Welcome to the new subscribers joining us, and for everyone else, welcome back to the second dive into some hand-drawn maps of urban landscapes, and personal stories of the people who live there.
Last time we looked at Kawaguchi, and his old, compact, transit-oriented neighborhood [you can read it here if you haven’t yet]. This time, we move across the very same city, to what we’ll call “Murakami’s neighborhood.” As you can see from the map — drawn to the same scale as in the previous story — this is a radically different take on the idea of a neighborhood.
Murakami’s neighborhood is spaced out much more widely than Kawaguchi’s, there is more room alotted for transportation-related activity, and the buildings are both larger and fewer. You’ll again notice the two red dotted lines, showing that Murakami has two reasonable paths from his home to his car, as compared to Kawaguchi’s fifteen options from his home to train platform. The distance they walk in these stories, is the same.
There is an old apartment building in the suburbs, where the elevator is regularly out of service, and the landlord seems like he always has other relativley useless things to do, rather than fix it. Murakami lives on the seventh floor of this apartment. Over the years he thought about moving out a few times, and this turned into a running joke with his boss, who says Murakami would miss being forced to run up and down the stairs if he ever moved. There is probably some truth to this. But there is something else too. Whenever he visits a new apartment, Murakami comments on how it just does not feel right to him, although, he can not say exactly why.
On most mornings the birds in the tree next to Murakami’s apartment chatter on for about an hour before they depart in a flock like a big grey cloud, leaving the hum of morning traffic to take over the soundscape. The birds are Murakami’s soft alarm clock, when they stop chattering, he knows he is running late.
As it was, Murakami was up just before the birds flocked off this morning. He put on his black pants and white t-shirt, had a coffee, an orange, and a bowl of leftover rice, and checked the weather app. Breezy. “Great. The wind tunnel.” Murakami spoke to himself while he layered on a thin wool sweater and jacket. Outside of his door, he pressed the elevator button. This was not to call the elevator — it hasn’t come once this month — but only out of habit. Without waiting for a response from the elevator, he jogged down the seven stories of dimly-lit stairs slightly quicker than his normal pace.
At the bottom of the stairs as usual, was Dandan, having just wheeled out of their front door. “Wind tunnel’s gonna be at it today.” Murakami said to Dandan, while opening the front door of the building.
Dandan pointed at their jacket. “This wind breaker’s gonna be breaking wind today.” Dandan and Murakami had been telling this joke to eachother since elementary school. Twenty years later, they still spat out laughter more than any grown adult probably should. Heading out into the wind tunnel, they parted ways, still laughing. Dandan wheeled right, along with the flow of the wind and toward the subway line. Murakami went left, into the wind. His car was parked at the far end of the lot today.
Wind tunnel is of course, a colloquial name. That is what the residents of the Hanamizuki Apartments call their parking lot. It is a relatively wide void between the buildings where, even on a calm day the wind condenses, quickens, ready to blow your hat off. The landlord once decided to plant evergreen trees at the end of the parking lot in an effort to make a wind break, but three of them blew down in a storm the following week. Murakami had a feeling it was not a great home for those trees and told the landlord as much, but as was usual, he never seemed to listen.
After a few steps through the wind tunnel, Murakami abruptly stopped and held onto his hat. There is a narrow opening here, where wind comes in from the front and the left both, meeting in conflict, creating a sort of mini vortex.
Taking a deep breath, Murakami turned to his left, still holding his hat, and nodded at the gigantic Ginkgo tree where his alarm clock birds lived. “Can’t blow you down, eh?” As he spoke the words, a particularly strong gust of wind hit him in the chest, pushing him off his footing slightly.
“Can’t blow you down, either.” It was Sakamoto the building landlord, who had snuck up behind him with the wind. “Gonna have to trim this one.” Sakamoto pointed up at the Ginkgo.
“It’s sacred.” Murakami responded.
The landlord knew his meaning. No one touches sacred trees in this country, lest they want the wrath of the tree spirit to descend upon them. “Not me.” Sakamoto laughed. “I’ll pay some other fool.”
They say this particular Ginkgo tree is around 250 years old, which makes the tree and the small shrine in front of it far older than the apartments. They might not have thought about the wind when constructing these long, tall blocks, but there was little question about what to do with the tree. She was living here before any of the developers were born. A gap was kept between the apartments, so the tree could continue to live.
Murakami thought to mention the elevator again, but by the time he he got the words out, the landlord had already disappeared. Of course.
Murakami had heard once, of a developer paying three different workers on three different occasions to cut the limbs of a sacred Camphor out in the north part of the city. They say the tree sent all three of the workers to the hospital with mysterious illnesses. After that, no maintenance person would touch the tree, and so the developer was forced to alter their plans, keeping the tree where it was.
Maybe the illnesses to those workers were psychological, or just pure coincidence, but to Murakami such a story is somewhat matter of fact. This is just how life and tree spirits are expected to function where he lives. Pitty anyone who does’t know that, he thought. As he turned away from the tree and toward his car, the wind kicked up again, and Murakami wondered who would be the poor person to attempt such a tree trimming.
This writing was set in a neighborhood that is typical of mid 20th century residential construction in Japan. In many ways it follows Le Corbussier’s well-known concept of towers in a park — often executed as towers in a parking lot. Although this way of building has lost favor in Japan, it still continues to be popular today in places like Korea, where apartment towers and parking lot wind tunnels abound.
Although Murakami’s walk may be devoid of the vibrancy of Kawaguchi [again, you can read about Kawaguchi’s neighborhood here], he does maintain relationships, including with Dandan, and the old tree.
The story Murakami shares, about the tree sending maintenance workers to the hospital, does actually have basis in fact too. You can dig into that, and another recent writing about urban alleys below…
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