Takoyaki, trees and silence: a plum pilgrimage to the hills of western Tokyo.
Nobuo Umeatsu is a genius. Composer of the Final Fantasy soundtracks, he somehow manages to create atmospheric pieces of music that lie dormant in your brain only to burst to life once again at the most random moments. The reason I mention him is because the other day I visited a place called Plum Village. Nestled somewhere between the Tama River and the Yoshino mountains in the far western reaches of Tokyo, this little hamlet is like something straight out of a Final Fantasy game. Even the name, Plum Village, is insanely cute. I couldn’t help but hum the tune to Balamb Garden as I was walking round the place.
It’s a bit of a trek to get there from central Tokyo, but worth the effort at this time of year when about 25,000 pink and white blossoms are in bloom. This weekend sees the annual matsuri of the region – and the place will be packed. When I went, however, there was just a scattering of people: mostly old folk eating bentos and the usual tree nerds armed with cameras on tripods.
It’s definitely a different vibe out here compared to Tokyo. When you get off the train at Ome you notice wooden platforms, rusting signs and people carrying bags of rice as opposed to the briefcases you see every morning on the Yamanote Line. No one is in a hurry to do anything. The trains come once every half an hour. There are no konbinis in sight. Hell, there’s not much of anything – apart from a bread shop and an array of makeshift signs pointing you towards Ume-no-Koen Park, the primary plum viewing spot. I bought some takoyaki (starchy fried octopus balls) and got my picture taken by a bunch of old women on a tour bus. Yup, this is definitely inaka.
That’s the thing about Japan. Trees, and their annual blooms, are a big, big deal. News channels here are already charting the progress of the sakura blossoms, and I can’t even begin to imagine how many photos will be taken of trees during hanami by the collective population. It rubs off on you. Back home there’s no way I’d be inclined to travel nearly two hours to walk round a park, but it’s a very Japanese pastime and super peaceful. Some things seem to automatically happen to you when you live here for an extended period: you start taking pictures of your meals, you involuntarily do the peace sign when you get your photo taken, and you start to become almost religious about nature.
Nobuo Umeatsu once said that he took inspiration for his music from his Japanese surroundings. I’m pretty sure Yoshino Baigo would be one of those places.
Plum Village is a 15-minute walk from JR Ome Line Hinatawada Station, about 90 minutes from central Tokyo. Entrance to the park is ¥200 but there was no one manning the gate the day I went.
Now listen to this and look at the pictures again.