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Friday, July 18, 2008

BACKSTREET STORIES

I ain't afraid of those ghosts


There are lots of yureizaka (phantom slopes) in Tokyo, and at least seven of them have been spooking lily-livered pedestrians since the Edo Period (1603-1867). The slope I head for, in broad daylight, slants through the somnolent graveyards of old temples from the early 1600s. It's a beastly summer day, so I'm hoping for some chills.

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Ghost town: Mitadai Park's haniwa (Kofun clay figurine) replica is a spooky sign, of sorts — indicating the area's long history. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

To set the mood, I start at Edo-Period Tsuki no Misaki (Moon Cape), a promontory overlooking Shibaura in Minato Ward. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) is said to have named this stop along the Tokaido (Edo's coastal highway to Kyoto). The view inspired Edo-Period song lyrics and appears in ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Ando Hiroshige's series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo." In his print titled "Tsuki no Misaki," the shadow of a woman floats, ghostlike, on the left.

Today, Tokyo Bay has been partially filled in and built up, and the lookout renamed Mitadai Park. A fenced-off biodiversity preserve at the rear of the park would make an excellent lunar-lovers' spot, but, alas, is only open Sundays during daylight hours.

Historians suggest this area was settled many moons ago, in the Kofun Period (c. 300-710). A large haniwa (Kofun clay figurine) holding a peeling explanatory placard and the humid, dark interior of a thatched-roof Kofun pit dwelling — both replicas — are, unintentionally, creepy.

Heading in the direction of Kamezuka Park and Saikai Temple (the location of Japan's initial French legation, where the servant of the first plenipotentiary, Gustave Duchesne, was nearly slashed into the afterworld by xenophobic swordsmen), I turn left down the slope of ghosts.

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Spook central: Fourth-generation Mita resident Shigeharu Hayashi appears at the summit of Yureizaka; Gyokuho-ji's Kesho Jizo.
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Almost instantly, like a scene out of a "Scooby-Doo" cartoon, a mammoth crow glides centimeters from my face, toting two orange eyeballs that turn out to be loquats. In the next breath, a man materializes just below me on the slope, grinning. I nod hello, and before we've even exchanged names, Shigeharu Hayashi, age 78, invites me into his home. His adult granddaughter, who has had no prior warning, is stunned to see a guest at the door, and promptly disappears into a back room. I'm sympathetic and a bit apprehensive. Where is this leading? Four stories up, apparently. We sweat buckets en route to Hayashi's roof balcony, and I ask him how long he's been in the neighborhood.

"We Hayashis have lived here for four generations, maybe even longer, but we were carpenters, and such tradesmen didn't have family names back then," he says. "Hayashi means woodland, so I guess we picked a name that fits."

"So, have you ever seen any ghosts here on Yureizaka?" I ask, reveling in the rooftop's cooling breeze.

Hayashi laughs a little, and instead of answering, segues into recounting how his house burned to the ground in World War II bombing raids. "Nearly everything you see was razed," he says, sweeping his arm over the neighborhood, "except that temple, Jiso-ji." He points to a lush green oasis, just behind his house. I sense there a chilling presence, actually, and we have a quiet moment of respect before Hayashi confides that the surviving temple harbors Edo Period tombstones. I thank him, marveling at his spontaneity and the kismet of chance meetings, and move on.

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A rare Meiji-Era building and Excalibur Phaeton car; A Matsudaira family tombstone in Jiso-ji.
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The back alley to Jiso-ji (ji means temple) is damp and mossy, and I unhappily inhale an entire squadron of tiny gnats, like Michael Clark Duncan in "The Green Mile." Choking along a slippery green 50 meters, I come across the resting place of some of the Matsudaira family, the clan into which Tokugawa Ieyasu was born. Octogenarian priest Nakanishi Shinsho, exuding charm and intelligence, helps me parse out how to pronounce the names of other neighborhood temples (even historians at the Minato Ward office find their kanji characters' readings inscrutable when I pop in to ask).

Jiso-ji, along with more than 20 other temples, was relocated from Hachobori in 1635 to make space for construction work on Edo Castle. The Mita neighborhood came to be known as "Temple Town," and Yureizaka goes right through it.

Further down the slope, I stop to compare Gyokuho-ji's Roku Jizo, a sextet of small bodhisattva statues often displayed at Buddhist temples. Gyokuho-ji's are plump and childlike compared with Jiso-ji's somber gents, but at first glance, they're the temple's only highlight. I'm about to leave when the temple priest's brother, 60-year-old Osamu Murayama, sidles up, asking if I'd like to see something really cool. "The cooler the better," I answer, wiping my brow.

It turns out that Gyokuho-ji houses the neighborhood's most glamorous attraction. In a special room off to the left of the main gate sits the ghostly white Kesho Jizo ("Makeup Jizo"). The story goes that a Gyokuho priest found the jizo discarded in the vicinity of Hachobori before the temples were moved. He rescued and repaired it, and thoughtfully applied a thorough dusting of face powder. When a deformity on the priest's face disappeared, a legend was born. The places you pat talcum powder on the jizo are said to either heal or make beautiful the corresponding parts of your body. I swoop in for a full-body pat-down, then suddenly recall that the word "kesho" has a homonym meaning "goblin." I decide to go easy on the powder.

My next stop, across the street, is Senno-ji, which is seemingly deserted. Calligraphy on the temple's notice board, however, is lovely, and I pause to translate it. A passerby, 66-year-old Mihara Setsuyo, takes it upon herself to make sure I've understood. "It means, 'You can't weigh a person's importance, but there are those who weigh heavily on our hearts,' or something like that," she says.

"Is everybody on this street so outgoing?" I ask.

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"Of course," Mihara explains, "We were raised surrounded by temples. It does make you different."

The afternoon darkens, and I veer to the right, off Yureizaka, hoping to explore the paradisiacal gardens of Jorin-ji. The priest's wife and daughter pause their lotus-snipping work to show me the resting place of Naonobu Ajima (1739-98), a mathematician who first came to fame by neatly solving a complex sangaku (a kind of mathematical problem posted on bulletin boards by Edo-Period temples), using an early form of calculus.

I start to think the concept "calculus" will prove the most frightening part of my day. At Sakurada-dori, with Jigenji's jarring decorations (rusty red ashtray on a beautiful stone bench, tacky temple gnomes) on the left, I pass by a home so old it's scary, with a rare white Excalibur Phaeton car parked in front. The scene looks as though it were lifted from a macabre Charles Addams' cartoon. A hasty inquiry at the nearest temple, Gantai-ji, reveals that the Meiji Era (1868-1912) building is leased out by the temple to the car's owner, and is not haunted.

I know it's necessary to return to Yureizaka after dark, so I do, at midnight, and by taxi. The road is pitch black even with a full moon. The driver says he does not want to wait while I snap photos; he's no Ghostbuster. My hand shakes as I quickly struggle to get a clear shot. A clammy breeze brushes my neck. In the spirit of things, I depart.



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