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Friday, June 1, 2007
WALKING THE WARDS
To infinity and beyond
By KIT NAGAMURA
At the southern end of Edogawa Ward, Kasai Rinkai Koen Seaside Park dips its toes in the Pacific Ocean. From there, it's possible to see Tokyo Disney Resort across the water in Urayasu.
Mickey's place packs all its entertainments in one tidy mouse nest, but Edogawa offers many similar attractions at a fraction of the cost. The hitch is that you have to haul all around the ward — Tokyo's fourth largest — to find them.
Kasai Rinkai is the perfect place to start. Built on reclaimed land, the park offers refuge to flocks of shore birds, and its wide stretch of mud flats trap the occasional stingray. Children can dig for clams and crabs on one of the park's pair of artificial, crescent-shaped islands that, like a little mermaid's bra, hold Tokyo Bay in check.
A choo-choo tram (300 yen) goes through the park, passing several avian observation centers at one end and Diamonds and Flowers, Japan's largest Ferris wheel at 117 meters, at the other.
The glass dome over Tokyo Sealife Park rises in the center of the park like a giant jellyfish. In the aquarium, a display of creepy hammerhead sharks competes for attention with an enormous tank of tuna, their heads bright as hammered silver. At feeding time (ask for a schedule), voracious tuna accelerate at Porsche-like speeds toward their grub; even when not feeding, tuna must maintain perpetual motion to survive, continually swimming about, giving a whole new meaning to "revolving sushi." In addition to penguins and hands-on encounters with starfish, kids can find Disney/Pixar's Nemo, or a "cousin" of his, starring in the current clown fish display.
Edogawa Ward appears to be packed with kids. Population figures, according to the ward office, bear out the fact that it has the largest percentage of children per couple (currently 1.33) in Tokyo.
"Not surprising," says Fumiko Nakanishi, visiting the park with her son Hideki (5), "because Edogawa subsidizes private education, offers a child-support allowance, and was one of the first wards to cover children's medical expenses."
Fumiko has lived in Edogawa for 10 years and has four children of her own. "But," she adds wryly, "around here, that's no biggie. You'd have to have five or six to get noticed."
Families of all sizes hop on the free bus from Nishi-Kasai Station to another local park, Gyosen. There, the Shizen Zoo gives the common gray squirrel equal billing with wallabies, lesser pandas and sea lions, which matches the unpretentious atmosphere and entrance fee (it's free). Kids love the splash fountain, various fishing areas (bring your own squid bits) and petting zoo.
On the weekend of July 21-22, relatives of Pinocchio's tiny fishy friend, Cleo, will go on display at Gyosen during the Goldfish Festival. Supposedly introduced to Japan from southern China late in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568), goldfish were initially the pricey pets of nobility, who toted them about in minuscule glass flasks.
There are several fish farms in Edogawa, open year-round. Sasaki's farm, 10 minutes from Funabori Station, offers a startling array of fry (juvenile goldfish, not lunch) for sale, plus the equipment to raise them properly. Aside from the nostalgic, bright note these creatures offer — ah, summer! — goldfish are also known as "baby dragons," conduits of good fortune in feng shui.
Donald Duck doesn't show up in his sailor suit, but as far as boat shows go, Edogawa Kyotei, one of Tokyo's premier hydroplane speedboat racecourses, is a winner. Entrance costs 100 yen. It's enough to simply enjoy the roar of the featherweight craft careening on the Nakagawa River and the salty, slightly tipsy camaraderie of the regulars, but betting is a big part of the experience for many.
While watching from stands made up of mostly male rowdies, accompanied by Takemasa Kanai, Edogawa Kyotei's PR rep, a tiny woman in a straw hat wandered over and presented me with a phone card bearing a picture of her favorite buff young racer. Seiko Yamazaki (74) then offered me a beer and later tried to give me one of her winning tickets.
"Just thinking about the races brings good color to my cheeks," she said, making it clear that betting, for her at least, wasn't the main thing.
While the Edogawa Kyotei's 52nd G1 races (June 7-12) promise to be the month's hottest, this Sunday (June 3) a special event offers an opportunity for ordinary citizens to take a spin with a professional driver in the lightweight craft. How does it match up to a roller coaster ride, I asked Kanai-san. "No comparison," he said. "This one will blow any amusement park ride out of the water."
Beauty meets the beast, and rides him, in Edogawa. Two Pony Lands, one in Nagisa, and the other further north near Shinozaki, allow elementary school students to saddle up for free. Shinozaki Pony Land also features a riverside carriage-ride dutifully powered by an enormous draft horse, and kids can buy charming button badges of their favorite mounts.
At Koiwa Station, a police box hottie directed me to the riverside Koiwa Iris Garden. The beauty of the river grasses and the broad stretches of playing fields were a nice reward after the 20-minute hike past love hotels and Korean BBQ joints, but the blooming of the 50,000 irises has barely begun — wait until mid-June. Nearby, I decided to search out Japan's yokozuna of pines (yes, it has its own grand champion belt!) at Zenyoji Temple. The 600-year-old tree, spreading out over 900 sq. meters, bears the name Yogo no Matsu and is believed to be an earthly manifestation of a divine being.
On my walks through Edogawa, I was accompanied by some of the growing number of Indian residents, attracted to the area by the new Global Indian International School in Mizue. While exploring Kasai Station's nifty Subway Museum (200 yen), I met three generations of sari-clad women eager to praise the ward and proud to call it home. The youngest took her turn on a state-of-the-art train conductor's simulator, then dashed off to view the city's first subway car, the 1927 cadmium-yellow, wood-paneled 1001.
If you want to know the color of the wind, head to the glass furnaces of the Edo Furin (wind bell) factory, 10 minutes on foot from Mizue Station. The public is welcome to watch as the Shinohara family's sixth generation master glassblower, Yutaka (57), gingerly inflates this summer's worth of bells. Meanwhile, his father, Yoshiharu (82), sits on the tatami, packing up orders and making slightly off-color jokes about virility to his granddaughter, the seventh generation in the business. This, their magic kingdom, is as fragile as the product they produce.
"We used to be surrounded by hozuki (ground cherry) fields," Yoshiharu says. "The area has changed, but we haven't." For a small fee, make an appointment (in Japanese, edofurin.com) to observe this long-preserved tradition and create your own glass bell.
Finally, what would a day at an amusement park be like without fireworks? When Edogawa Ward hosts its famous annual firework display (August 4), the river banks can get so crowded that you may find yourself humming, "It's a small world after all."