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Friday, April 6, 2007

WALKING THE WARDS

MEGURO

Where mod confronts odd


Several decades ago, commuters riding the Mekama Line into Meguro Station were tagged country bumpkins. Today, developers pack the ward with suburban homes as fast as they can pour cement. Old dwellings with gardens give way to duplexes with flowerpots, and chic furniture stores now clog Meguro Avenue to satiate design-hungry homemakers.

Five hundred bas-relief rakan, stone images representing the disciples of Buddha, were carved by 
monks at Daien-jio
Five hundred bas-relief rakan, stone images representing the disciples of Buddha, were carved by monks at Daien-ji in memory of a fire that burned one-third of Edo and killed nearly 18,000 people in 1772. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

But the ward is not all polish and pretense. Despite aggressive gentrification, Meguro still harbors distinctive museums, fine parks and elements of endearing eccentricity.

Take for example Meguro Station, a little bizarre as it isn't even in Meguro, but rather occupies part of Minato Ward. Meguro proper, or perhaps improper, lies west of the station. There, Tokyo's most prominent love hotel looms over the concrete embankments of the Meguro River like a high-school stage set of Cinderella's castle.

Built back in 1973, the Meguro Emperor courted a rep with its revolving beds and themed rooms (think jungle mist, space exploration, seasonal holidays, and Medieval weapons). Remodeled and renamed Meguro Club Sekitei, the castle's turrets are currently coated in dust from neighboring demolition sites and no one answers the phone. With trends toward chic decor vs. froufrou fantasy for amorous trysts, the days of this landmark may be numbered.

Odder still, nearby Shimo-Meguro is home to Tokyo's mother lode of cooties, the Meguro Parasitological Museum. The slim, three-floor pink building features a hands-on exhibit that encourages visitors to uncoil a nearly nine-meter-long cloth, like a mini fire hose, to tactically appreciate the lengths to which a tapeworm can grow. Also on display is an actual cestoidean specimen of this measure, extracted from a Japanese man who acquired it dining on freshwater fish. Colonic, anyone? Visit the museum parasitically (for free) or offer a donation to augment the museum's research into parasites and their victims.

For more appetizing but no less eye-popping fare, the nearby tiny restaurant Tateno is virtually camouflaged behind a mosaic of huge antique metal signs. Second-generation owner Masao Tateno, 62, has taken over the business his father opened 80 years ago, and today serves more than 70 customers each lunchtime. Masao-san, buoyant and personable, admits a real passion for his collection of metal advertisements: Showa mosquito repellents, Coke, Harley-Davidson, even "purchased, not stolen" signs from various train stations. But he's equally enthusiastic about his birthplace, the appeal of which, he explained to me, is in slopes. "People love to live in places with lots of slopes," he says.

The topography of Meguro, largely flattened by construction, is no longer overtly sloping. However, numerous prints by woodblock master Ando Hiroshige depict a lush terrain of hilltops where Tokugawa lords went falcon hunting and Edoites enjoyed unobstructed views of Mount Fuji.

a gondola in Jiyugaoka's 'Little Venice' retail area
restaurant Tateno with some of its collection of 
sign
A gondola in Jiyugaoka's "Little Venice" retail area and restaurant Tateno with some of its collection of signs.

Atop one surviving hill and up a steep, tree-lined flight of stairs, Ryusen-ji Temple offers a modern glimpse of the perspective and serenity that once enticed so many to linger in the area. Meguro Fudo, as the temple is affectionately known, harbors an image of the Buddhist deity of fire, Fudo Myo-o, depicted with black eyes (me-guro), from which Meguro received its name.

The ward has no shortage of elevated views, if highbrow counts. The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu Garden Place, Komaba's Museum of Japanese Modern Literature on the same grounds as the shadowed and brooding former manor of Marquis Toshinari Maeda, and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum all merit attention.

The latter, in Komaba, was founded by Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), both supporter and theorist of what constitutes mingei (functional handicrafts). Mingei crafts should reveal a purity of form and remain unselfconscious, Yanagi posited, yet possess characteristics particular to place of origin, and convey a sense of warmth derived from the rhythm of repetitive production. Yanagi personally designed the traditional main museum building to showcase exquisite examples of Tamba pottery (from Hyogo Prefecture), textiles, lacquerware and carvings -- a special exhibit through June 24 will spotlight Edo era pictorial banners -- and a second building opens the Yanagi family's traditional-style home to the public. On the day I explored, museum visitors all seemed dressed in handmade clothing and jewelry, providing what amounted to a modern-day mingei fashion show.

All along the Toyoko line, Meguro neighborhoods are in flux. Naka-Meguro coaxes out city-slickers with hip bars and secondhand shops, Gakugeidaigaku boasts the Takaban-no-yu spa that draws young clientele with jetbaths and a phat palette of colors, and every train stop now offers a medley of boutique restaurants catering to international tastes.

But walk 8 minutes south of Gakugeidaigaku, past graffiti on the walls of the elevated train line, and you'll find one of the ward's oldest parks, Himonya Koen. Benten Pond at the center is an age-old flocking spot for ducks and a favorite local hangout for teenagers who love to laze the afternoon away in rental rowboats. A petting zoo, and a pony-riding school for kids of all ages (my son rode here before he could walk) make for an exceptionally pleasant park.

The Toyoko and Oimachi lines cross at Jiyugaoka, a cache of luxury residences and posh shops in the southwestern tip of Meguro. Whimsical malls such as the pastel facades of "Little Venice," replete with its gondola to nowhere, and "Sweets Forest," a "let them eat cake" indulgence of confectionary stores (featuring an Easter theme through April 18), give the area a slightly ersatz atmosphere, but duck inside the old covered arcade that runs along the train tracks for a swift reality check. The Jiyugaoko Depato, nothing at all like a department store, encloses tiny shops and an olfactory slide show of odors: cut flowers, ripe fruit, octopuses squirming in buckets, used clothing, the metallic tang of cookware, and musty books and hawkers' sweat. Browse the day away, then hit the Depato's upper floors to find the area's most reasonably priced watering holes.

Though it sounds much like a Jiyugaoka fantasy mall, the former Ryugu-jo (Undersea Dragon Palace) was built in the early 1930s near Meguro Station and is now widely known as Meguro Gajoen. Art collector Rikizo Hosokawa filled the original building with more than 5,000 paintings, some of which still grace the modernized complex of wedding, banquet, hotel and office rooms. For those with a fervent desire for the very newest in knot-tying locales, the same management opens Afite later this month, a Neoclassical wedding hall in Naka-Meguro, promising to provide a ceremony resembling "one scene from a Hollywood movie."

Just up the hill from Gajoen sits a small temple with a history worth several Hollywood scenes. Daien-ji was the flash point of a conflagration that burned one-third of Edo and killed nearly 18,000 people in 1772. Five hundred bas relief rakan, stone images representing the disciples of Buddha, were carved by temple monks as a form of penance. Each sculpture appears to genuinely mourn the fire victims with an individualized, grimly ascetic expression. Odd then that a wee flame is kept continuously burning at the temple. Perhaps this hints that some things -- despite modern ambitions -- never change.



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