BOOK REVIEW

Tokyo’s botanical beauty

by Linda Inoki

A FLOWER LOVER’S GUIDE TO TOKYO: 40 Walks for All Seasons, by Sumiko Enbutsu (Kodansha International, ¥2,200)

Daily life in the teeming metropolis of Tokyo is lived in such a blur of technology, bright lights and concrete that it is hard to imagine the city ever had another face. Yet not so long ago Tokyo was a gentler place; a city of overgrown villages and gardens, where children and dragonflies could dart among the flowers.

One of Japan’s most respected architects, Fumihiko Maki, grew up in Tokyo in the 1930s, and he recalls a green, breathing city that stirred the imagination.

“In the yamanote, or ‘upper town’, where I lived,” he has said, “streets were often shadowed by big trees and were dark in the evenings. Small streets and narrow alleys were unpaved. After it rained, the smell of the earth and vegetation permeated the air.”

He remembers chrysanthemum displays, mysterious nooks and byways, people strolling in the cool of the evening and children setting off fireworks in summer. Those scenes, he says, recalled the earlier city of Edo, which was once “the biggest metropolis in the world, and arguably the world’s greatest garden city.”

Unfortunately, in the last 60-odd years since American bombs obliterated much of old Tokyo, rocketing land prices have left little space for greenery. Even public spaces have been eaten up, or, like the shogun’s historic garden at Hamarikyu, surrounded by expressways and skyscrapers.

Yet nature lovers need not despair: for here and there, in the most unexpected corners, Tokyo erupts into swaying grasses, perfumed peonies, and all the green, leafy things that bring hope and comfort to our lives. And in “A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo” by Sumiko Enbutsu, you will learn exactly where to find these precious shreds of Eastern Eden.

“A Flower Lover’s Guide” is the most useful kind of guide book. Easy to use, with a simple structure and attractive illustrations, it will have walkers, photographers, sketchers and nature lovers itching to explore.

While there are already several English-language reference books on Japanese plants, Enbutsu’s new book fills a gap because she aims to reveal their rich cultural associations. With a light touch, she takes the reader on a colorful odyssey focused on 15 selected plants that, for centuries, have spoken to the religious, poetic or artistic soul of Japan.

Not surprisingly, her seasonal tour starts in spring, when the all-important cherry blossoms breathe new life into the nation. Buzzing on through the seasons like a happy bee, she casts her eye over botanical beauties such as irises, wisteria and plum blossoms, as well as some less obvious choices like narcissus and bush clover.

The book guides us to some well-known parks and gardens such as Shinjuku Gyoen, but introduces other small and quirky gardens too. For example, the Mukojima Hyakka-en Garden may be modest but it is a good place to see all the rustic flowers long praised in Japanese verse. This “garden of a hundred flowers” was created around 1805 by a Nihonbashi antique dealer, who not only had artistic taste but a wry disregard for the formal gardens of the nobility, where every clipped pine and polished pebble knew its place.

Although Enbutsu’s English is clear and fluent, she occasionally produces some impressionistic Japanese prose. Of cherry blossoms, for example, she enthuses: “The Japanese flowering cherry evokes joyful emotions in all who see it. People fascinated by its irresistible beauty perceive something human emanating from the tree and become even more drawn to its allure.”

Or again, describing peonies near the Tosho-gu Shrine in Ueno — which I recall as a dusty, neglected spot: “Visitors inhaling the flower’s delicious perfume experience a dreamlike sense of fascination as they ramble about the rectangular gardens.”

However, the author’s flowery caprices are few and the interesting details are many.

We learn, for example, that wisteria likes nothing better than an occasional tipple of sake. And that the trancelike swaying of shamans probably gave lilies their name (yuri, meaning “lily,” may come from yureru, meaning “to sway”). Also that samurai were highly jealous of each other’s iris collections. And that, just an hour from Ueno, we can still see ancient tumuli and brush past lotus flowers grown from 1,000-year-old seeds. (The ancient seeds were unearthed by construction work in the 1970s and miraculously still had life.)

Particularly successful sections include the chapter on pine trees and camellias. Here, for example, is her description of a shattered soul from Hiroshima making a life-changing discovery in 1947: “While wandering on the ruined Ginza streets, Adachi happened to see a partially unfolded scroll on display in the dimly lit window of an antique dealer. He was dazzled by the colorfully painted camellias. . . . Immediately negotiating with the shopkeeper to hold it until he returned with money, he managed to scrape together enough to purchase the hand-painted [scroll].”

Becoming obsessed with camellias, Adachi thereafter rescued many rare varieties from all over Japan, which we can still find flourishing in a Yokohama park.

With her longtime experience as a columnist for this newspaper (including a series titled “Flower Walks”), one feels confident that Enbutsu has double-checked her facts, directions and maps. In addition, as an observant walker, she jots down a notable view, old temple or handsome tree that the reader might enjoy en route. Pointing out the odd cafe or noodle shop is also a good idea.

Small enough to pop in your handbag or pocket, the book includes attractive photographs by Michiru Unae. He captures, for example, the fresh radiance of a lotus, and the gorgeous, golden filigree of maple leaves in autumn.

Alas, the great garden city is no more, but with this guide to hand and a few hours to spare, the busy streets will turn to seasonal paths, dewy with the promise of flowers.