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Sunday, June 24, 2007

PARKLIFE: You'd be amazed

Hundreds of people converge on Setagaya Park in the early hours of the morning for an invigorating session of NHK Radio Session
Hundreds of people converge on Setagaya Park in the early hours of the morning for an invigorating session of NHK Radio Session. See more photos in the Parklife Photo Gallery.

Staff writer

Pick a park. Get up early. Stay till late. In between you'll be amazed what goes on.

A park veteran takes a skinny dip in the pool
A park veteran takes a skinny dip in the pool.
[ Click for a photo slideshow in a pop-up window.]

"Truth is stranger than fiction" is a saying common to many cultures around the world. In Japan, there is also the expression that says "life is like a journey."

We, as reporters, are constantly on the lookout for the most intriguing, fascinating and original true stories from the tapestry of life to present to our readers.

But it wasn't until I thought of staking out a park for a day that I found there was so much drama right there in our mundane midst. Tales beyond the realms of fiction, I found, were just waiting to be told on that day's journey from dawn to dusk in one green atoll chosen at random among Tokyo's concrete canyons.

Sure, I knew that there was always something going on in Setagaya Koen (Setagaya Park), which is close to Ikejiri Ohashi Station on the Tokyu Denen-Toshi Line. There is the mini steam train that chuffs around its 300-meter track to the delight of young passengers. There's a "traffic park" where children can ride on go-karts and climb all over a retired real steam locomotive. Swimming pools open in the summer months, and there are four tennis courts, two baseball pitches, an archery field, a skateboard slope, a hill, a kiosk, a big fountain and an adventure playpark run by a nonprofit organization.

But what really intrigued me about the place was that even if two people were to go there every single day, and even sit on the same bench, they would never meet if they went there at different times.

So to really get a sense of this park's life through its ever-changing hourly incarnations, I roused myself uncommonly early and strode inquisitively through its gates at 5:50 a.m. one recent Wednesday morning. Though I had some expectations that this journey would yield stories stranger than fiction, I'd basically got out of the wrong side of the bed far too early and with little hope of a Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop.

In fact, at 6 a.m., what I'd been led to expect — dozens of people performing Tai-Chi exercise — didn't happen. Frustrated, I looked at my watch, wondering if I should hit a convenience store for an additive-rich breakfast. But then, around 6:20, scores of people suddenly started to appear as if from nowhere — streaming into the park from all directions.

Tai Chi it wasn't to be, but instead all these early birds were flocking in to take part in their daily group exercises orchestrated by "NHK Rajio Taiso (NHK radio exercise)," which is broadcast every day from 6:30. Excited, I ran up to an elderly man who was adjusting a radio at the fountain, which was going to be the morning's podium.

"Hello . . . I'm a newspaper reporter. Have you come here for the rajio taiso at 6.30?"

"Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "In fact, I've been getting here before that — at 3.30 every day — for 20 years."

The man, who introduced himself as Takeshi Nakajima, 81, said he took up photography after retirement, and since then he has only shot pictures of the morning light over the park's fountain. He sometimes holds photo exhibitions, he said, adding that "Tenshi Sanko (Radiant Flush on a Purple Sky)" — one of his best pictures, which captures the fountain bathed in purple dawn rays — will be displayed in Verona, Italy, in July.

He explained that the NHK exercise session attracts up to 250 people on a nice day, but even in chilly midwinter, at least 20 are there.

Then the music began. Nakajima took his position to demonstrate the moves with two other elderly people in front of the assembled multitude of some 200. Some stood by the fountain, some under the trees, some on the hilltop and some by a kiosk.

When the physical jerks ended about 10 minutes later, most of the large crowd — old and young, men and women — evaporated back to their daily lives as if they had never been there. However, about 30 elderly people stayed behind, of which around 10 embarked on their own little ritual in which they made a circle holding hands and danced as they sang: "Kyoumo genki de arigato, ashitamo genki de aimasho! (Thank you for being fit today, let's meet fit again tomorrow!)."

The other 20 who'd stayed behind, meanwhile, prepared for their daily karaoke session that began at 7. A happy-looking old man appeared on a bicycle with a cassette player strapped to the back of the bicycle. After parking it next to his group, he stuck a piece of paper on the bicycle with that morning's list of songs.

"We have been doing this for 20 years. We practice at least two brand new songs every week," he announced proudly. But that was not to say they were going to sing popular songs by Beyonce or Kumi Koda. Instead, they practiced the latest enka (schmaltzy Japanese ballad) numbers by singers like Kiyoshi Hikawa.

What an eye-opener! Just one day in that park made me realize that in rapidly graying Japan, parks like Setagaya Koen have become real havens for the elderly to make friends and find things to do.

There, just that day, I met or heard of at least five groups whose members are aged from 60 to over 90, but who are daily doing stretching exercises at 6.a.m., NHK radio exercises at 6.30, karaoke at 7.a.m., Japanese folk songs (on Mondays) — or just drinking and playing shogi (Japanese chess) from sometime after 9.

But where there are groups of elderly people, the Grim Reaper is never faraway. Indeed, I heard that the 6 a.m. Tai-Chi group I expected to see had recently been discontinued due to the death of its leader.

However, what afflicted one group of these early risers seemed to have no bearing on the others — even though those who exercised or sang seemed to act superior to the drinking crowd. The latter, though, most certainly seemed to have a more enjoyable time, albeit a little . . . looser.

Numbering around 20, the tipplers (who included a few women) began to gather in earnest, but in dribs and drabs, from after 9 — long after the exercise types had left. Settled in comfortable shade around a long wooden table, some played shogi, some watched, and the rest lazily sat around drinking beer, smoking and sharing chocolates and other snacks.

"Would you like a beer?," one man asked.

I politely declined as I was working and am also pregnant, but another man stretched out his arm offering me some of his ice cream.

"I worked for many years very hard as a carpenter, and here I am, relaxing," he said, adding that he is 69 but declining to give his name. "Here I have friends I've known for 30 years. We are old but it's nice because we care for each other."

He said that when a 93-year-old man in the group stopped coming to the park for example, he and other members contacted his family, who found that he'd had a fall at home and was unable to move.

"We know the family because we made trips together before. Usually we don't get too involved because of privacy, but in emergencies, we help each other," he said.

Then suddenly a woman came up, saying "Hello-ooooo." She'd seen The Japan Times name card I'd given to the former carpenter and addressed me in English.

Introducing herself as Sasaki, she looked jolly as she held her can of beer. "I used to work at the Bank of Tokyo where we had many foreign customers who spoke English," she said. "But these friends at the park are great," she said as her face lit up like the morning sun. "They are the best!" she said. "We discuss all kinds of things and consult each other about our problems."

"I don't have any problems!," exclaimed another woman from the side, her cheeks red from drinking. There's another story, I thought . . . for another day.

But as I left the gang of happy old drinkers, I promised myself that when I'm old, there would be a lot worse things to do than seek out a comfortable environment with friends like these.

Not old yet, though, so life dictates we must go forever onward and upward.

My immediate reward was to encounter, at 9:30, a man with a big Japanese raddish in his backpack.

Koji Watanabe, 81, said he walks through the park every day on his way to shop under orders from his 79-year-old wife. "She's really bossy and always makes me buy things from these ads," he said, showing me a supermarket leaflet on which his wife had marked yogurt, almond chocolate, tofu and Japanese raddish to buy. "But she's a great cook."

He said that he had moved close to the park in December 1941, the day before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged itself into World War II.

"At that time, this park used to be an army firing range. Then, at the end of the war it was bombed and I remember helping to put out a fire at my neighbor's house," he said.

Luckily for Watanabe, the war ended six months before he would have been drafted. Then, after retiring from a lifetime spent as a civil servant, he said he now has a peaceful life with his wife, and together they are looking forward to having great-grandchildren from their four grand children.

After saying goodbye to Watanabe, I walked over to the park's miniature train. This is very popular with children and operates every 15 minutes from 10.10 a.m. until 4 p.m., with a break between 12 and 1.10, from March to November on Wednesdays, weekends, holidays and school holidays. Disabled people are employed to help sell the tickets and collect them.

Fumie Morioka, a mother who was visiting from Shinagawa Ward with her two young daughters, said she first rode the train more than 20 years ago when it had just started operating. Now, she was delighted to see that her elder daughter, Hana, 3, was really enjoying her ride, too.

That joy was clearly shared by Michio Sasaki, 65, the assistant stationmaster at the mock station. As an employee of Setagaya General Services, Co., which manages the park, he has been working there for two years.

"I'm very happy to work here, in nature, and with such cute children. Even the staff who didn't care much about children really get to like them here," he said.

Sadly, my next encounter, at about 11 a.m., was not pleasant. Setagaya Koen is one of four parks in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward where the nonprofit organization Playpark Setagaya has its volunteers overseeing activities for children that are elsewhere normally deemed "too dangerous" and banned, among them making open fires and chopping branches with axes.

Feeling positive myself about this group's policy of letting children develop their sense of responsibility through trying such "dangerous activities," I was looking forward to asking a few questions about their operations.

Prior to officially applying to the group's headquarters for an interview, I hoped to get some casual comments, so I politely knocked on the door of their hut in the park and introduced myself. Whoops. The reception I encountered from the self-important woman there was extremely cold.

"I don't believe our activities will be correctly transmitted (to the public) with someone like you suddenly coming," she said, accusing me of not following the "correct sequence" of getting authorization from the head office.

Oh my god, I thought. Am I in Stalinist Russia?

Asking about parks!

Even if I followed "the correct procedure," though, she said she would not allow anything to be printed unless both she and her head office checked every word — adding they refused almost all interviews. What a small-park bore!

Fortunately, after that distressing encounter, I ran into two men lying half-naked on a bench. Hoping not to discommode them too much, I approached the one reading a magazine.

He said he was 28 and a doctor who worked at the nearby hospital. Reflecting the familiar refrain of overworked medics, he said he came to the park to relax on his days off as he was tired after many night shifts.

While feeling sad for one bound for so much financial glory, I next walked over to the so-called traffic park area of the park, where children can play with vehicles.

English-language preschool

Naoko Kamata was there with her almost 2-year-old son Yoya, who was enraptured with the steam locomotive.

"This park is large and tiring for parents like me. But it's really his favorite because of the rides and many different play areas ," she said.

By now it was getting toward the end of the morning, and a group of children, all wearing the same blue shirts, came into the park. As they ran around, I heard them calling "Hey!" and "Wait!" in English.

Sean Salalila, a 33-year-old Guam native, said that the children were from Aloha Kids, a nearby English-language preschool he recently opened.

"This park's the kids' favorite because there are so many activities for them," he said.

He explained that one of his motivations to open a preschool was that he noticed a lot of English-language schools in Japan made it difficult for Japanese and half-Japanese kids to enter, especially if both parents weren't fluent in English.

"I think every kid should have the opportunity to learn English. I want to give them an international life in Japan," he said, adding that many of the kids in his school are also from mixed families.

At that point I had all kinds of casual encounters, but I believed that, to really get to know the park, I needed to talk to someone who had been there for a long time.

So I walked over to the kiosk and met salespersons Kimie Akiyama and Mutsuko Takeno.

"There is really a lot going on in this park," said Takeno, 63, who has worked there for four years. "They hold an ecology market, a plant market, a flea market, a housing festival and there's also horse riding for children once a month. We even have a dog-training lesson once a month and a session for kids to play with small animals once a year. The multitude of cherry trees blossom so beautifully in spring. Even people from faraway places like Yokohama come and tell us what a great park this is."

Akiyama, 67, who has worked there for a decade, agreed. "I can watch the seasons' transitions from here (the kiosk's teller window). We see familiar faces, meet cute kids . . . I'm really glad to be working here," she said.

With their long-term service in the park, there seemed no one better than Akiyama and Takeno to ask about some of this little-known locale's more juicy stories.

"Well . . . there have been at least two deaths," said Takeno, who recalled that about two years ago, a boy who looked to be around a fourth-grader, came running to the kiosk in a flurry.

"He said, 'I don't know if you'll believe me, but there's a man lying there with blood'," she said.

"Apparently, the wife of this man had asked police to search for him for some time. He had killed himself with a razor blade, but because he was in an area on the hillside where you're not supposed to go, no one found him for two or three days.

"It's strange that a kid should have gone to such an area, but if he didn't, the man may not have been found for a long time because it was winter."

Akiyama then chimed in with another story from a year before that, when a homeless man was found dead in his blue plastic tent.

"Someone from the park's office came to check the tent because there had been no movement for a long time," she said. "But inside there was a body like a skeleton. The police believe he died of natural causes, but there was even a flea market held in front of his tent a while before."

So, I discovered, the peaceful, relaxing park with its early morning exercisers and the rest was not immune from the most ultimate of human dramas.

Wafting cool notes

But then I ran into a man who was practicing trumpet in the woods. It was the end of the day, and the sight of him wafting cool notes through evening-dappled foliage was nothing if not picturesque.

Hitoshi Okano, 58, who is a professional jazz musician, said he likes to practice there on nice days.

"I like to play outdoors," he said. "Some jazz players don't like it because there's no echo, but when I play here, it feels like I'm naturally making music," he said.

And that was it as the sun came down over Setagaya Koen.

Or rather, that would have been it had I not returned to the park for any additional information on my day off a few days later. It was then that I encountered something I just cannot leave out.

As I strolled through the leafy environs, heading for brunch with my husband, a girlfriend and our kids, I heard a buzz close to the fountain with which I was by then so familiar.

Making a bee-line toward it, I couldn't bee-lieve my eyes, for there was a man with only his underpants on about to scale the fountain's upstanding central feature.

But golly gosh, as he reached the very peak of the protuberance, he flung off his last little bit of modesty and posed there awhile before triumphantly coming down.

The man's motions were slow and graceful, so we spectators could enjoy the spectacle for a good five minutes — though some mothers shielded their children's eyes, telling them "he is a strange man."

All shows end, though, and when the man came back out of the fountain there was a guardian of law and order awaiting. Right after he put on his underpants, the boy in blue arrested him. That's freedom.

So next time you walk by a park, don't for a minute think it's just a place where birds tweet, office workers eat lunch and designer dogs take a pee. Oh, no — all human life, and more besides, is effervescing there from dawn to dusk . . . and beyond.



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