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Friday, April 7, 2006

WALKING THE WARDS

Getting animated in Suginami


Suginami Ward may be known as a bed town, but the residents are restless. Butting up against Musashino and Mitaka cities and sharing a "west wing" location with Setagaya Ward to the south and Nerima Ward to the north, what appears to be a quiet residential area has always been a hotbed of activism.

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Trees blow in the wind at Zenpukuji Koen (above); a pintail duck confronts a boy at the same park.
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In 1954, the "Suginami Appeal," a petition started by a few of the ward's housewives to protest nuclear weapons, rustled up 20 million signatures. Recently, residents have sued the government to block school use of a history textbook said to justify Japan's aggressions in World War II, and, so far, the ward refuses to surrender private information on its residents to Tokyo's Juki Net, the intragovernmental electronic registry network set up in 2002. Add to this an ordinance to limit the number of security cameras that can be installed around the ward, and a picture emerges of a feisty populace.

"I'm grateful for the protection of privacy," says 35-year resident Mitsuko Takemura, "but our garbage problem is terrible."

In 1970, 40 Suginami high-school students were hospitalized victims of photochemical smog, bringing the issue national attention. Now the ward would prefer to be known as a place that attempts to tackle environmental problems. Replacement of white garbage bags with supposedly crow-proof yellow ones, and Mayor Hiroshi Yamada's 5 yen tax on customers using plastic bags handed out by stores are measures suggested so far. Takemura remains dubious.

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The "art" of engraver beetles

"At least we still have lots of trees," says Takemura.

Suginami's moniker is the legacy of an early Edo land baron, Lord Tadayoshi Okabe, the first to stake a claim on the area. He marked off his property, which bordered the present day Ome Kaido (the Ome Highway), with a substantial row of cedar trees. The "Suginamiki," or "avenue of cedars," served as a landmark for travelers carrying limestone, silk and iron ore between the post town of Ome and central Edo. Today, none of the original cedars stand, but the image lives on in the slightly abbreviated ward name, and the Japanese cedar joins the sasanqua and dawn redwood to comprise the ward's three designated trees. No designated flowers, like the other wards have. Just trees.

Walking through the vicinity of Suginami's train stations reveals that hard times and rising land costs have left some commercial streets shuttered-up. Even Ogikubo's once thriving outdoor market, now collectively occupying the basement of Town Seven, is said to be struggling. It's hard to believe; their fish market and freshly steamed red rice are awesome.

A short jaunt down the tracks to Nishi-Ogikubo, once a hippie enclave, finds 60-odd antique stores packed with Taisho Period tansu (cabinets) and tables, priceless porcelain, ancient dolls and ceramics. Antique collectors by nature scoff at the passage of time and fortunes, and there's a bohemian breeze that blows through the town, said to have been the hangout of famous writers such as Osamu Dazai and Masuji Ibuse.

The remnants of riches are also visible south of Ogikubo, an area Ibuse chronicled, where walled gardens of ancient gnarled pines and towering zelkovas are frequent among the more ordinary looking homes.

"A lot of company owners and military leaders settled out here because it was convenient and beautiful," said 50-year resident and retired book editor Kimiko Matsukura. "But many have sold off half their land, and built brand new places on the remaining portion." The neighborhood, therefore, feels half full of ghosts. Fumimaro Konoe, thrice prime minister of Japan, committed suicide by drinking poison in his Ogikubo home to avoid summons to the war tribunal of 1945.

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Takeshi Iwamoto plays his mandolin (above); dolls at an antique store
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The Ryokan Seiko, still open for business behind its subtle Art Deco facade, first accepted lodgers in 1933. From the same early Showa Era, the nearby estate of composer and critic Motoo Otaguro, famed for introducing the music of Debussy and Stravinsky to Japan, is now preserved as Otaguro Park. Otaguro's former estate features a teahouse and carp-filled pond. The grand piano inside his house appears to be in less than grand shape.

The Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, headquartered in Suginami, doesn't have to worry about its pianos; the orchestra practices at the newly remodeled Suginami Kokaido, which babies three grands: a Bechstein, a Bosendorfer and a Steinway.

Music strikes a long note in Suginami. Minion, one of Tokyo's oldest meikyoku kissa ten, a classical music coffee shop with a DJ, boasts 5,000 records and serves up a mean cup of java. There's also a bunch of live houses from the basement punk-rock den 20,000V to the wood-paneled igloo of Penguin House. Other joints such as Club Liner Koenji, Bloomoon and Gear balance out Tokyo's grand dame of blues and jazz, Jirokichi. If you prefer your music in the open air, Suginami boasts nearly 300 parks, where someone is always working a horn or plucking the strings. This is where I met Takeshi Iwamoto, a professional mandolin maker and his two friends, knocking out Kentucky bluegrass tunes to the delight of a small crowd of locals. Iwamoto's shop, Acoustic World Mandolins, is in Matsunoki, and he takes orders for his beautiful mandolins from around the world.

Three major rivers run through Suginami -- the Kanda, Myoshoji and Zenpukuji, but this last springs from its source in Zenpukuji Park, where pintail ducks enjoy the pure waters. The small park office on-site displays with pride the "artistry" of engraver beetles, a celebration of the elegance of destruction.

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Like an alimentary system, the Zenpukuji River winds southward, nourishing another eponymous park, Zenpukijigawa Park, before puddling up in an artificial water catch at Wadabori Lake. Tiny kingfishers flit along the clean river, and in the midst of the park's abundant nature, there is, surprisingly, a miniature city. Complete with working traffic lights, tunnels, complex intersections and even a to-scale model of Tokyo Station, the Children's Traffic Park allows kids and parents to borrow bikes and pedal carts to master the rules of the road.

As cheaper rents of cities outside Tokyo draw away artists and the owners of shops that used to characterize Suginami, the ward has decided to position itself as the epicenter of animation. Master of the genre, Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Japan's top-grossing film of all time, "Spirited Away," spent his elementary years locally, and 70 of Japan's 400 anime producers, including the creators of "Gundam," have studios in the ward.

The conversion of two upper floors of the Suginami Kokaido (Community Hall) into the newly opened Suginami Animation Museum is a bid to honor the art. It is a good start, and sure to catch the attention of animation fans, but if Suginami aims to claim the spotlight, they'll need to be quick on the draw, especially with Miyazaki's impressive Ghibli museum in neighboring Mitaka City.



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