By Katsuo Kokaji / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKASHIWA, Chiba — Weary of traveling, the protagonist of a novel gets lost on a walking path near their home. “Villages and towns are almost the same across Japan,” the person says.
This character — identified only as “I” — walks the route in the opposite direction, thus gaining a new perspective on everything. As a result, the protagonist rediscovers the attraction and romance of travel.
This takes place in the first half of the Sakutaro Hagiwara mystery novel “Nekomachi.” Having read the novel many times, I found myself craving a similar type of travel.
A quarter-century has passed since I moved to Abiko, next to Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture. I often go to Kashiwa to hang out on the weekends, but I had never strolled around the city on a weekday. I had a feeling that Kashiwa on a weekday, which was different for me, might have “interest and romance.”
Recently, I was heading to my office and got off at JR Minamikashiwa Station. I took a bus toward a place where I’ve heard there is a forest. Turning onto a side road in a residential area, I found a sign depicting an owl. The forest was behind it. When I passed through the forest, a field came into view. There was also a cultivated field and a pond. As I walked, countless numbers of grasshoppers jumped and butterflies flew about, and there was more greenery than I had expected.
The roughly 5.4-hectare area is called Shitada no Mori (Shitada forest), of which a 2-hectare area called Sakaine Shitada no Mori Ryokuchi (Sakaine greenery area of Shitada forest) is open to the public.
The whole forest area was originally owned by Yoshihiro Saito, 72. As the area was being developed, Saito had discussions with city officials to preserve it. As a result, part of the land was designated an “urban greenery area” to be open to the public.
A council to manage the area was established, and it is occasionally used as a place for children to learn through events such as rice planting and natural observation, according to the council.
The atmosphere was totally different from that of the neighboring residential area. “As the field used to be covered by blooming flowers when I was little, I thought it was heaven,” said Utako Shimizu, 43, who handles public relations for the council.
“The initiative is to preserve the area as it was. We never install street lights or other similar things, so it’s different from a playground,” Saito said. I seldom saw pedestrians as it was a hot summer weekday. It was like another world — I hadn’t known such a place existed so close to me.
I returned to Kashiwa Station to head for Rojiura Marche (Back alley market), which opens at 2:30 p.m. every Wednesday. After an about seven-minute walk, I saw a crowd of people at the end of a street that almost seemed too small to lead to a market. Farmers were selling a surprisingly rich variety of vegetables, such as eggplants in different shapes and colors. I even saw something called a grapara leaf for the first time. Being surrounded by colorful vegetables made me feel like I was at a foreign market.
“The characteristic of the agriculture in Kashiwa is that you can find everything, and there are many young producers,” said Natsumi Moriwaki, 42. She said she visited Kashiwa from Tokyo and eventually moved to the city after being attracted by the landscape of cultivated fields. Meeting local farmers, she came to hope that many people would learn about agriculture in Kashiwa. Moriwaki then began organizing a weekly market that opened for an hour.
Producers set their own prices and sell whatever they want. The majority of the customers are chefs from nearby restaurants. Moriwaki said the market relocates to near the station’s exit for the public in the evening.
Moriwaki noticed the attraction of farming in Kashiwa, probably because she was a tourist. On a weekday, Kashiwa gave me a different perspective from the one that I knew as a local. As I strolled around the city, I also felt as if I were a tourist.
An extraordinary day
When I walked around my neighborhood on a weekday, I had a strange feeling of excitement. Even though I was doing this for work, I felt guilty, as if I were playing hooky, thinking, “Is it OK to be here, even though I’m working?” That feeling turned to a sense of freedom and transformed an ordinary day into extraordinary one.
It takes about 35 minutes from Tokyo Station to Kashiwa Station on the JR Joban Line’s rapid train. Transfer to a local Joban train and go back one station to Minamikashiwa Station, about two minutes. Take a bus for about 10 minutes and get off at Ryukojimae, the stop nearest Shitada no Mori. Contact the Kashiwa city tourist promotion association at (04) 7162-3315 (in Japanese) for more information.Speech