A visit to a preschool leads to lessons in noh and nothingness in Higashi-Gotanda


A gentleman I met at an educational conference invites me to tour the backstreets of Higashi-Gotanda, where he has opened a brand new preschool. Exiting A7 of the JR Yamanote Line’s eponymous station in the early hours of a cool spring morning, I strike off northeast, along Sakurada-dori, more or less toward the address he provided.

Like much of Tokyo, Gotanda is barely stirring at 9 a.m. Retail shops are still shuttered, children are at school, and most company workers have clocked in. I leave Sakurada-dori, choosing a narrow backstreet that is empty but for swaths of sunlight and sparrows. I realize that something has subconsciously drawn me to this street.

The honeyed aroma of baking bread curls like a beckoning finger in the air, emanating from Bread & Coffee Ikedayama, where I grab a “hand-dripped” coffee and sample a mini cheesecake loaf baked in its own teeny pan.

Passing NTT Medical Center Tokyo, a hospital dating from 1952, I head uphill, intent on burning off that cheesecake. As I’m about to walk past an elegant stone gate, I spy two wooden buckets at an old water well, and ducking in to get a closer look, realize I’ve found the entrance to Ikedayama Park. The grounds date from the Edo Period (1603-1868), when they were part of a shimo-yashiki (suburban residence) owned by the Ikeda clan of daimyo hailing from Okayama. The garden is now approximately 7,000 square meters of multi-leveled paths through expertly sculpted greenery. Once again, I’m grateful to those daimyo who created legacy gardens too beautiful to bulldoze.

Ikedayama Park, I discover, is a kaiyushiki (promenade style) design, with a nozoki-ike (peek-a-boo pond). As I come up one steep bend flanked by bushes loaded with showy bouquets of blue hydrangeas, I pause to watch a gardener lop limbs off a tree. Two women join me, and from their name badges, I note that they are a nurse and patient from the nearby hospital. The gardener, descending from his ladder nimbly, darts behind the hydrangea bushes, reemerging with a bough of flowers, which he presents to the frail patient.

I continue exploring the garden paths, enjoying winds ruffling through mature summer leaves, the sound of a small waterfall splashing at the garden’s western edge, and the languid undulations of the pond’s fat carp. It’s tempting to take a bench and while away the morning, but my friend is waiting.

Inside a cathedral-like brick building designed by architect Masaharu Seno, I meet the director of the new preschool, Tokyo Children’s Garden, opened in April of 2017. Hisao Ihara, 46, hails from Hokkaido, where he was a preschool principal for three years, but he has also lived abroad for 23 years and is fluent in English and Japanese. Finding inspiration in the approaches of Montessori Education and Reggio Emilia, Ihara grew eager to make changes in how young children learn in Japan. “Japanese education tends to be heavily influenced by Confucianism,” Ihara says, “and that’s a top-down approach. But I believe in children’s ability to learn by themselves, with support, that helps them become good citizens, good thinkers, not just good factory workers.”

In the company of Tokyo Children’s Garden’s Principal Ann Nishigaya, Ihara shows me around the expansive facilities. The air is fragrant with ginger, fresh flowers adorn the entrance hall, and the main room of the school is enormous and bright, with various play centers, comfy furniture and a large terrace. “We do have a beautiful place,” Ihara says, “but a great school is not about the space, it’s about the teachers.” Nishigaya nods as several of her young charges flock under her wing. “Our school accepts a maximum of 18 students to our five teachers,” Ihara says. “But I want to stress that students are not a number, or a ratio — they are people. We strive for a family-like level of personal attention, with real communication.” Tokyo Children’s Garden is indeed an exclusive option. “We are at the moment the most expensive preschool in Tokyo,” Ihara admits. “But its worth it.”

He offers to show me around the preschool’s affluent neighborhood. On our quiet walk, we pass homes the size of apartment blocks. Stopping at a pretty plot of land protected by thick glass panels, Ihara explains that this is the Nemunoki-no-Niwa (Silk Tree Garden), on the grounds where Empress Michiko’s parents once had a home. In a place of honor, a silk tree (also known as a mimosa) is budding. Standing under it, it’s easy to see how the gentle susurrus of its leaves might have inspired Empress Michiko to write the lullaby poem Nemunoki-no-Komoriuta (Silk Tree Lullaby).

But the tour isn’t over — Ihara has something else to show me. He has called ahead to have a friend, Ruri Sakamoto, 61, show us what’s in her basement. I’m imagining a bespoke entertainment center, a home cinema or a gym. But no — Sakamoto has a full-size noh theater.

The blonde cypress stage was built to the specifications of the Kokuritsu Nohgakudo (National Noh Theater), and features a kagami ita (backdrop painting of a holy pine) copied from the one at the Hosho no Nohgakudo in Suidobashi. Sakamoto, whose voice is powerful and round for her tiny stature, tells me that she finds practicing and studying noh can quiet inner demons and cleanse the spirit.

Though she has been studying noh from her 20s, Sakamoto quickly asserts that she is “no pro.” However, when Ihara and I convince her to put on tabi split-toed socks and ascend the stage, an immediate transformation occurs. She explains that assuming a kamae (stance) requires finding a point of both psychological and physical stability, and then describes the basics of suri ashi (sliding footwork in which the feet do not leave the ground). It’s when Sakamoto chants, though, that the stage itself becomes more than just wood and paint, but an instrument vibrating with otherworldly energy.

After thanking Sakamoto, Ihara and I wander together to one last destination. It’s good that he is guiding me, because I would have mistaken the Yakushiji Tokyo Betsuin, a temple of the Hosso sect of Yogacara Buddhism, for a condominium. We walk right in, as we are not required to remove our shoes, and by great fortune, catch a few words with the abbot, Takuo Kobayashi, 50, who heads this Tokyo satellite of Yakushiji Temple in Nara.

“Our sect of Buddhism teaches humans how to hold their hearts,” Kobayashi says, “and we do that through meditation and writing out the Heart Sutra.” The sutra he is referring to was translated by Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuanzang (known in Japan as Genjo Sanzo, 602-664), whose research expedition to India became the basis for the Chinese classic “Journey to the West.” Kobayashi explains that his temple collects money not through funeral services, like many others, but by charging a ¥2,000 fee for shakyō,the meditative copying of sutras. “On average, it takes people about 1½ hours to complete the sutra, and then we will stamp it and send it to Nara, to be preserved there forever,” Kobayashi says.

I think ¥2,000 for eternal storage of anything is a deal, so bidding farewell to Ihara, I sign up to attempt shakyō.

First I’m served a set of green tea and a sweet, allowing me time to grow nervous. Will I be able to finish the Heart Sutra before the temple closes in two hours? Will my ink go Rorschach on me, bleeding into the paper? I gulp my tea.

Next, I’m offered a clove bud to purify my breath, and with a purple strip of brocade fabric draped around my neck I learn how to align my gossamer piece of washi paper over the Heart Sutra as a guide for my brush. I’m given a tiny square of washi to use “for judging the depth and quantity of ink on your brush, or to dispose of the clove,” and decide not to mention that I’ve mistakenly swallowed the clove.

In the shakyō room there is no talking. I sit down, grind out some ink, and write. The concentration required to comprehend the characters and the desire to write them legibly, along with the quiet flow of ink, effectively erases the rest of the world. I write “no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,” and when I trace out “no attainment,” I’m neither surprised nor disappointed.

It takes me a little over two hours to place my finished sutra in the tray bound for its quiet eternity in Nara. Exiting the shakyō room with an altered sense of time, I peer at the temple’s minimal garden as though for the first time. When I arrived, it seemed a strange waste of space, with its empty marble platform. Now, though, it beautifully reflects the garden’s Japanese Stewartia blossoms. The sutra’s words, “form as emptiness, emptiness as form,” perhaps stored in me forever, resonate.

Kit Nagamura’s Backstreet Stories appears on the first Saturday of the month.

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