Tokyo Days

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu8/17/15
It has been said that Tokyo is simply a conglomeration of villages which grew together, helter-skelter, over the years. From my observations, I certainly believe this to be the case.

If any proof of this assertion were needed, one had only to look at a mass transit map of Tokyo. One would see that the various subway and train stops were not named after streets such as Park Ave or 15th Street. Rather they bore the names of what were once small villages and towns in and around Tokyo. Some of these were now bustling areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Shinagawa. Others, like my stop Ontakesan, were still old fashioned, quiet and maintained a sense of community. I found this to be very suitable as the name Ontakesan came from a sacred Japanese mountain.

In Tokyo terms, Ontakesan was an out of the way place. The Ikegami Line, on which it lay, was a small lesser used railway spur which connected two major railway lines. Unlike those used on the more popular lines, the Ikegami railway cars were not sleek modern things. Rather they were antique green carriages which looked like they were out of the 1930’s, at the latest.

Ontakesan was a quaint little place with the usual buildings one finds in such Japanese settlements. There was a Buddhist Temple, Shinto Shrine, Police Box, small shops and restaurants on narrow lanes. The scale was human. And although it was a part of Tokyo, it seemed to exist on its own, a somewhat self-contained enclave. As one might imagine, it was very tidy.

I lived in an apartment building named “Maison de Mine”, which was owned by the Noguchis. As I recall, Mr. Noguchi was retired from stock-brokering or something similar so the choice of house name had nothing to do with his past. This type of thing was not unusual in Japan. Very often Japanese would name a building after something which sounded nice to them in French or another language. It lent the place an “international air”. Regardless its origin, the name fit me down-to-the- ground as I was in the metals and mining business.

The Noguchi’s daughter married a Spaniard. The happy couple had lived a couple of years in one of the first floor apartments, but had recently moved to Spain. This was sad news for the Noguchis, but good for me as I rented the very same apartment. Unlike most Japanese abodes, this one had a special built-in basement, accessible through a trap-door, which was almost completely soundproof. I could blast away on my stereo any time of the day or night without disturbing a soul.

Mrs. Noguchi was a motherly woman. She would sometimes bring me food, showed me where everything in the village was and generally took care of me without being too intrusive.

There were a couple of small restaurants in Ontakesan which I would frequent. I was particularly fond of the Sushiya which was run by a man, his wife and young daughter. This was a very old fashioned place and I would not have known it was a restaurant had I not been told. The family lived upstairs and worked below. There they served sushi in a very small room with space for perhaps six people. The fish was always fresh and the family always friendly. It was a wonderful place.

After living there for some months, I was reasonably well recognized as I was the only Gaijin in the neighborhood. Gaijin means “foreigner”, but due to Japan’s history the word is generally used for Westerners who are, in the Japanese mind, all Americans.

One Saturday afternoon a Japanese friend dropped by to visit me. I do not recall why, but we were walking toward the train station when we ran into a boisterous group of Japanese men wearing happy coats and carrying an elaborate miniature Shinto Shrine, called an Omikoshi, in which the local Kami/deity resided. It rested upon two long thick horizontal poles. Naturally, I was curious and asked my friend what was happening. He explained what the Omikoshi was, and that today was a traditional festival celebrated by carrying the Shrine through all the streets of the neighborhood for good luck.

Some of the men in the group asked my friend if we would like to celebrate with them and help carry the Omikoshi through the village. Being honored by their request, we accepted alacrity. Bandannas were found for us, which we wrapped around our heads. I moved to the left front pole and with a one, two, three, off we went with a roar announcing to the approaching neighborhood our imminent arrival.

We marched down the street chanting, I know not what. And while it was a thrill to take part in such a traditional Japanese rite, it was not all peaches and cream. First of all, the Shrine was very heavy even with over a dozen men carrying it. Secondly, in my neighborhood they had the tradition of moving the Omikoshi violently up and down and side to side as if it were riding the surf. This was supposed to amuse the deity therein. But the biggest problem for me was that I was taller, by a few inches, than most of the other acolytes. Thus the pole rested on my shoulder more heavily than on shoulders several inches below mine. But as numerous coaches will attest to, there is no gain without pain so I soldiered on. I am glad to say I was rewarded for my perseverance.

Anyone familiar with Japanese history and mythology knows that the Japanese Kami were no strangers to strong drink. Thus the Japanese have a different attitude to drinking and drunkenness than we in the West. To paraphrase a famous American “Japan” expert’s opinion on the subject, “How do you think Americans would act if Jesus and the apostles had sat around all day getting glassy-eyed?”

So after a few hundred yards of jostling and yelling, when we arrived at a wide spot in the road where we could temporarily deposit our Shrine, it was not a complete surprise to find waiting for the Honorable Shrine Bearers, and anyone else who wished to partake, many bottles of Sake, Suntory Scotch and cans of beer. Need I say it? Everyone had a fierce thirst.

After a reasonable period, we finished our refreshment and positioned ourselves under the poles of the Omikoshi and again with a one, two, three we lifted it into the sky. The Shrine did not feel quite so heavy as before.

On we went, walking a few hundred yards, while bouncing the Shrine up and down. We would arrive at another wide point in the road or a parking lot, rest the Shrine on stands and proceed to imbibe significant quantities of alcoholic refreshment. As the afternoon rolled on we sometimes had one or two guys hanging on the carrying poles like monkeys. My shoulder suffered in silence.

After several hours of this, both darkness and rain began to fall. By this time, nobody around that Shrine was sober. My bandanna had been unrolled and re-placed on my head spread out like a handkerchief with two ends tied together under my nose. I was told this made me look like some famous Japanese bandit or highwayman. I was quite happy to be his modern-day stand-in.

While we stood in the rain getting soaked, Mrs. Noguchi appeared. My friend greeted her and she greeted him back. She then noticed me and did a double take. I bowed and said “kon ba wa” (good evening) and stood there with, no doubt, a silly smile on my face. She looked at me and the crack of a smile broke on her lips before she said, “Baka”, which for the uninitiated means “fool”. She then took a motherly swat at me and made me zip up my windbreaker. Grabbing my arm she started to guide me and my friend home. Ceding defeat, I saluted my comrades and fellow Honorable Shrine-Bearers. I left with as much dignity as a tipsy Gaijin can have while being led off by his much smaller Japanese landlady.

We arrived home safely, and I was instructed to get out of my wet clothes and not to cause any more trouble. With that, my friend and Mrs. Noguchi departed and I followed orders, later taking a hot bath just to be sure. I didn’t stay up long, and went to sleep shortly after having a cup or two of tea.

The next morning I had a slight headache, but I considered this was a pittance to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime escapade I had experienced the day before.


Ontakesan railway station today


Omikoshi being transported by adherents


This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Tokyo Days

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    An interesting story. I’d like to get Elizabeth to read it and see what she thinks.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      My main time in Tokyo was during the middle 1980’s. If I recall correctly, Elizabeth was there during the 1950’s or 1960’s. I would be interested to hear of her experiences.

      At the time I lived there, there were something like 40,000 Westerners living in all of Japan. (excluding American military personnel)

      This number included not only the usual businessmen and embassy personnel. There were also a number of White Russians who had settled in Manchuria and later in Japan. There were also a number of Jews who had fled Germany and made their way East.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Elizabeth lived in Japan in the early 1940s (too early for her to remember) and late 1940s/early 1950s, and later in the 1970s. I think she always lived in the Kokura area, but they still visited Tokyo at least occasionally, and of course encountered Japanese culture extensively. One of her brothers is a missionary there now.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I don’t recall if I ever visited Kokura, but I did visit some areas of Kita Kyushu and it was really horrible. Like Pittsburgh before it was cleaned up. I believe I did fly into Fukuoka for that business trip.

          Elizabeth’s brother must have the patience of Job. The Japanese are some of the least receptive people to conversion to Christianity. This is interesting as when first introduced to Japan in the late 16th century, many Japanese became Christians. And Christianity had its stronghold in Kyushu and southern Honshu. Now, not so much.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, they never seem to have found a lack of converts. There’s even an organization of Southern Baptist missionaries and missionariy kids that meets once a year in Mississippi. We’re no longer up to going.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Did you see the article below about Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on Japanese architecture?

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:


    I thought this might interest Elizabeth.

    My office, in Tokyo, was a couple of blocks from the Imperial Hotel. It was well known that the old Imperial Hotel was one of the few structures in Tokyo still standing after the great Kanto earthquake. It was one of the first buildings in Japan to be made of reinforced concrete, i.e. concrete poured around a frame of steel rebars. Of course, this is common today.

    The Imperial Gardens and Palace were across the street from my office.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      An interesting location, though of course the Imperial residence takes up a large space so it’s across the streets from a lot of offices. I believe that earthquake also took out a Japanese battleship under construction.

      As I recall, there were a few buildings in Hiroshima made of reinforced concrete which survived the Enola Gay.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        At one time back in the 1980’s, it was calculated that the grounds of the Imperial Palace were more valuable than all of California.

        My office was across from Hibiya Park which is only part of the old palace grounds, but there certainly are a good number of buildings facing it.

        The location of MacArthur’s old headquarters was a little further from my office than the Imperial Hotel, just in the opposite direction. The old Dai-ichi Life Insurance Building is still there. A new tower was built after I moved from Tokyo.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Endo’s Baptist Church is interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *