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The Grass is Greener


This summer is stretching out longer and ever longer. Already we're well into September, and the days are still so hot as to stifle all good intentions towards the woodblock waiting on my carving bench. I carve for a while in the morning, and then again late in the evening, but during the middle of the day ...

That 'left-over' time is not wasted, though. Not at all. I know the weather will be turning soon, and as there won't be many more chances for it, I've been spending a fair bit of time relaxing in the park. There is a very enjoyable public space not too far from my apartment, a pleasant grassy hill overlooking the Tama River, on which shade trees are spotted here and there. The wide slope rolls gently down from a line of bushes at the top, to a jogging path that runs along the base. I usually have it pretty much to myself, and this is a bit of a mystery to me, for this is one of the most comfortable, inviting, public places to be found anywhere near my home. It's not just the scenery, although the view across the valley is pleasant, and it's not the peace and quiet, although traffic noises are almost completely absent. It's the grass. The turf on this hill, unlike the thin, withered stuff that passes for grass in most Japanese parks, is thick, green and lush. I don't know how this has come about, whether by special effort on the part of the parks board, or simply by accident of soil and climate, but it is truly a most unusual thing to find in Japan.

I learned early on in my time in this country that one indispensable accompaniment to any trip to a local park was a plastic 'picnic sheet', to be spread out on the ground wherever one wished to sit and relax. Down goes the sheet, off go the shoes, and that particular spot is thus transformed into ones own private space. Such a sheet is absolutely essential, as the ground in Japanese parks, even if nominally 'grassy', is always hard and dusty. Sitting down without it would be like sitting in the middle of a parking lot. Such is the typical Japanese park, even in a quite progressive city like my Hamura. It's the norm. Nobody thinks of complaining, or suggesting to the parks office that things could be different.

I used to think that climate might have been the reason for our poor Japanese park grass. Perhaps the winter was too cold and dry, or something of that sort. But then one day, on a visit to the nearby American air base at Yokota, during one of their annual 'open house' events, I was surprised to find that many areas inside the fence were ... you guessed it ... deep green, soft lawns. As Hamura obviously shares the same climate and soil conditions as this adjoining air base, it would seem to indicate that our parks too could be clothed in such green, if the knowledge and desire was there.

But I'm not as interested in complaining about our dusty parks, as I am in enjoying this special one that I've found. It's about ten minutes by bicycle from my apartment, and I frequently find myself drawn to it whenever I've been out somewhere in that direction. I don't need one of those plastic sheets for this place, so I can drop in anytime! And what do I do there? Can I tell you without fear of being deported for 'un-Japanese' activities?

I daydream. I watch the clouds. I idly follow the progress of the people jogging back and forth along the pathway, kind of like watching some kind of irregular tennis game ... left, right, left, left, right ... Sometimes I pretend to work. I lie there with my essay notebook open, ready for inspiration to strike, but it usually doesn't ... not there on that peaceful hill, where the grass is just too comfortable, just not conducive to making any effort ... Mostly, it's just daydreaming. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many hours I've 'wasted' there lying on that grass, and as I write this now, it strikes me that this perhaps tells us why Japanese parks are usually not so comfortable. If they were more pleasant places in which to spend time, then perhaps that's exactly what people would do. Lie around in the park. What would deep lush grass do to the Japanese work ethic? Is it the barren-ness of Japan's parks that is responsible for her economic success?

Just think. Maybe this could be a new weapon in the international trade wars ... If Japan's economic competitors were to send airborne missions to fly over all the parks here dropping the right kind of grass seed, maybe industrial production would then take a nosedive. Japan could retaliate, spraying grass killer over parks overseas ...

But see, there I'm proving my point. That kind of silly thought is exactly the kind of thing that comes to mind as you lie on your back on the turf, watching the clouds sail by. So see if you can find a place like this near your home. And if you can't, then you're welcome to come and share 'my' little grassy hill. There's lots of room. Come on over ... but leave your picnic sheet at home!