A dreamlike escape

by Adrian Bennett

An important feature of many Japanese gardens is the careful integration of the architecture of a house and the design of its garden. Many of the finest examples are located in private homes, and so are sadly not open to public view.

Fortunately, right in the dense city of Tokyo itself, visitors have the opportunity to enter some formerly private residences to get a feel for what it must have been like to live in a house that opens onto a beautiful garden. Now, as the city’s notorious summer heat begins to flex its muscles, it’s a great time to go and check one of Tokyo’s loveliest secrets — Asakura Choso Kan, the former residence of the so-called Rodin of Japan, Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), in Taito Ward. About a 5-minute walk from JR Nippori Station, on a narrow and quiet street, I passed through the gate, which consists of unevenly matched, unfinished wooden posts, making it look as if it had been slapped together overnight with scraps off a woodpile. In striking contrast, the house with its three-story black facade has a very imposing modernist look, as if out of a Le Corbusier sketchbook.

Hidden inside are treasures: Asakura’s sculptures and his garden entirely enclosed by the building.

Several sculptures can be seen close up in the first-floor studio. Others are found on a third-floor landing in a room devoted to Asakura’s many cat sculptures. There is clearly a strong influence from Western models, though unlike his contemporary, Hagiwara Morie, who studied with the French master Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Asakura never left Japan. Where Rodin is “in your face,” Asakura is more restrained, his figures adopting more relaxed, naturalistic poses. Take your time to look and you can sense the sureness of an underlying conception that conveys its own subtle power. We are very close here to the impression his garden evokes as well.

The garden was designed as a kansho niwa, or “contemplation garden,” a quiet place suitable for deep reflections. It is entirely contained within the three-story house, which is a blend of traditional-style tatami rooms and Western-style ones. Most courtyard gardens use water features sparingly, if at all. Asakura’s garden is quite unusual with its stream fed by an underground spring flowing through it and koi carp lazily meandering along their own underwater pathways.

Asakura named the garden Goten no Suitei (Five Precepts Water Garden). The reference is to five Confucian precepts, represented in the garden by five large rocks: jin, benevolence; gi, justice; rei, propriety; chi, wisdom; and shin, fidelity. But, to my way of thinking, perhaps more important than the symbolism is the feeling you get standing in the house looking at this garden. In addition to these five big stones, a series of stepping stones wind through the water across and around the garden. Together, these stones convey an impression of strength that you may not be immediately aware of, because they are blended so well into the numerous plantings of maple, pine, camellia, ferns and grasses. The result is a restrained but surehanded design, a truly elegant conception.

In one corner there is a spectacular mahonia that spreads its arching branches of spiky, deep-green glossy leaves next to a moss-covered chozubachi, or water laver, from which a thin spume of water arcs up and then down into the water below. There are two more chozubachi stones in other corners, each a rock with its own personality. In one pool I caught the reflection of the sky above, a bowl of water with blue sky and white clouds.

You can sit next to the garden in a Western-style room or on ceramic stools in an alcove, whose glass doors are open in good weather, beside the fountain. The garden was much cooler than the area outside the house.

You can climb to upper levels and get a bird’s-eye view of the garden below, as well as see some of Asakura’s ceramics collection, a large reception room with tatami mats on the floor, and a tokonoma, or recessed alcove, where a hanging scroll and vase of flowers were displayed.

You can climb to the roof, where you have a broad view of the Yanaka district.

The surrounding Taito Ward is an area replete with old temples, some relocated from Kanda after the great Meireki Fire of 1657. Many artisans also live and work here. Just up the street from the Asakura Choso Kan is a small park, with playground equipment, honoring Okakura Kakuzo, known as Tenshin, author of “The Book of Tea” (1906). This was a nice discovery for those who, like myself, hesitantly follow in the footsteps of early writers who unraveled the secrets of Japan’s traditional culture for the West — Lafcadio Hearn, Edwin Morse, Josiah Condor and others. And nearby is Yanaka Town, a long shoten-gai, or shopping street, reached by descending a wide, stone stairway patrolled by stray cats. It has the flavor of prewar Tokyo, with many small shops specializing in such items as fresh fish, meat, vegetables, household goods, dresses and shoes (the proprietor of the last one mentioned laughed when I bought shoelaces so I could hang my reading glasses around my neck).

All along the crowded narrow street there were people carrying shopping bags; bicycles weaving in and out, baskets loaded with goods; a pretty young mother hugging and kissing her newborn baby; a display of bright red, yellow and orange bell peppers set off with rows of green asparagus, beautifully laid out, worthy of a Cezanne still life. This is a friendly place where shopkeepers recognize their regular customers, so unlike the impersonal modern mall. I stopped to chat with a non-Japanese man wearing a chef’s hat in a small restaurant open to the street. He was preparing samosas. “I’ve been living here a few years,” he said in English. “It’s a nice neighborhood, the people have been very friendly and kind to me.” It turned out he had emigrated from Iran.

Asakura Choso Kan: 7-8-10 Yanaka, Taito Ward, Tokyo; 5-minute walk from the West Exit of JR Nippori Station; www.taitocity.net/taito/asakura/shisetsu.html. 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m., closed Mondays, Fridays; adults, ¥300, kids, ¥150.