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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

BACKSTREET STORIES

Kichijoji captivations


Kichijoji has shopping covered, literally and figuratively. The roofed malls at this popular stop on the Chuo Line 15 minutes west of Shinjuku sport prices markedly lower than those of central Tokyo, and the lure of its bargains is easily as strong as its famed live jazz and blues scene.

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Young at heart: Inokashira Park Zoo resident, Hanako, 62, strikes a teenager's pose to greet her visitors.

Seven girlfriends with shop browsing in mind asked me to take them there, and I agreed. On the appointed day, rain falls in buckets and it's cold enough to see your breath. I expect my friends to cancel, but armed with umbrellas and outfitted in chic rubber boots they emerge from the mist like the Seven Samurai.

We slosh out from the North Gate of Kichijoji Station toward a warren of tiny postwar shops and eateries huddled in a network of covered alleys. Today, Harmonika Yokocho, as it's known, is damp as the comb of a well-used blues harp.

It's still early in the day, and many places are shuttered. The arm's-width alleys are quiet but for the dripping of water or whistling of a chef hacking up bits of chicken, lamb, or veggies for the tiny yakitori and kushiyaki (skewered and grilled food) joints that come alive at night.

"We've been here for 60 years, since just after the war," says third-generation fishmonger Junnosuke Irisawa, from his store, Nagisaya. "Harmonika Yokocho's not the cleanest place, but it's ours."

Nagisaya looks spotless to me, offering massive slabs of rich salmon and delicacies such as amber blocks of nikogori (jellied fish broth) and crunchy, delectable kazunoko (herring roe) — a food whose quality is usually "judged by ear." With its low prices and friendly service, I make a note to return soon.

Around the corner I go, with seven pretty ducks in tow, to find Taikashi no Amane, a stand selling taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with adzuki bean paste) and some of the best kuzumochi (gelatinous sweets made from kudzu starch) this side of Kyoto. There's a line of customers outside, so my gang puts off a purchase.

Backtracking through the station, we cross a treacherous street where buses brush our noses, and the only traffic control is a cop with an amplified mouthpiece. "Thanks for your help," I say to him in passing. "You're most welcome," he booms out to the neighborhood through his contraption.

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Autumn beauties: Inokashira Pond (top); Inokashira's temple dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of flow (above); and a lucky seven (below) laugh at the rain, from left: Denise Nomura, Alisa Inouye, Janet Valverde-Beck, Rumiko Laughlin, Suzuko Knapper, Kari Fike and Kami Fukuda. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS
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We choose a path to the right of Marui department store, and follow a flow of humanity down toward Inokashira Park, the area's cherry-blossom hotspot come spring. Many of the stores en route put the kitsch in Kichijoji, with everything from Bali-hippie furnishings to ubercute clothing and small galleries. Despite the miserable weather, business is brisk.

Seasonal trinkets and decorations at a shop named Karako feature "a melange of East meets Western style," according to its 35-year-old owner, Yoko Ito, who proudly displays her favorite item — an Indian patchwork applique piece with colors that look a lot like Christmas. Candles, stocking stuffers and novel twists on tree trimmings are all available here.

Further down the road, my group takes shelter in an edgy shop, Jap/Guild Unit. Frisky despite the weather's frigidity, they try out the merchandise — a selection of neck cuffs and S&M leather accessories, hardcore silver jewelry and masks — all made on the premises. Luckily, I don't need to buy a whip to move them on; hunger spurs us instead.

As we descend toward the dripping, autumnal tunnel of trees in Inokashira Park, we part clouds of steam roiling out from Iseya Shoten, a yakitori tavern serving since 1928, and glance at young couples licking gelato on the leafy porch at Donatello's. At last we find ourselves in the park, and it is nearly deserted, its air scented with cedar.

Beside its pond, I explain to my group that Inokashira, literally "Head of the Well," was named for a spring that supplied drinking water once conveyed to citizens of Edo (present-day Tokyo) via the Kanda Canal built in 1629. Row boats that usually clog Inokashira's pond thunk against one another in the wind, slowly filling with rain at their moorings. Just as well they are empty, I warn my group, because any couple embarking there is supposedly doomed to break up. The reason for this superstition lies in a temple across the water, and we head there.

I introduce my seven friends to Japan's Shichifukujin (Seven Gods of Good Fortune), of whom Benzaiten is the only female. Goddess of all that flows, particularly music, poetry, love and luck, Benzaiten is said to grow jealous of any lovers who navigate her pond, taking revenge by splitting them up. After lighting incense to oblige Benzaiten, we explore the rear of the temple to check out a dragon fountain where washing one's money is said to help wealth flow. We throw our coins in the plastic basket provided, and wash away.

Our hands are now soaking and blood ceases to flow to extremities, so we trot off to lunch at a restaurant tucked inside Inokashira Park. The lights from Pepa Cafe Forest glow in the gloom. With only plastic roll-down windows between us and the trees, we still warm up nicely with perfectly spiced Thai dishes and pitchers of hot wine.

Revived, my friends decide to return to Harmonika Yokocho's Taikashi no Amane to buy sweets, then to continue their outing shopping for antiques in neighboring Nishi Ogikubo.

On my own again, I buy a ticket (¥400) to walk through Inokashira Park Zoo. In the lower half of the zoo, mandarin ducks, cranes, ibis and swans squawk and screech and honk as though they weren't expecting visitors today. I continue uphill to the zoo's main gate, and though the rain has slackened, it's cold and the grounds feel deserted and dreamlike. Finally, at the guinea pig petting shack, I meet the only other visitors, 29-year-olds Kaoru Watanabe and Sakiko Suganuma, each crouched over a rotund rodent lap-warmer.

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All comes clear: Shinya Nasei lights up Harmonika Yokocho at the yakitori restaurant Tetchan. Make a circuit of Inokashira Pond and you will find the Ochanomizu spring that was the source of drinking water for Edo (present-day Tokyo).

When I announce I'm off to see Japan's oldest elephant, 62-year-old Hanako, they put the pigs back in their pen and tag along. We three enter a covered paddock, and there, a mere 2 meters distant, is a stunning Asian beauty. She is clearly intelligent and reaches her trunk out to take in our olfactory info, then resumes bending and twisting a plastic tube into a tool to scratch her toes. We openly admire her for an hour, and occasionally she wanders over to us and stands cross-legged like a teenager, or woofles at us through her trunk. The urge to touch her, though she's just out of reach, is strong in all three of us.

"This is the first time for me to really spend time watching an elephant," says Kaoru, "and her facial expressions are amazing." Sakiko concurs, adding, "She is much bigger and healthier than I ever imagined." They remain, even when I move on. Outside, I see the rain has ceased.

The elephant in the room, idiomatically speaking, is on my mind as I head home through the late afternoon in Inokashira Park. I weigh the joys of our observation against the desolate reality of captivity for such a noble, social creature.

I come across a man on a park bench deftly whittling twigs into decorative cigarette holders. He shows me which trees make the best ones, and as we chat, offers to teach me how to locate edible mushrooms in the park and determine which acorns are tastiest. I wonder briefly if he is homeless, but his debonair black fedora and good glasses suggest otherwise. When I ask to take his picture, he says he absolutely cannot reveal his name and I must not show his face in print. Something somewhere in his life has gone wrong, and he doesn't want it to catch up with him. Before I leave, though, he allows me to photograph his carved pipes.

Sunlight chooses to illuminate the final hour before dusk; it glows through a curtain of orange willow leaves, picks out two boats on Inokashira Pond, and follows the wake of two ducks paddling home. The still moment arrests me, and I do time till dark.

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