39

Kyojima

K intro

 

I could use all kinds of long fancy words but it would all boil down to this – wow. Tokyo. Wow.

Having never been before I had little idea what to expect. I mean, sure, I’ve seen Lost in Translation too. Read some Murakami. Even done some origami in my time. But really, nothing prepared me for this.

After just over a week it’d be somewhat silly to make a grand pronouncement of exactly what makes Tokyo so interesting – but I’m in a silly mood so… You’re in Asia but it feels kind of European, it’s sophisticated but cartoony-madcap too, ancient but edgy, and while buzzy-exciting, there’s also a tremendous sense of calm.

There. Tokyo in a nutshell. The End.

Okay, no, now I really am being silly. Let’s get down to business.

For the first week here I wanted to find ‘old Tokyo’. But was it even possible? One mega earthquake and a world war had destroyed most of the old long ago. And if it did exist, where was it? In a city that makes Los Angeles look compact, I had no clue where to start.

Then I read about a festival celebrating traditional Edo culture that was happening on the weekend in a place called Asakusa. Went. Marvelled. But was disappointed. Impressive temple, grand parade but where was the patina?

Just across the river from Asakusa as it turned out. In an area that actually did survive both the earthquake and the bombs – Kyojima. So after spending half my time in Asakusa, we headed over there.

Some facts… Kyojima is in eastern Tokyo, in the historically working class ‘low city’ (shitamachi). Late 19th century, it still had paddy fields and marshes. After the great earthquake of 1923, masses of wooden ‘long houses’ were built without any planning to cater for those who’d lost their homes elsewhere. When most of Tokyo burnt to the ground in WWII, Kyojima again was spared – by the river and the railway line that acted as firebreaks – and even more people piled in.

So what’s it like today? Let’s go see…

 

Part 1: En route

It’s hard to follow one’s plan in Tokyo I’m finding. You set your course but then something crops up, and suddenly you’re heading down another road, literally.

Case in point – our first day in the area. As I mentioned, we started out by visiting Asakusa, right next door to Kyojima. I had planned to make a beeline for the big temple there but as soon as we exited the subway, Coco and I were thrown off course by two women in kimonos.

We’ve seen so many since then that I almost don’t have to stop and stare now – almost – but these first ones completely entranced me.

 

 

first sighting

first sighting

 

 

 

 

We followed them all the way to their destination – a shop that sold the traditional shoes they were wearing, geta. I ducked inside to ask if I could photograph them – without hesitation they agreed. And so ensued a little photo session…

 

 

the unveiling

the unveiling

 

 

 

 

Kaori

Kaori

 

 

 

 

glow

glow

 

 

 

 

Yumiko

Yumiko

 

 

 

 

ready for take-off

ready for take-off

 

 

 

 

We barely spoke a word but Kaori and Yumiko were both so patient and still. It was dreamlike and inspired some (bad) haiku…

 

 

The brown spot hopped off, And landed on her neck, It was happy there

The brown spot hopped off, And landed on her neck, It was happy there

 

 

 

 

The sound her Geta made, Clip clop clip clop clip clop, Her grandfather’s favourite

The sound her Geta made, Clip clop clip clop clip clop, Her grandfather’s favourite

 

 

 

 

The colour of her Tabi, Made her dream of Hanami, Drinking sake under sakura

The colour of her Tabi, Made her dream of Hanami, Drinking sake under sakura

 

 

 

 

After taking the photographs, they calmly went back inside to resume looking at the hanao, the little V-shaped straps that attach to the geta shoes.

 

 

hanao

hanao

 

 

 

 

endless variety :: 1

endless variety :: 1

 

 

 

 

endless variety :: 2

endless variety :: 2

 

 

 

 

I’d read somewhere that kimonos are enjoying a resurgence among younger women and was curious to know more. But unfortunately the language barrier prevented much chat. So I thanked them both profusely for their time and left. (And do you know, of all the kimonos we’ve seen in the past week, their two remain my favourite.)

 

 

sayonara Yumiko and Kaori

sayonara Yumiko and Kaori

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Still en route

Our next visit was also to Asakusa because at this stage I was still hoping to find the ‘old’ there. We only caught the tail end of the parade of traditional culture and costumes but found a few characters hanging around on the streets late afternoon, being madly photographed by the passing crowd.

 

 

what's so special about these geisha?

what’s so special about these geisha? :: 1

 

 

 

 

what's so special about these geisha? :: 2

what’s so special about these geisha? :: 2

 

 

 

 

they're men

they’re men

 

 

 

 

pretty men

pretty men

 

 

 

 

 

And then, more dress-ups…

 

 

dogs in kimonos being followed by ninjas with big hats?

dogs in kimonos being followed by ninjas in big hats?

 

 

 

 

The ‘ninjas’ were actually rickshaw drivers who whipped out cameras instead of nunchucks to snap the dogs because they were so kawaii – cute.

 

 

 

kawaii

kawaii :: 1

 

 

 

 

kawaii :: 2

kawaii :: 2

 

 

 

 

Part 3: Finally, Kyojima – and the search for the rare nagaya

By day three I’d worked out that Asakusa wasn’t floating my boat – but that just across the Sumida River was a neighbourhood called Kyojima that probably would. It was apparently one of the few traditional areas left in Tokyo, filled with old wooden ‘long houses’ called nagaya. Patina here we come!

First thing of note is that while Kyojima may be old, right next door is Tokyo’s latest, greatest – Skytree, the world’s tallest tower, opened just this year.

 

 

Kyojima, with Skytree in the background

Kyojima, with Skytree in the background

 

 

 

As we wandered around Kyojima’s maze-like alleys, filled with bicycles not cars, residents would ask: So you’re here to see Skytree? No, actually, we’re here to see you! You and your nagaya.

Of course, finding the old nagaya – which are basically three dwellings in one long structure – wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. I later learned that over the last five to ten years a lot of them have been demolished, some because of the Skytree development itself. (Apparently a trusted community leader who supported the Skytree project was instrumental in getting others in Kyojima to sell their land to the developers. He moved to the 41st floor of one of the condominiums the Skytree people built, saying, “I’m going from a horizontal nagaya to a vertical nagaya”. )

Despite the scarcity of the nagaya, we managed to find a few. This one’s day must be numbered – it’s uninhabited and just standing.

 

 

nagaya - 'long house'

nagaya – ‘long house’

 

 

 

 

revival vs just surviving

revival vs just surviving

 

 

 

 

Around the corner we found a happier story, that of husband and wife Shiego and Fumiko Motosuna. Fumiko has lived in the small house they call home for 80 of her 82 years; Shiego, for their married life, all 54 years of it. Although Shiego at 83 is very fragile, he only needs to open his front door and take a few shuffling steps to sit in the sun and be part of the world.

As Coco and I were trying to communicate with the couple, their younger neighbour popped her head out, to give us the once over and then to help translate – I can only imagine how reassuring it must be for the older couple to have her and their other neighbours so close.

 

 

home for 80 of her 82 years - Fumiko with husband Shigeo

home for 80 of her 82 years – Fumiko with husband Shigeo

 

 

 

 

On another visit we met a Japanese father and son, Tak and Ken, out on a nagaya hunt themselves. They actually took us to the one below, where we ran into Mr Suzuki, a local restaurant owner who was picking up some dishes from the owners of the nagaya, having delivered the food a little earlier. No styrofoam or plastic here – and I love the ingenious system for transporting the tray of food on the back of the motorbike.

 

 

first he delivers, then he picks up - Mr Suzuki

first he delivers, then he picks up – Mr Suzuki

 

 

 

 

up, down

up, down

 

 

 

 

back to base

back to base

 

 

 

 

After Tak, Ken and Mr Suzuki had left, Coco and I stayed to have a nose around the nagaya.

 

 

the front door of No 36-8

the front door of No 36-8

 

 

 

 

a bonsai 'backyard'

a bonsai ‘backyard’

 

 

 

 

nature in the midst of urban

nature in the midst of urban

 

 

 

 

new neighbours

new neighbours

 

 

 

 

Part 4: Down the main street

I’d started to get a sense of the lovely community feel of Kyojima when we’d met Fumiko and Shigeo. But walking down the small shopping street, Tachibana Ginza, I really started to understand what was so special about this place – it felt like a small village despite being in the middle of the world’s largest metropolitan area. Virtually car-free, everyone on bikes, kids running around – and the friendliest shop keepers providing everything you needed for dinner.

 

 

rush hour on the main street, Tachibana Ginza

rush hour on the main street, Tachibana Ginza

 

 

 

 

keeping Kyojima in veggies - Yoshiko and Toshi

keeping Kyojima in veggies – Yoshiko and Toshi

 

 

 

 

Toshi and her kaki - Japanese Persimmon

Toshi and her kaki – Japanese Persimmon

 

 

 

 

when you've finished that, could you go to the shops and pick up some bread please

when you’ve finished that, could you go to the shops and pick up some bread please

 

 

 

 

the stuff of life - memories and bread

the stuff of life – memories and bread

 

 

 

 

Soda waiting for customers

Soda waiting for customers

 

 

 

 

tea and udon

tea and oden

 

 

 

 

 

I particularly liked Yumiko and her colourful shop selling takoyaki (octopus in batter) and taiyaki (red bean paste in batter). I couldn’t sample the wares (gluten) and Coco didn’t want to (scared), so I can’t tell you what they were like. But they looked pretty tasty.

 

 

aglow - Yumiko's fish cafe :: 1

aglow – Yumiko’s fish cafe :: 1

 

 

 

 

aglow - Yumiko's fish cafe :: 2

aglow – Yumiko’s fish cafe :: 2

 

 

 

 

Yumiko making taiyaki - fish shaped cake with red bean paste

Yumiko making taiyaki – fish shaped cake with red bean paste

 

 

 

 

ready to eat - taiyaki

ready to eat – taiyaki

 

 

 

 

And then there’s takoyaki – which sounds so much nicer than octopus balls…

 

 

Mr Yamamoto waits for his takoyaki - octopus balls

Mr Yamamoto waits for his takoyaki – octopus balls

 

 

 

 

takoyaki - octopus in batter

dinner?

 

 

 

 

The octopus inspired more (still bad) haiku…

 

 

Eight tentacles apiece, Like eight petals on her obi, Infinity rules

Eight arms apiece, Like eight petals on her obi, Infinity rules

 

 

 

 

They share nothing, But a predilection for dots, Is that not enough?

They share nothing, But a predilection for dots, Is that not enough?

 

 

 

 

Part 5: The future of Kyojima

As atmospheric as neighbourhoods like Kyojima are, many consider that they’re also a disaster waiting to happen – densely packed areas with narrow lanes that fire trucks and ambulances wouldn’t be able to squeeze through in the event of a major earthquake (predicted to strike Tokyo within 30 years).

After last year’s disastrous earthquake in northern Japan, the government is even more concerned and is looking closely at ways to reduce the risk – the nagaya surely would be the first to go.

I don’t know what’s more worrying, that or the fact that Japan has an extremely low birth rate and a rapidly aging population; I read somewhere that Tokyo’s population could halve in the next 90 years.

From what I could see Kyojima is at least doing its bit to repopulate Tokyo – there seemed to be kids everywhere. Like seven year old Himari, who was dressed for the ‘3-5-7 festival’ – Shichi-Go-San – where kids aged three, five and seven don traditional costume and visit temples and shrines.

 

 

7 year old Himari, dressed for the 3-5-7 festival - Shichi-Go-San

new life in Kyojima :: 1

 

 

 

 

new life in Kyojima :: 2

new life in Kyojima :: 2

 

 

 

 

And Hinata and Icho, playing what looked like hopscotch, minus any numbers.

 

 

hopscotch-ish - Hinata and Icho

hopscotch-ish – Hinata and Icho

 

 

 

 

And perhaps the newest member of Kyojima…

 

 

lunchtime - looking through the noren, doorway curtains

lunchtime – looking through the noren, doorway curtains

 

 

 

 

The Wrap

Maze-like, cramped and at major risk of fire damage from any future earthquakes it may be, but in a city as vast – and ‘new’ – as Tokyo, Kyojima is a wonderful thing, housing families who’ve lived here for generations in a tightly knit community. And I’m glad I got to see the nagaya – I’m not sure how much longer those dear old things can hang on for.

 

 

mesmerised

mesmerised

 

 

 

On the ‘home front’

Coco, being the easy-going, consistently happy, endlessly positive child that she is, has pretty much loved every city we’ve been to. But I think Tokyo is the one that will leave the greatest impression on her. We really haven’t seen much aside from Kyojima yet but already she’s smitten. She can’t get over the kimonos and the school uniforms and the way little kids travel on the subway by themselves. Or how kind and helpful the people are (aside from going out of their way to help us with directions, we were also invited to a small tea ceremony one day).

Then yesterday, as a bribe to do yet another few hours of exploring, I took her to a ‘cat cafe’ where people who can’t keep pets in their homes can hang out with 20+ felines. She loved it. Begged me to stay longer. Desperate to go back.

So that’s it. She’ll have travelled all around the world and people will ask, what was your favourite place. Paris, Rome, Disneyland?

Na, the cat cafe.

Ah well.

 —

This suburb has been brought to you by Di Quick

See you next week.

 

36

Boyle Heights

BH intro

 

From that most vertical of cities, NY, to one of the most horizontal, LA…

I know it conjures up images of celebrities and Hollywood to some, but to me LA is what the moon would look like if ever it were colonised. Something about the scrubby hills and the endless yet low-lying sprawl that’s sprouted despite the odds (desert, earthquakes, fires, etc), overlaid by a massive set of tentacles (freeways) that seem somehow wildly malevolent. A desolate place in other words, save for the thousands of impossibly tall palm trees (how do they not fall down?) that soften the landscape immeasurably and bring to mind Hawaii…

Anyway, LA.

To be honest, other US cities like Chicago, Memphis and Miami drew me far more. But I suspected they’d be easier pickings – oddly enough, considering my weariness at 10 months in, I was up for a challenge. LA was it.

Those other cities also didn’t have Fiona, a dear friend of mine as well as provider of accommodation, gratis – a not unimportant consideration given my rapidly shrinking budget (thanks Fi!).

Aside from that, I was interested in finding out a little more about Mexican culture before we hit the real thing; LA was once Mexican territory and still has an enormous Mexican population. Considering I know zilch about their world I thought by visiting LA I could avoid landing in Mexico City in a few months time completely clueless.

Hence my choice for week number one here – a very Mexican neighbourhood called Boyle Heights, just east of LA’s downtown.

Some facts: Like all of LA, the area was originally populated by Native American tribes before becoming part of the Spanish Empire in 1542, Mexico in 1821 and finally America in 1848. Named after an Irishman, Andrew Boyle, it’s had a number of different cultures pass through it since then (including Jewish and Japanese) but today the area is overwhelmingly working class Hispanic/Latino – Mexican Americans (Chicanos and Chicanas), Mexican immigrants, and Central American residents.

Seat belt on? Let’s cruise…

 

Part 1: Play it again Juan

While NY felt overwhelmingly black to me, LA’s population of almost four million (18 million in the Greater Los Angeles Area) is almost half Latino – and getting more so by the day.

A huge percentage of those live and work in Boyle Heights and East LA, including the musicians we met on the main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue.

They were the first thing that caught my eye on our first drive there last Monday – men in Stetsons sitting on a bench surrounded by accordions, guitars and woah, a double bass?

As soon as I could find a park we whipped back to see what the deal was. Tricky given that most of the guys didn’t speak much English (and I speak even less Spanish). But from what I could gather they were waiting for people to drive past and hire them for between $150-$200 an hour. Either that or they’d hit the local restaurants at lunch and dinner, playing for loose change from those enjoying their enchiladas.

They seemed like lovely guys (who doesn’t love a man who can play an instrument?) but I felt kind of sorry for them. When I asked them, do you like LA, they all said absolutely. But it can’t be easy; given the tough times, how many people are prepared to fork out for live music?

 

 

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1

 

 

 

 

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2

 

 

 

 

Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador

Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador

 

 

 

 

"I decorated it myself"

“I decorated it myself”

 

 

 

 

may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets

may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets

 

 

 

 

minimalist, not

minimalist, not

 

 

 

 

Mexican waves

Mexican waves

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Chicano power

It was a very different experience the next time we visited the neighbourhood, when we met a few American born and bred descendents of Mexican immigrants – called Chicano/Chicana. While they speak fluent English and sound like any other Angeleno, Chicanos are hugely proud of their Mexican heritage and aware of the struggles their families have been through and still face.

This was at Estrada Courts, a public housing estate in Boyle Heights that I’d heard had a handful of significant murals relating to the Chicano Movement in the 70s, when Mexican Americans united to end the discrimination against them and improve their political and economic rights.

Coco and I were checking out one of the murals when 18 months old Ashley tottered up to us. Her mum’s cousin, the delightful Omar, then took us and Ashley around the estate to look at his favourite murals.

 

 

yeah, what he said - Ashley and Omar in front of 'We are NOT a minority' Che Guevara mural

yeah, what he said – Ashley and Omar in front of ‘We are NOT a minority’ Che Guevara mural

 

 

 

 

up up and away?

a fantasy of flight?

 

 

 

 

the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos

the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos

 

 

 

 

Omar's other favourite mural

Omar’s other favourite mural

 

 

 

 

watching Coco do cartwheels

watching Coco do cartwheels

 

 

 

 

By the time we’d seen them all, the strong LA light was starting to fade and it was time to hit the road. I don’t know how the subject came up but Omar told me that there were gangs in the area and that, yes, some of the members probably lived in Estrada Courts, and that, yes, they would’ve been watching me – but that if they were going to do something, it would’ve already happened.

Gangs in LA, okay, sure (this is after all the ‘gang capital’ of America with 450 of them scattered around the place). But gangs in the neighbourhood we were standing in? Cripes.

 

Part 3: Weird and wonderful

“Well, I call her a witch.”

34 year old Mexican American, Yisel, was telling me about Hortencia, the woman inside Botanica Sagrado Corazon, one of a handful of ‘spiritual shops’ along Boyle Heights’ main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue, that I stuck my head into on our last visit to the neighbourhood.

She was there with her wife – “wife, partner, friend, you know, depends who I’m talking to” – for a “cleansing”. “Yesterday I came here to see Hortencia for a tarot reading ‘cos someone busted my car window and I wanted to know who it was. Then Hortencia told me I needed a cleansing for bad energy that’s blocking me in my life. I had to rub my body with lemon, egg, a white candle and flowers, then wash with this nice smelling oil. Then you write your name and birth date on the egg, lemon and candle. Now I’m back for more.”

Witch? Cleansings? White candles? I didn’t have a clue what it all meant but I loved how this tough born and bred East LA Angeleno, tattooed to the hilt and proudly gay and Chicana, was so into what I assumed was ancient Mexican spirituality. We talked outside the shop while she waited her turn to see Hortencia – there’s always a queue to see Hortencia – about LA and her life. “My dream? To leave my job as a food production assistant at a school and get a well paid job so I can support my wife and her four daughters. Maybe at the jail – the pay is good. But I keep getting turned down. That’s why I’m here, to clear the blockages.”

 

 

Yesil, here for a 'cleansing' from Hortencia

Yesil, waiting to see the “witch”, Hortencia

 

 

 

 

"It's pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle"

“It’s pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle”

 

 

 

 

inside Hortencia's healing room

inside Hortencia’s healing room

 

 

 

 

While Yesil was waiting, she explained what the various soaps in the shop were meant for. There were soaps to make people follow you or love you or whatever.

 

 

 

for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap

for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap

 

 

 

 

"I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed"

“I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed”

 

 

 

 

Speaking of blockages, I wondered if anyone ever came to Hortencia and asked to be saved from LA’s horrendous traffic. Probably not – I suspect the clogged freeways are above any sort of divine intervention.

 

 

 

not even she can save you from LA traffic

not even she can save you from LA traffic

 

 

 

 

Before I left Hortencia’s shop I asked Yesil for her phone number so I could check back and see how her cleansing went – I’ll update you next week with any news.

 

 

 

"to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty"

“to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty”

 

 

 

 

Part 4: Our Lady of Guadalupe and other passions

Our Lady of Guadalupe is Mexico’s ‘it’ girl – the Virgin Mary with streams of light radiating out behind her. She’s everywhere in Boyle Heights and East LA, from churches to shops and garage doors.

 

 

floral border

floral border

 

 

 

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe - she's everywhere, from churches to garage doors

Our Lady of Guadalupe – she’s everywhere, from churches to garage doors

 

 

 

 

potential life changers

potential life changers

 

 

 

 

Aside from Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are loads of other painted images in Boyle Heights, ranging from the utilitarian to the political.

 

 

doing the shopping - for the practical vs the spiritual

doing the shopping – for the practical vs the spiritual

 

 

 

 

that looks so good

that looks so good

 

 

 

 

bred from tough stuff - Eileen

bred from tough stuff – Eileen

 

 

 

 

And lastly, a  few more images from around the neighbourhood, because I like them…

 

 

after dancing they always went to George's

after dancing they always went to George’s

 

 

 

 

let's go drivin'

let’s go drivin’

 

 

 

 

Part 5: Random walls, fences and a freeway

 

 

fun and games

fun and games

 

 

 

 

6pm, somewhere in East LA

6pm, somewhere in East LA

 

 

 

 

lawn's overrated anyway

no lawn but lots of palm trees

 

 

 

 

little Latino League

little Latino League

 

 

 

 

the calm before the storm

the calm before the storm

 

 

 

 

The Wrap

If Boyle Heights is anything to go by, I think I’m going to love Mexico City. The musicians, the pride, the Hortencias (yes, I did get a tarot reading myself – all good but Hortencia told me to watch out for a “Negro woman” and a “short, wide man”.)

And my ‘introduction to Mexico’ worked a treat. Above all I learned that I need to brush up on my Spanish and that really, I should steer clear of beans.

 

 

 

a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco

a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco

 

 

 

On the ‘home front’

It was a wrench leaving NY I have to say (and while I’m at it, to our friends in NY who were incredibly generous with their hearts and homes – Chris, Mary K, Bill and their kids, as well as Craig, Anna and their small ones – many thanks!).

But LA is warm and spacious and Coco has kids to play with here too. We’re staying with my good friend Fiona and her family in Pasadena, right at the bottom of the San Gabriel Mountains. A lovely place to come back to after the hours we seem to spend on LA’s freeways, either getting lost or sitting in traffic.

We’ve both been sick with filthy head colds – first Coco, now me. But as soon as my head doesn’t feel like cotton wool we’ll be back on the roads, full of fight and ready to explore our second LA hood, wherever that may be. Until then, adiós!

This suburb has been brought to you by Eugene

See you next Monday-Tuesday.

 

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