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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
WALKING THE WARDS
Katsushika a cut above all your expectations
By KIT NAGAMURA
Many of Tokyo's award-winning swordsmiths choose to live in Ka-tsushika. Why? "Land has always been cheap here," said Shoji Yoshihara, 61, designated an Important Living Cultural Property of the ward and deputy head of All Japan Swordsmiths Association. "The process of making swords is noisy and smoky, so you need as much space as you can afford," he added.
Yoshihara studied at his grandfather's elbow, made his first katana (sword) at age 12, and adopted the family art name with which he now signs his work, Kuniie III. His older brother, Yoshindo, another internationally recognized swordsmith, also lives in Katsushika, and currently has several apprentices under his wing.
Slipping his most recent award-winning katana out of its nebukuro ("sleeping bag"), Shoji gingerly passed it to me as he explained that, on average, a sword takes six months to complete and costs 4 million yen. The blade caught the sun in Yoshihara's living room, and felt weightier than its graceful lines suggested. I had the urge to take a little swing until Yoshihara calmly reminded me that a good stroke would go right through human bones.
Shoji hopes that his swords won't be engaged in the kind of mortal combat portrayed in Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai," but he enjoyed his cameo role as a swordsmith in the film. "It was great working with Tom Cruise, but he didn't invite me to his wedding," Shoji quipped.
Swords aren't the only things that make the cut here. "Cut!" is the call that put Katsushika's Shibamata on the map. The world's longest-running movie series, Yoji Yamada's "Otoko wa Tsurai yo! (It's Tough Being a Man)" features vagabond salesman Tora-san (played by Kiyoshi Atsumi), able to sell anything to anyone, but not himself as marriage material. In each movie, Tora returns to his hometown in Shibamata, which even today has an atmosphere half real, half stage-set.
Hoards of sightseers flow from the Shibamata station with its bronze statue of Tora-san, past tempura and grilled eel restaurants, up the shotengai (shopping street) to the Shibamata Taisha-kuten temple. Brown sugar sweets, chilled cucumber skewers and inago no tsukudani (locusts preserved in soy sauce) catch the eye, as do the friendly purveyors.
Elaborate woodcarvings, a horizontally ambitious pine tree, and a pear-wood tablet supposedly carved by Nichiren himself are the highlights of Taishakuten temple. A short walk beyond (follow the crowds) is the Edo River dike, often featured in the opening sequence of Tora-san films. At the riverbank, 100 yen will secure a seat on the Yagiri no Watashi, an Edo-style sculled ferry crossing over to Chiba. Though it goes against the historical conceit, there's an outboard engine propped next to the rear oar, just in case.
At the dock, a modern-day Tora-san makes tiny zori (straw sandals) from colored plastic string as good luck charms for travelers waiting to cross the river. Often featured in news stories because of his eccentric occupation, Yoshio Yatsu (his "press pseudonym") has been making talismans for 10 years, and says, "It's not fun. It gets cold and lonely out here, and people often ignore me, but the view is nice."
Five minutes from the river, at the Tora-san museum, it's possible to buy movie memorabilia and make a short film of yourself as a traveling bum. To go from rags to riches, sip green tea and soak in the sukiya-zukuri (refined, teahouse-inspired) atmosphere of nearby Yamamoto-tei. The Taisho Period (1912-1923) home and garden, with a chrome-and-leather jinrikisha (rickshaw) in the entrance way, is consistently lauded by gardening and architectural organizations as one of Japan's top five must-see locations, usually ranked just below Katsura Rikyu.
In contrast to the precisely trimmed confines of Yamamoto-tei is Tokyo's largest park, Mizu-moto. Sprawling, European in feel with long vistas and poplars, and beautifully wedded to its watery borders, Mizumoto is worth the bus trip from Kanamachi Station. Rowing boats engage in racing along the Edo River, there's a bird sanctuary, and boardwalks hover over the seemingly extraterrestrial surfaces made by aquatic plants. Nanzoin, a temple near Mizumoto, is home to the Bound Jizo, a reminder of the wit of one of Japan's most famous Edo judges, Ooka Echizen (1677-1752). A cartload of cloth was stolen from a kimono-maker who had been napping below the jizo statue. Called upon to find the thief, Ooka blamed the jizo, as jizo are meant to protect humans. Ooka then ordered the statue bound in ropes, and the villagers starting laughing. Ooka then slapped the villagers with a penalty for insolence, demanding that each bring a swatch of cloth as a fine. Among them, one brought fabric from the stolen bolts -- and Ooka had his thief.
Today, people tie lengths of rope around the worn, simple features of the jizo, and make wishes. The poor jizo is almost mummified before the ropes are cut off, once annually, at the year's end.
Modern law enforcement figures rarely match Ooka's droll tactics, but the police at Kameari station, at least, might be expected to mimic their manga counterparts in Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen Mae Hashutsujo (This is the Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward), or Kochikame for short. The real police on duty are nothing like the cartoons in Osamu Akimoto's series, but they will tell you that protagonist officer Kankichi Ryotsu, or Ryo-san, is "off on patrol," if you ask. Appearing since 1976 in Shueisha's Weekly Shonen Jump, Kochikame is the world's longest running manga. Shueisha celebrated its third decade this year by installing two life-size bronze statues of Ryo-san at Kameari Station's North and South exits.
The most manga-like aspect of Kameari's real police force is their white plastic standard-issue whistle. They'd look sharper with one of the buffed beauties produced by Noda Kakuseisha Manufacturing Company in Kameari. Widely considered the world's highest quality tweeters, toted by World Cup referees and NATO forces, Noda whistles include a uniquely moisture-resistant inner ball made from Portuguese cork. "This means they last forever," says company president Kazuhiro Noda, 75, who with his cousin Yoshiko Noda, 80, still assembles each whistle by hand.
From the "deep-voiced" police whistle that Kazuhiro says "stops criminals" to the soccer ref's shrill bleat, Noda's whistles are another Katsushika product cut out for fame.