14 May 2010

air; water; FIRE

Today, we studied the history of fire damage in Edo Tokyo. The head researcher of the Tokyo University of Science gave us a condensed summary of the fire facts. Interestingly, we discovered that the fire that spread through and leveled Edo Tokyo was caused by a woman named Oshichi, a woman who fell madly in love with a man she met during a tragic fire. In her desperation to meet him again, she deliberately caused the Edo Tokyo fire, for which she was put to death.

After the power-point lecture, Professor Researcher took us on a tour of the places he briefly introduced in the lecture slides. Among these was the Daienji Temple. This was supposedly the location of where Oshichi started her fire. To demonstrate how quickly fire can spread through the dense, wood-constructed buildings of Tokyo’s neighborhoods, Professor Researcher set up a series of wooden bundles to show a controlled fire damage simulation. Unfortunately, the controlled simulation became a out-of-control situation and we leveled all of Tokyo…so we are relaying our fugitive situation via the back alley behind an Internet cafĂ© right now.

…OK, so I’m a terrible liar; I can’t stand this dishonesty, even if it’s just a story. We didn’t really re-level Tokyo, but we did witness some arson in action today. It happened at Enijiyouji Temple, one of our stops on our tour route with Professor Researcher. The temple was famous because it is the setting for Ihara Saikaku’s popular novel, Koshoku-gonin-onna, and also because it contained the tomb of Oshichi there. As we started to take some photos, a small group of people wearing traditional mourning attire and painted face masks slowly approached. To respect their wishes to pay their respects, we retreated a short distance from the site so Professor Researcher could tell us more about Oshichi’s tomb while we waited for our turn.

Unfortunately, we never got our turn. We heard a small explosion from where the "funerary mourners" had been and all turned toward the source to see the arsonists running away and flames quickly licking up the wooden frame of the temple. The professor and his assistant starting yelling rapidly in Japanese, which none of us understood. As our class tried to figure out how to dial for the fire department on Catie’s cell phone, many Japanese people from surrounding apartments and houses in the area began running and gathering at the fire site, which was still accelerating into a small inferno. One of the neighbors had a small gardening hose; it couldn’t reach far enough to put out the fire, but it was enough to prevent the fire from spreading further from the temple. When the firemen did arrive (no thanks to us, by the way: another Japanese neighbor successfully made the phone call while we fumbled in our Japanese-English dictionaries), they were able to successfully put out the fire, but the temple was already in charred ruins.

At this point, the professor apologetically told us that he would have to discontinue our tour; the police would be arriving soon to discuss the cause of this fire and not only did he not want us to get unnecessarily involved, but our inability to speak fluent Japanese would render us useless anyway. Regrettably, we realized that this was true, although we did want to help (and find out more about the situation), and decided to walk and talk instead. Even though the loss of such a culturally-important temple is saddening, at least it didn’t become a tragedy like the Edo Tokyo fire. Besides, the city of Tokyo is founded on a constant cycle of periodic re-leveling and reconstruction…and it does seem ironically fitting that the tomb of Oshichi the arsonist would become a victim of arson itself. It also makes for an interesting story to accompany the next-built Enijiyouji Temple.

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