© 2008 Brooke Allen
Originally published in International Family Magazine
For this month’s Father’s Stories column I wrote a brief item about an incident in a park in Tokyo. I had wanted just one photograph of Arisugawa Park to illustrate my story but I could not find any.
So, I thought I’d write for help to some of the most wonderful people I know: members of http://www.couchsurfing.com (1.) I will tell you more about them in a future article, but for now just know that this is a group of people around the world (about 400,000 strong) who build profiles describing themselves, as you might find on Facebook or Myspace. However, these people are exceptional; they are not into making “virtual friends” but real ones. They will meet you when you come to visit, show you around, perhaps take you for coffee, even put you up and more likely than not, stay up into the wee hours talking about the meaning of life.
I selected some members who live in Tokyo and who clearly enjoy photography. I wrote to them late the other day asking if they had photos of the park or if they lived near enough to go take some. By the next morning, a few had responded affirmatively and over the next few days the pictures started coming in; more than we could possibly publish here.
So now I have everything I need to tell you about and show you Arisugawa Park and what it means to me and to so many others.
Let’s begin with an excerpt from the Ministry of Education’s goals for the Moral Education of Children in Grade’s 1 and 2. (2.) Under “Things Primarily Related to Relationships with Nature and the Sublime” it itemizes:
(1) Feeling intimate with the nature that’s near oneself; being kind-hearted in treatment of plants and animals.
(2) Having a heart that values life.
(3) Having contact with beautiful things and feeling ennobled by them.
And under “Things Primarily Related to Oneself” is:
(4) Leading a life that is relaxed and ingenious, not dishonest or deceptive.
Arisugawa Park is clearly designed to help with all of these things.
The first time I entered the park was from the top of the hill. The children in front of me took off their shoes immediately; they knew this park is best experienced barefoot.
A bridge crossed a small stream that mysteriously flowed freely on the right but was not to be found on the left. (3.) In a few short steps you were no longer in one of the busiest and most modern cities in the world. You felt like you’d come home to a time long ago.
There were birds to hear, trees to climb and hide behind, and flat open spaces for playing ball.
Then there was a playground. At first it looked like the playgrounds back home. But there was a difference. At home, the equipment was designed to avoid lawsuits; slides you can’t possibly fall out of, platforms with rails and all built on a rubberize pad.
It appears from the photos my Couch Surfing friends have sent that Arisugawa Park now has one of these too. This was probably inevitable given the number of Gaijin living in the neighborhood.
But I’m also glad to see all the old equipment is still there.
In 1990 the first thing I saw was a huge climbing frame with a tangle of children inside and on top. It is about 10 feet tall, and while you’d probably sprain an ankle jumping from it, your child would not. Kids are built to last.
You can watch children being ingenious and eventually you will learn that you need to relax.
The best place for a parent to park themselves is right in the middle on top. You can watch your child but you can not catch them when they jump. You can yell at them if you want but it will be purely for your own neurotic reasons since the other children will drown out your screeches. Soon you will discover that children are not idiots and they know what they are doing.
Then there are the swings. They look like swings in any other park in the world.
The difference between the swings here and the ones back home is evident only in the behavior of the adults. While tiny children can be strapped in to avoid injury, the bigger ones get a flat plank suspended between two chains that allow for some real fun.
On either side of the swings are some sort of painted metal pipes that seem to serve no purpose except to provide a hurdle to be cleared when a child jumps. Children soon learn that you can fly farthest from an upright position.
A path takes you down to a pond at the bottom of the hill.
Just looking at it is good enough for an adult but if you are a child you might want to go fishing. This is OK as long as you throw them back.
I wouldn’t try wading in if I were you. Nor would our sons; well – not twice.
Writing this story has been bittersweet for me.
Arisugawa Park, I miss you and I want to visit again soon.
I want to thank all the people from Couch Surfing who helped with photographs and suggestions for this piece: Niki, Yuval, Sarah, Aya, Mari, Alex, Jim, Takumi, Srini, Misaki, and Sylvie.
1. There is another group, about the same size, at http://www.hospitalityclub.org that is tied for First Place as having the Most Wonderful People.
2. Source: Catherine C. Lewis, Educating Hearts and Minds, Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education, p. 46, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
3. Years later I decided to investigate and discovered that the water was re-circulated up to this point from pond at the bottom of the hill.