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Friday, Feb. 2, 2007



Cabbages and kings

Those who live and work in Itabashi are hesitant when it comes to tallying up the highlights of this northwestern Tokyo ward. "There's really nothing remarkable here," says ballerina and homemaker Chieko Muraoka, 37. "It's quiet and small-scale, but we like it that way."

Ogre of Endurance in the grounds of Jorenji Temple  Chinese goose
in Ukima Park
The "Ogre of Endurance" in the grounds of Jorenji Temple and a Chinese goose in Ukima Park KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

And the ward's unique features? "You can still find cabbage patches!" offers up Gabriel Lee, 35, who has been working in Itabashi for several years, "and parking is really cheap."

How come no one mentions Itabashi's Jorenji Temple, home of the third largest seated Buddha in all of Japan?

Perhaps the 13-meter high, 22-ton Tokyo Daibutsu, cast in 1977, is deemed too young and smooth-faced to tout. Or perhaps the statue's proximity to the massive Takashimadaira Danchi complex of over 10,000 housing units and the tragic site of more than 150 suicides in the 1970s makes people reluctant to recommend it. Whatever the reason, the bronze Buddha, bested in size by only the behemoths in Nara and Kamakura, is elegant in a silken black finish.

The daibutsu (great buddha) was erected to commemorate victims of the 1923 earthquake and World War II fire-bombings, but Jorenji Temple itself predates the Edo Period, and was once located near the Nakasendo (the ancient inland route between Edo and Kyoto). The temple moved to its present site in 1973 to make way for a modern highway, a move that also shifted it out of the limelight.

The usually deserted grounds encompass a pond of ravenous koi (carp) and a menagerie of 16th century statues, including a "Gaman no Oni (Ogre of Endurance)."

On setsubun (the last day of winter in the traditional lunar calendar, usually Feb. 3), most people will cast oni out of their homes, but this one is welcome to stay, because he symbolizes patience in the face of life's burdens.

Twenty years ago, the neighborhood surrounding Jorenji was largely agricultural. Today, miniature backhoes nibble away at the hill directly below the Buddha, currently surrounded by burgeoning housing developments and a bizarre abundance of soba noodle shops.

If soba isn't your dish, head south to Narimasu station for a bit of history barely older than the daibutsu. The Mountain Ocean Sun franchise, better known as Mos Burger, started in Itabashi in 1972. The first shop, near the station, proudly displays its "#1" plaque.

Tokyo Daibutsu, cast in 1977 Nobuaki Fujimoto
The 22-ton Tokyo Daibutsu, cast in 1977, and Nobuaki Fujimoto, who works at a fix-it shop

But if you fancy some top-notch pork, head 10 minutes north to Nishi-Takashimadaira Station at the end of the Toei Mita Line for some of Tokyo's most succulent tonkatsu (pork cutlet). Husband and wife team Mitsuko and Yosuke Ebata have been serving crispy cutlets at their Maru Shin shop for 20 years.

When asked what one should see in Itabashi, Mitsuko replied, "The nirinso (Japanese woodland anemone), the ward's flower, because it always blooms in pairs."

Her husband, Yosuke, beamed at this answer and gave me a map to the nearby Akatsuka Botanical Garden, one of the few places these delicate flowers can be observed, though usually not until April. The tidy garden features over 600 specimens, including medicinal plants noted in the Manyoshu poetry anthology.

The same vicinity is home to the Itabashi Historical Museum, the Edo-Period Shogetsu-in Temple, the scant ruins of the Chiba warrior clan's Akatsuka Castle and Tokyo's Itabashi Art Museum (1979).

Western Itabashi is about to be perfumed with the blossoming of Akatsuka Tameike Park's 213 plum trees. The Ume Festival here (first weekend in March), and the moonlit Ta-Asobi (Feb. 13) festival held at nearby Suwa Shrine are but a few of the wards numerous festivals.

The other side of Itabashi, the southeast quadrant, holds the keys to the area's earliest recorded history and to its plans for the future.

"Itabashi" (literally, "plank bridge") was already a city during the days of the Genji and Heike clans in the 12th century. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the bridge from which the city is supposed to have taken its name saw heavy traffic, as Itabashi was one of the four major juku (rest stops) for travelers setting out on the Nakasendo.

Current day Itabashi Bridge is partially planked in a hat-tip to history, but a steel structure provides support.

Even in winter, the bridge affords a lovely vista of cherry trees with branches swooping down toward the shallows of the Shakuji River in Nakajuku.

Heading east, a small petting zoo shares a park with a spooky, abandoned fish aquarium, and the area accommodates several unusual research centers.

The National Institute for Polar Research is by far the coolest, sporting a giant iceboat propeller and an annoyed-looking flotilla of stuffed penguins at the entrance. With increased focus on global warming and 2007 designated an International Polar Year, it's not a bad idea to launch an expedition through the institute's visitor center, with its biological specimens from Antarctica.

Itabashi's rapid loss of green spaces to housing and industry caused the city to set up an environmental protection plan in 1999, symbolized by Ecopolis (often mistakenly identified as "Eco Police"), an educational facility in Maenocho. While many displays are run-down and broken, the basement-level fix-it center, ironically, is going gangbusters. Nobuaki Fujimoto, 81, and Arifureta Sato, 76, clearly love their work lathing new handles for old pots, repairing mechanical toys, truing umbrellas, and even gluing heels on shoes for the public.

Itabashi houses the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, a cutting edge research facility focusing on issues of aging and how to maximize the quality of life for the old, and the anticipated increase of "oldest-old" (that's 85 and up).

For the young, Itabashi Bologna Children's Book Hall in Honcho offers access to a collection of nearly 20,000 illustrated volumes, many from the famed Bologna Book Fair, with which the ward has had friendly ties since 1981.

Walking past the windmill in Ukima Park, in upper Itabashi, I noticed an enormous bird among the usual ducks and cormorants. A ward official has posted a sign to help those baffled by the "odd duck." It reads, in brief: "I'm a Chinese Goose whose wings were clipped so I could be someone's pet. I was abandoned here, and I can't fly, but I'm not in pain and I'm doing just fine!" At sunset, children flocked to feed that goose and an elderly gentleman brought it a fistful of cabbage leaves.

Nothing remarkable, perhaps, but an encapsulation of Itabashi at its best.

Map of Itabashi

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The Japan Times Feb. 2, 2007

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