Yoyogi Park may offer the greatest variety. The live rock bands have been exiled, making the park a quieter if less pulsating place, but there is still plenty to see along the paths through the park's interior, once you get past the wall of dancing Elvises and Elvisettes, the goth Lolitas and the pathetic "free hugs" cultists. (Why do they always look like lonely Moonies?)

But nearer to home is Kichijoji's Inokashira Park, a setting dotted with ancient trees surrounding an elongated, spring-fed pond. It's been a point of pilgrimage since roughly the 12th century since it houses a celebrated shrine to Benzaiten, goddess of love and music. It was also a favored hunting ground for the Minamoto clan and a long-time source of drinking water for Edo via the Kanda River. Nowadays people come to float in swan boats, visit the zoo, parade around with their sumptuously dressed pets, paint, neck, do park stuff. There is also an officially sanctioned group of artisans and performers on hand to entertain the public. The artisans offer fairly unexciting merchandise, but the performers for the most part are unlike anything you are likely to see elsewhere.

We first got to know Broomduster Kan a few years ago during our first visit to the park. Leather clad and playing a cool retro-looking Czech dobro, Broomduster draws rapt crowds as he cranks out energetic blues for about 8 hours a day on weekends. We have had the honor of sharing a bill with Kan-san (indoors, elsewhere) and can attest that he is in the running for the title of the hardest working man in showbiz.

Then there is the storyteller. Touhou Ikimaru (東方力丸)comes to the park each Sunday with a couple dozen manga which he lays out on the ground. Customers choose the story they want to hear -- there are love stories and histories, but most of them seem to be tales with plenty of action. Touhou rips into the story, doing all the voices, providing explosive sound effects, looking like a long-haired shaman trying to cure his patient through the power of fable. He brings his street performance to other areas of Tokyo as well, and has been featured on Japanese television and in the new Sabu film, Kani Kosen (蟹工船 or "Crab Factory Ship"), based on a manga which is based on a 1920's proletarian novel detailing the squalid conditions and crew mutiny on a fishing vessel.

Last weekend there was a new addition to the Inokashira Park performance squad. We didn't catch his name, but he seemed to be offering a stream-of-consciousness description of a ride on the Yamanote Line, stopping along the way for commentary about Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, President Bush, and Faithful Dog Hachiko. He was wearing a Popeye T-shirt and atop his head was a flu mask with the kanji for "weird" (変 or hen) markered onto it. We will return to catch his act.