The Parks of Peace Island: Adventure, Relaxation and maybe a bit of History

Tokyo has been expanding itself into shallow parts of Tokyo Bay through landfill and land reclamation for four centuries. It is thanks to such expansion that Tokyo’s southeastern-most ward, Ota-ku, can claim the largest area of any of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

One of those Ota-ku landfill projects was begun in the 1940s and by 1960 had resulted in a rectangular island about 1,500 meters by 500 meters that was christened Heiwajima (Peace Island). In the ensuing decades part of the narrow water channel between the island and the mainland was also filled in and turned into a large park known as Heiwa-no-Mori (Peace Forest) Park. During these wintry pandemic days, it can be a nice place to escape to. And for those urbanites who enjoy malls, gaming and other entertainments, be sure to read to the end for your reward.

The park is about 500 meters from Heiwajima station on the Keihin Kyuko line, less than a 10 minute walk. I recommend two possible ways to begin your visit. One is to head to the southern end of the park immediately and spend an hour at the Omori Nori Museum learning how this area was under “cultivation” when it was still tidal flats. Alternatively, the “Field Athletic Course” laid out in the woods just south of Kan-nana Dori, beckons.

“Field Athletic” is the Japanese expression for obstacle course and this one is a doozy. It’s especially popular with children (admission JPY100) and families, but even adults without children (admission JPY360) can enjoy the various challenges (especially if you don’t mind occasionally being bested by someone half your size). The course is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm (last entry at 3:00 pm, to give you time to get through the course).

There are forty different “obstacles” to challenge, mostly made of wood and rope, with a few water challenges thrown in for good measure. Each “obstacle” is accompanied by a signboard with a graphic showing how it is to be approached. There are also a few lines of Ota-ku history at the top of each signboard–public facilities always have to be educational!–but, alas, they are currently only in Japanese. It’s actually a pity that there is no English. Often the historical tidbit is tied to the “theme” of the obstacle, making them quite interesting in the context of this course.

The course begins innocently enough with a few uneven posts and a log to walk across. But things quickly ramp up. Soon you’re climbing along some metal hoops and then dangling in the air.

Just a reminder, you’re still just warming up at this stage. It’s going to get tougher!

A wooden bridge, itself a bit of an obstacle, crosses between two hillocks, allowing other visitors to the park to pass below.

After a couple more rope bridge-type obstacles and a rack to traverse swinging hand over hand like a monkey, we reach the first water obstacles, situated on a pond in the park.

The next challenges are also water-related, but they weren’t really obstacles, but more like history lessons. The first is taraibune (bathtub boats), a traditional kind of Japanese fishing vessel. The historical note on the signboard notes that the park is not far from the Haneda Crossing on the Tama River, where for hundreds of years, ferrymen took travelers on the old Tokaido across the river. It also points out that even famed woodblock print artist Hiroshige memorialized that ferry crossing.

People-powered water wheels similar to the ones in the park were once used to pump water up from water courses into fields. This was one of the few challenges in the park where the adults could do better than the children!

There are two different zip line rigs on the obstacle course, with a number of enthusiastic challengers lined up for their turn.

Climbing and swinging seem to be major parts of the course and there is no question that balance and sure-footedness are important. If you didn’t have those before, perhaps you can develop them here! (Oh! In case you’re nervous about germs in the current pandemic, I should note that bottles of hand sanitizer are available at various places on the course.)

Some of the “obstacles” presented more “unique” challenges to one’s balance and sure-footedness.

Of course, rope and webbing also continued to challenge.

And challenge!

If you don’t get too tied up with all these ropes, you’ll soon find that you’ve finished the course and feel exhilarated for the accomplishment.

But you’re not finished with the park yet!

Cross under Kan-nana Dori to enter the “forest” part of Peace Forest Park. The entire park is a long, narrow rectangular running north-south. In this northern half of the park there is a pond on the western side that is popular with migratory water birds as well as fishermen and sunseekers. In summer, one section of the pond is known for its lotus plants.

Here and there around the north part of the park are maps of the park showing which trails are wheelchair accessible, as well as Braille maps. This park is truly meant to be enjoyed by all.

The eastern side is dedicated to flowering plum trees (not yet flowering, but they will be in just a few weeks) and cherry blossom trees (you’ll have to wait a few months for those!). Between the flowering trees and the pond is a wooded hill with plenty of paths to explore, and a sun-filled “bald” patch at the top where even in winter people can enjoy a picnic.

At the very northern end of the park is a classic feature of Japanese public parks, the hiroba, an open grassy area for a variety of activities. On my last visit, a cub scout pack was working on their kite flying skills, while others played ball or other activities.

The hiroba was surrounded by more trees, of course, and a surprising collection of large sculptures.

If you are inspired to a picnic but didn’t think to bring one, just north of the park is Big Fun Heiwajima, a shopping and entertainment center where you can pick up a fast food lunch or a bento, or just give up on the idea of a picnic and eat in. Big Fun is also home to a multiplex cinema, pachinko and gaming.

Or, if you seriously got into the obstacle course, perhaps what you need right about now is a nice long soak in an onsen bath. Big Fun has that too. The Heiwajima Onsen is a full service onsen with several different baths as well as sauna, massage therapists, a restaurant, a relaxation lounge and even a nap room. (Sorry, no one with tattoos allowed.)

Open from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm, you can get a “day pass” valid for 7 hours for JPY2,300 (JPY2,000 on weekdays) or enter for just one hour for JPY1,280. Enter after 6:00 pm and stay up to 3 hours for JPY1,800. Whatever option you choose, they provide a towel and “pajamas” to wear around the facility. In case you’re hesitant about getting into a crowded bath in these pandemic times, a touch screen in Japanese and English is positioned outside the entrance providing information on how many guests are currently bathing (it’s more crowded on weekends).

Historical Footnote

Just north of the onsen entrance, and near the entrance to the speedboat races (there’s a story there, too, but I don’t have time or space today), stands an enclosure dominated by an Indian-style statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. A signboard, only in Japanese, explains that this was the site of a prisoner of war camp during World War II. In fact, the first landfill that ultimately became Heiwajima was put in with POW labor. After they made a small island, it became their prison. It was also the first place where General Hideki Tojo was held when he was arrested by the occupying Allies after the war ended.

It is sadly ironic that a place produced during war (although to be fair, the reclamation project had been in the planning since before the war) should wind up bearing the name of Peace Island. Or is this rather an attempt to abolish memories of war, if not war itself? Whatever the motivations, this place with tragedy and deprivation in its past is now a peaceful place for leisure and learning.

©2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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