Words: Spike Japan
Photos: Juergen Specht
In the metaphysical streets, the profoundest forms
Go with the walker subtly walking there.
These he destroys with wafts of wakening
An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, Wallace Stevens
Step off the expressway a couple of hours north-northwest of Tokyo, just as the blue haze parts across the mountains, their cragged contours taking on more certain shape, and the tempo of time the traveler is duty-bound to carry from the city in the barrage of traffic slows to a somber adagio on the half-deserted streets of Shimo Nita, streets where time slinks down the dooryard gardens between houses and curls up to catnap in some sunny spot.
Save for one brief moment, Shimo Nita (“Lower Goodfield”, perhaps) has always been on the margins of history: it grew up as the last post town before the mountains on a path for princesses in eras when the only way around the country for most was to walk, an alternative to the main inland route west to Kyoto. These paths for princesses were quieter, less frequented by bandits, had gentler inclines than the major thoroughfares and were hence, it was thought, more suited to the fairer sex. Along this princess path goods were trafficked, too: rice, silk and hemp, mulberry for paper and silkworms, tobacco and lacquer, even whetstones for the Imperial family.
In 1864, Shimo Nita was thrust into the spotlight, giving its name to a war—more of a skirmish, truth be told, one that lasted just a day and left just forty dead—between the pro-emperor, anti-foreigner Goblin Party, who won the battle but lost the war, and the forces of the shogunate, but it soon returned to somnolent obscurity. While not left unsmirched by the modern world—the railway arrived in 1897, to be electrified as early as 1924—the town’s subdued heyday came in the middle of the last century, when the encircling mountains yielded lumber and, still, silk and whetstones, but mountain living was tough and as the mountains emptied, so the town lost its role as an entrepôt. Artisanal sericulture died a long, slow death as woolen suits and cotton skirts saw off kimono for everyday attire; forestry a short, sharp death as the exigencies of post-war reconstruction dictated the use of cheaper timber than could be felled in homegrown forests.
In 1960, Shimo Nita was home to nearly 21,000 folk, today fewer than 9,000, in another quarter century maybe only 5,000. It’s a town now of no consequence, one that will never feature on the breathless pages of the fashionable travel guides, never be nominated for World Heritage Site status, never be the source of gossip in the salons of worldly-wise cities, but I love it just the same: I love its ducks that dabble neath the dappling boughs on a vacillating river caught between the furies of its youth and silty torpidity, I love its clouds of tiny daylight moths that drifted down one autumn afternoon to alight on bench and car and tile, I love its stone pathways, crudely hewn from mossy riverbank boulders, but which remain so much a part of them, too.
Shimo Nita’s a venerable town now, with two in five of its residents pensioners—the same ratio that’s projected for the nation as a whole these forty years’ hence—and if it has one thing left to teach the world, it’s how to embrace the indignities and infirmities of old age, the aching joints and the shuffling gait, the slapstick and the pratfalls, the jammed jar-lid that refuses to open and the loft-door to the attic of memory that refuses to budge.
Like many a railhead, Shimo Nita feels like a waystation en route to somewhere else, and so it has been for me in my visits over the last couple of years, as it’s served as a gateway to a magical place in the mountains that will star in a later post. Nevertheless, I’ve never failed to tarry too long in its zelkova-shaded temples, never failed to malinger in its drowsy afternoons grown bluebottle fat and sated by the sun. What follows, then, is an encomium to its genus loci, the tale of a random tour taken around a town that dares to wear its trousers rolled one noon hour late in the tenth month by me and my shutterbug friend Juergen, who has sadly vanished from these shores in a puff of strontium-laced smoke and whose photo surtitle ellipses are all preceded by the unspoken “When you’re old…”
…you no longer have time for the games of youth
Arcade machines under a Buzz Lightyear flag left behind in a not-long abandoned game center on the fringes of town. While most high schools have a few hundred students in each academic year, Shimo Nita High, whose wards are reputed to have brought down the convenience store nearest the school gates with the ferocity of their pick–pocketing, struggles to fill two classes of forty most years, and will struggle still harder in the coming decades, for while the town witnessed nearly 150 births in 1989, it could only muster 55 in 1999 and 33 in 2004.
…you forget from time to time if you’re coming or going
The severely skeletal rectilinearity of this house, its Mondrian geometries muted into burnt umbers, whisky browns, and sour creams, has made it a favorite port of whistle-stop tours, and I had paid no heed to whether it was coming or going. Juergen pointed to the newness of the windows and the sacks of cement on the floor; it had been coming and now was going, and will henceforth only be the home of golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila clavata, ジョロウグモ[Jorō Spider] 女郎蜘蛛 [“harlot spider”], 上臈蜘蛛 [“duchess spider”]), whose females—far more deadly than the males—with their bumblebee black-and-yellow legs and distended, egg-filled, striped candy lime and dirty cyan abdomens, made circumnavigation a challenge. No drab and puny males were to be found; they had all been devoured by the females, quite likely within moments of mating.
…sometimes good luck doesn’t come your way, however hard you pray
This brace of mournsome maneki neko beckoning-cat good luck charms hadn’t been enough to save their riverside restaurant and karaoke bar, which might have been too adventurously French in inspiration, if the battered multivolume Larousse Gastronomique left on a shelf by the door was any clue. The last utility bill in the letterbox was five years old.
A pair of oily, owly Daruma dolls—with both eyes painted in, so someone’s wishes must have come true—on the greasy shelves of the decrepit warehouse of a long defunct trucking outfit, now keeping oily, owly watch on the bats and swifts that make these rafters home.
…you live more in hope than expectation
“Looking for a tenant” wails a forlorn signboard outside the French restaurant. “Property for lease” plead notices in the windows of a lorry-dented Fujimart supermarket, which shut down back in spring 2004. It would be a brave restaurateur or fruit and veg entrepreneur that took the signs up on their solicitations.
…you have to put up with the indignities of the modern age
A kura storehouse sheathed long after its erection in now peeling and rusting steel sheets, the last vestige of the estate of which it once formed a part, looks down with rheumy condescension on the Tonka excavator as it awaits its fate.
…you can get wrapped up in memories of the past
“Stylish necessities” promises the sign on the front of this dry-goods retailer, Juichiya (“number eleven shop”), in the center of Shimo Nita, whose interior has been left undisturbed since, well, since when? One clue was furnished by the ad on the back wall for Pomgee Cosmetics (ポンジー化粧品), which later research revealed had gone bankrupt—in 1967. The doors to the store had never been ajar on my previous visits, and I pressed Juergen forward to document the dusty time-capsule, with its Bakelite telephones and ancient choba dansu merchant’s chest, but a rustling emanated from within and we fled cackling like a couple of scrumper kids caught in the act of pilfering apples, for as the satellite dish on its ramshackle flanks attests, Juichiya is still possessed of a human pulse.
“Ach, wonderful, this is a wonderful town,” Juergen exclaimed to a woman minding her hardware store opposite, who reacted with naked bemusement. Sparked by a poster for her daughter’s school festival, we fell to chatting for a moment before she fluttered, “But look at me, I’m talking in Japanese!” for all the world as if she had gone to bed the night before a monoglot native speaker of Inuktitut, and we wandered on.
…you can close your eyes to newfangled things
The provenance and purpose of the stone warehouse above has eluded my grasp, much to my chagrin, but the warehouse below, the Number Two Warehouse, dates from 1926, three years’ after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and is one of the very last brick structures ever put up in this earthquake nation. Built to store silkworm cocoons and raw silk, it served after the demise of silk for a couple of postwar decades as a transit house for the flour of konnyaku—konjac or devil’s tongue—a local specialty, before lapsing into quiescent desuetude.
Now you might ask—and I’d ask with you—why these magnificent edifices—and there’s no dearth of them in Shimo Nita—are not being hawked off to Tokyoite moneybags as besso holiday homes and restored to within an inch of their precious lives, to which the only—elliptical and anecdotal—answer I can offer is to recount a recent tale, when I doughtily sallied forth with the other half to lose my flat-pack virginity at Ikea—possibly the last adult in the developed world to do so—in the grittily edgeville Tokyo exurb of Misato, all thudding elevated superhighways, cacophony of sodium and neon, and gargantuan retail parks. We took a wrong turn on the road to flat-pack paradise and I executed a crunchy youey down an admittedly lumpy and gravelly industrial estate driveway, at which my partner in time shuddered, “God, this really is the countryside, isn’t it? Why does anyone live here?”
(Concerned readers might care to learn that we eventually penetrated the cavernous orifices of Ikea, although we were so browbeaten and bludgeoned by its catastrophic blandness and smug Swedishness that we rebelled and walked out without releasing a yen of the jism in our wallets to the blue-and-yellow spider, without adding an öre to Ingvar Kamprad’s fortune, and without surrendering so much as a nibble of our körsbär, resolving in future to allot furniture funds only to totems of good taste—zebra-skin rugs, stuffed moose-heads, and rouge-lipped sofas—although I concede that in immediate evolutionary terms, our stratagem was a failure, our fungible money-sperm anyway only as good—or bad—as anyone else’s. But as so often I digress.)
…your skills can get a little rusty
A no-entry sign by the station; rust grows like lichen on this rusty orb, an image of a rusted Earth from a latter-day Apollo 11. Is that Japan, streaked with blue, off to the east?
One for the rail buffs: the slab side of an all-steel covered goods wagon (鉄製有蓋車), one of six left in the nation, all of which are to be found on the Joshin line to Shimo Nita, and which once upon a time transported quicklime, indispensible in the preparation of devil’s tongue. These watertight boxcars had to be made wholly of steel as quicklime reacts with water vigorously enough to ignite combustible material.
The sign of a Tokio Marine insurance agent (no, I don’t know why they spell it with an “i”, either), in the warehouse district by the station.
A wryly smiling padlock in the warehouse district.
The Number One Warehouse (1921).
An ad for the Pelican-bin delivery services of Nippon Express, the nation’s largest cargo hauler, in the warehouse district, whose emptinesses carry with them all the mystery and melancholy of Giorgio de Chirico’s streets.
Initially I thought this prayer, which is generally rendered as “May peace prevail on earth” but which in Japanese says something slightly different—“May the people of the earth be at peace” (世界人類が平和でありますように) was an offering from Nichiren Buddhism, but it turns out to be the call to arms of one of Japan’s myriad new religions, Byakko Shinkokai (白光真宏会, “White Light Association”), generally known in English simply as Byakko, which its website misleadingly claims is a Japanese word meaning “white light”—while there is a Japanese word for “white light” written in the same way (白光), it is pronounced “hakkō” (the macron over the “o” lengthens the vowel sound) and not “byakko” or “byakkō”, so it would seem that this religion’s dissimulations start with its very name, inspired, the website informs us, by “the clear and free-flowing light emitted from the deepest and highest state of a human being”.
Byakko was founded in 1955—coincidentally the year of the birth of Shoko Asahara, the fanatical leader of the murderous Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible for the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system—by one Masahisa Goi (1916-1980), who, we are told, “at the age of thirty three … attained oneness with his divine self”. There are other uncanny parallels with Asahara and Aum: like Asahara, Goi was one of nine children, like Asahara, Goi was born into poverty, and as Aum once did, Byakko maintains a complex in the foothills of Mount Fuji, about which the website wants us to know that “the highly evolved Fuji Sanctuary is overflowing with a spiritual energy”. I suspect, too, that when the Byakko website alludes to Goi’s “fragile physical condition” and “health problems” that “led him to various esoteric studies in spiritual healing”, Goi is guilty of passing off mental illness as divine inspiration—a psychopathological foible common enough, to be sure, in the early days of the three great and atrocious monotheisms.
As far as I am prepared to investigate, the belief system of Byakko is deafeningly simple: that the recitation of the prayer “May peace prevail on earth”, with sufficient ardor, will cause it to come true, and that this pacific state will have to substitute for the afterlife, on which Byakko seems to be silent. Again the website: “Masahisa Goi believed that if we put all our efforts in this prayer for peace, it would have a uniting and positive effect on all humanity, as the words themselves carry a high positive vibration.”
The English-language prayer in full reads thus:
May peace prevail on Earth
May peace be in our homes and countries
May our missions be accomplished
We thank thee, guardian deities and spirits
The Japanese-language prayer in full reads thus:
Which more faithfully translated reads thus:
May the people of the earth be at peace
May Japan be at peace
May we fulfill our divine mission
Thank you, guardian spirits
Thank you, guardian deities
In its pared-down focus on a single incantation, Byakko resembles Nichiren Buddhism (and its sinister offshoot sect, Soka Gakkai), which accords the chanters of namu myōhō renge kyō (南無妙法蓮華經, “I devote myself to the wonderful law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”) a passport to enlightenment.
As a religion, Byakko doesn’t appear to have been a rousing success; it greatest accomplishment, perhaps, has been the “peace pole”, on which the first line of the prayer, “May peace prevail on earth”, is inscribed. The World Peace Prayer Society claims that more than 100,000 of these peace poles have been planted worldwide—perhaps there’s one in your neighborhood.
Whoever dreamt up that five-word rendition, “May peace prevail on earth”, of the original Japanese was a genius of interpretation, of that there can be no doubt, for who could possibly be opposed to peace—it would be like taking arms against applehood and mother pie, would it not? Except this utopian peace, unencumbered as it is by any philosophical underpinnings, untrammeled as it is even by any qualifying adjective, would leave no room for Dante, or Shakespeare, or Goethe; noh, or kabuki, or bunraku; jazz, or blues, or hip-hop; and in a world of finite resources and infinite desires, no room for competition, aspiration, or possessions of any kind, for this is not a peace which homo sapiens, after just ten millennia of domestication, can reasonably attain, but the peace of the grave.
It’s easy enough, of course, to mock the charlatanry of new religions (although just because something is easy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done), especially one as flimsy and flaky as Byakko, but the only properties established religions have that the new ones lack are the encrustations of complexity that give the scribes and the exegetes and the chiliasts something to argue over, and the polish on the veneer of their age that buffs up their chatoyancy.
But again I digress.
Talking of quackery, here’s an ad, whose graphic design dates it to no later than the mid-1970s, for the Nishida slimming method (lose five kilos in ten days), as promoted by the Japan Corpulence Consultants Society. Searches uncover no trace of either, although the pharmacy at which it was available, Amiya Yakkokyu, still exists.
Dashing out into the road
Cars can’t stop quickly
I was drawn to the taxi’s amateurish lack of perspective and the cap popping off the boy’s straw-yellow hair. Signwriters are so much more dutifully and dully professional these days. The sign speaks of the coming of the car—road traffic accident deaths peaked in 1970 at nearly 17,000, with many of the victims child pedestrians, and fell below 5,000 in 2009, with many of the victims elderly drivers, but the signage hasn’t quite kept pace, and these tobidashi signs are still everywhere.
An anzen daiichi safety first sign featuring the archaic “dai” as the third character from the left, rather than the current one (第); the “safety first” slogan was seemingly coined around 1900 by US jurist, steel magnate, and industrial safety pioneer Elbert Henry Gary (who gave his name to the steeltown of Gary, Indiana, whence Michael and Janet and all the other Jacksons hailed) and soon after imported into Japan, where the green cross was added by another industrial safety pioneer, Toshibumi Gamo, in 1919, and where it is now utterly ubiquitous, if the custom that it preaches is sometimes, as at Fukushima Daiichi, more honored in the breach than the observance. It is also the slogan under which the Tories of Stanley Baldwin campaigned in the UK general election of May 1929 (they lost) and the slogan parodied in the “safety fast” 1930s ads for the MG sports cars of Morris Garages—but again, reprehensibly, I digress.
…you may still feel like throwing open your shutters every once in a while
Kura storehouses are the unheralded glories of demotic architecture, and Shimo Nita has no shortage of fine examples, although this one may have had its thick white shikui slaked-lime fireproof windows replaced with metal ones at some point down the years.
…you don’t always use the politically correct expression
A pendant delivery box for “homo” milk from Morinaga Milk, made by the “ultra process”, presided over by the Morinaga angel. Milk delivery, once the province of the hordes of samurai left destitute by the Meiji Restoration, has for most gone the way of the milk bottle.
…it’s often more comfortable in the shade
Only one character, the almost obsolete one for iron and steel (鐵 has been forced out by the easier 鉄), remains legible above this disused foundry.
…you may have to rely on other people’s cast-offs
One more for the rail buffs: the two-carriage EMU on the left, with its pasty white-bread face, rolled out of Seibu Railway’s Tokorozawa Works on the outskirts of Tokyo in December 1964, was retrofitted with air-conditioning in August 1978, and was flogged off to the perennially cash-strapped operator of the Joshin line in May 1992, where it remains, now just a few years shy of its fiftieth birthday, to this day.
…some days you forget what year it is
A calendar from 1981, which began with the entry of Greece into the European Union on January 1 and ended with Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings’ coup d’état in Ghana on December 31, in the living-room of a deserted house in the center of town.
(to be continued)