At the start of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a man goes in search of his cat. He walks through a patch of Tokyo wasteland, cut off between two rows of back yards, until he reaches an empty house. Shadows from branches overhead dapple the surface of the alley. He is in a silent, secret world, just inches from drying clothes and dog kennels and the smell of curry cooking.
I first read the book around 2000, shortly after it came out in English translation, and it was one of the reasons I came to Japan as a student. There, I was delighted to find that these strange, in-between places were not born solely in Mr Murakami’s imagination. Even in central Tokyo they exist — cut off by a road or a landowner — and one of the pleasures of walking the city is to find them.
This walk takes you from Shirokanedai, in the south of Tokyo’s Minato ward, to Takanawa Park, near the high-speed rail station at Shinagawa. A little less than two kilometres, it will take a leisurely 30 minutes in one direction or an hour there and back, but it’s more pleasant to linger along the way.
With a seven-year-old in the family, our weekend walks usually aim for one park or another, and we often start off by wandering through the nearby campus of the Institute of Medical Science. There is a small, free museum and a little café with a man who makes organic lunches. Sadly, though, all the side gates have been closed due to the pandemic, so we set off down Platinum Street instead.
Platinum Street is definitely not an in-between place. The main function of the Shirokanedai district is weddings and this particular street is lined with florists, photo studios, hair salons, chocolatiers and party venues. Some run a restaurant to serve the public from the same kitchen: the Tender House or Café La Bohème are good spots to sit outside and eat western food. Better, though, is to duck into one of the side streets for grilled fish at tiny Chiso Kojiya.
A left turn out of Platinum Street and a short walk down the main road brings us to the Happo-en Garden, the heart of Shirokanedai’s wedding-industrial complex. The name of this former aristocratic estate means “eight directions”, because the garden is stunning whichever way you look. Despite the imposing entrance gate, the staff are almost unnaturally welcoming; for the price of a coffee in the Thrush Café, you can wander the garden between wedding parties, while dragonflies flit and the fat carp laze in the pool.
Pushing on, we pass the Meiji Gakuen University on our left, cross another main road — where buildings briefly scale up to 40-storey skyscrapers — and arrive at the Takanawa Nihon-enoki fire station. A rare survival from 1933, it was built with a tower for firewatchers, and if the firefighters are not out on a call they will show visitors around. My children love it.
A little further down the road, an unprepossessing flight of steps disappears down to the right. Google Maps sent me down it one day on the way to a business meeting, and this is where the magic begins. Descending, you find yourself in a neighbourhood (Takanawa 3-16) that was somehow cut off from road access. There are rows of cramped houses with dark alleys running between, although the central Tokyo land beneath them must be worth millions of dollars. I always want to knock on a door and ask how they manage. Politeness prevails.
After a while, the path widens enough for a micro car. Many houses have flower pots on their doorstep. Some are bright and welcoming; others are run down. One wooden house looks like it is collapsing, but there is a BMW on the drive. Behind it is a modern house that seems to hang in space. A cheery light comes from large windows on the second floor, but it is cleverly designed so passers-by cannot see inside.
Large trees now shade the little road on both sides. Crickets chirp fiercely. Tokyo seems to have vanished: we could be in the countryside or in one of Murakami’s books. On the left is Tozenji temple, and jumping up, you can glimpse water over the wall. The temple — which hosted the first British legation to Japan in the 1850s, and was stormed by masterless samurai the following decade — never lets the public enter its garden without applied-for permission. A widely used photo dates from the 1860s.
Few others seem to walk this way. A car rests on a ramshackle wooden structure built out of the side of the hill. Reversing in must take some nerve. Then suddenly, we are back in Tokyo, with the skyscrapers of Shinagawa looming a short way off. We turn into Takanawa Park, which has a pond full of tadpoles at the right time of year, and the walk is done.
I love this path but you can find others. Only remember the golden rule of walking in Tokyo: do not follow the main road from A to B. Walk into those narrow side streets and get a little lost. It is perfectly safe, and there is a surprise — and just maybe a little magic — waiting around every corner.
Map by Liz Faunce
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