Takeshi Imajo, Richmond's "Walking Man." (Photo by Tina Griego)
The walking man did not set out to become a community fixture. Then again, true community fixtures rarely seek out such status. It is in the consistency of their presence alone that they become woven into the fabric of a town. They become the shared experience that binds strangers and connects them to a place. In that way, they are our unknowing public servants, the builders of community.
The walking man comes to understand this only because people start stopping him in the street, pulling over in their cars to say they see him all the time and to ask him questions: How far do you walk? Why do you walk?
“I walk because it is good exercise,” he says. “And it is cheap.”
Imajo, a retired physician, walks about 10,000 steps a day in the Near West End, where he is sighted along Patterson and Grove avenues and in Carytown. (Photo by Tina Griego)
He cuts a distinctive figure, this slight, older Asian wearing a floppy hat and polo shirt, a small cloth backpack slung over his shoulders. When he lived on the South Side, people saw him along Forest Hill Avenue. Now he lives in the Near West End, where he is sighted along Patterson and Grove avenues and in Carytown. He walks for miles in a steady, rolling gait, taking short strides in which he tilts forward with every step onto the balls of his feet. He does not strike one as a meanderer. His backpack suggests purpose.
“Do you ever see the Asian man walking around?” my neighbor asks me not long after we both moved to the block.
“Yes,” I say, and we wonder what his story is.
I had been in Richmond maybe a year then, and already he had become a part of my landscape, a reference point around which I had begun to construct the rhythms of my new hometown.
Much later, I will talk to the walking man’s daughter and she will say that when people realize she is his daughter, they almost always say, “He’s your dad! I see him everywhere.”
“He’s gotten into that category of being a minor character in the city,” she says.
Which is how it is that people in the Fan District can’t tell you his name, but they know he shops at Martin’s. And at Martin’s, they don’t know his name, either, but they know he comes in regularly.
“My name is Takeshi Imajo,” he says, after I become one of the people who can no longer resist pulling off the road to ask him how far he walks and why.
“I am a physician. I am retired now, and I have diabetes and so I walk,” he says.
He is almost 79 years old and was born in the Ogawa subsection of Nishimera village in Miyazaki prefecture in Japan. He says his father served in the Imperial Navy during World War II and was killed, so his mother raised six children on her own. He was the son the village did not expect much from, since he displayed no particular talent for chopping down trees or working in the fields, he says. But he was smart or, as he says, “at least not dumb” and went to the city and studied medicine and became a hospital pathologist. He and his then-wife moved to Vermont 45 years ago. He spent his career moving from city to city, transitioning into forensic pathology. “It is a special privilege not many people have, opening a human body,” he says.
He retired, he says, to “to write a textbook. That was 20 years ago and I still haven’t finished writing.”
He thinks as he walks. About genealogy, history, the differences between Japanese and American culture. He likes to go to VCU Medical Center to attend pediatric grand rounds “just to learn something new.” When he passes people who are working in their gardens, he stops to pick up new information about flowers and plants.
“To enjoy walking takes a poet’s mind,” he says.
As he walks, he picks up coins for himself and aluminum can tabs for charity and places them inside discarded snack-size peanut bags he finds along the route and washes out at home because he is practical and frugal and doesn’t like loose things rattling around in his pockets.
His daughter, Anika Imajo, one of his three children who live in Richmond, remembers that when she was young and they lived in rural Vermont, she and her brothers marveled at how their father would go outside to throw out the trash, walking barefoot in the deep snow.
“It’s a discipline thing,” she says. “He has always liked to challenge himself physically. … The walking thing is rooted in really sound thinking.”
How far does Takeshi Imajo walk? “Not as far as I used to,” he says. “About 10,000 steps a day.”
“To enjoy walking takes a poet’s mind,” Imajo says. (Photo by Tina Griego)
What does he carry in his backpack? “All kinds of things. My pockets are not very deep. Water. My cell phone, but I don’t really use it. Clippings of Paul Krugman’s columns.”
I hadn’t seen Imajo around very much this summer, and when I found him again (on Grove Avenue near Nansemond Street) he says he has been swimming at his apartment complex.
“I try to swim a mile every morning. I am not a very good swimmer, but it is good exercise and it is close and it is free.”
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