Whenever I travel to Tokyo I make it a point to spend at least a good part of one day on a visit to Shibamata in Katsushika Ward. This lovely neighborhood tucked away in the remote northeastern corner of the city on the banks of the Edogawa River still retains some of the flavor of the Edo Period (1603-1867).
It also features two beautiful gardens. One of these is on the grounds of Daikyo-ji Temple. The other is situated nearby at one of the most beautiful traditional-style homes in the city, Yamamoto-tei.
As you exit from tiny Shibamata Station on the Keisei Kanamachi Line — at 2.5 km and with only three stations, one of the shortest railways in Tokyo — you may notice a tall bronze statue of a man wearing a fedora and sports jacket, and carrying a suitcase. This is a piece of local history. We’ll come back to him later.
Yamamoto-tei is about a 10-minute walk down the long, narrow shopping street that extends from the station to the temple gate — giving it the name of monzenmachi, “the town in front of the gate.”
It has an Edo Period flavor, when such streets were not only places to shop, but lively centers of social life. Many stores specialize in Buddhist artifacts and memorabilia, and may offer kusa dango as well, a local delicacy consisting of red-bean paste wrapped in glutinous rice that has been flavored with the fragrant herb yomogi (mugwort).
As you reach the temple gate, circle around to the right and you will find Yamamoto-tei nearby. This is the former private dwelling of businessman Einosuke Yamamoto, who moved here, substantially renovating the original building, after his home in Asakusa was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. It was opened to the public in 1991.
The house, with its garden, is a prime example of sukiya zukuri, or “teahouse style.” Architects know that sukiya style is one of Japan’s major contributions to world culture. Its key principles are simplicity, restraint and elegance. Some of its elements are familiar in Japanese homes today: construction with natural materials, such as unfinished wood, tatami mats and shoji paper panels. Post-and-beam construction is used to support the roof, so the walls, which bear no weight, can be of lighter material. This enables them to be opened up to the garden outside, giving a pleasurable feeling of airiness.
When you visit Yamamoto-tei, notice the blend of the soft colors of the beige tatami with the darker browns of the wood beams and posts, and the delicate translucence of the white paper shoji. But the real charm of a residence such as Yamamoto-tei comes when you realize that, though sitting inside the shelter of the house, you are in effect also in the garden, which becomes a living mural framed by the house.
The garden has a small pond and waterfall, pines, camelias, Japanese maples and numerous satsuki azaleas trimmed into those hemispherical shapes so common in Japanese gardens since the Momoyama Period (1568-1600). The area near the house is sparsely planted, giving the eye space to wander. Farther back, larger trees and shrubs are thickly planted, concealing most of the rear fence from view, so that you have the impression that the garden merges into a forest. In spring, the gardeners put out several pots of flowering irises, giving accents of white, purple, violet and yellow against the darker green of the pines. The azaleas flourish their pink flowers in mid June. In winter, when dark greens and grays prevail, the gardeners erect yuki-tsuri, literally “snow-hangings,” over the pines. These are ropes attached to the top of a tall post, and fastened to a large wooden ring encircling the base of the tree. They look a little like hoop skirts and are designed to break up heavy snow that might damage the branches. Perhaps this is a bit of overkill in the mild Tokyo climate, but they do add visual interest to the winter garden.
The staff of Yamamoto-tei are particularly adept at providing the fine touches that can enhance your experience of being in beautiful surroundings. At the reception desk, you can choose a snack from a seasonal menu served with tea by women in kimono, as you sit at a low table in a long room facing the garden. The atmosphere they create is quite like the friendly intimacy of an ideal tea ceremony: The perfect setting for friendly conversation, or just absorbing the refined beauty of the house and garden.
After leaving Yamamoto-tei, don’t forget to take a stroll around the grounds of the nearby Shibamata Taishakuten, also known as Daikyo-ji Temple of the Nichiren Buddhist sect. Taishaku is one of the guardian gods, actually a Buddhist version of the Hindu god Indra. The beams and lintels of the main hall are covered with carvings that depict scenes from the scriptures, replete with lovingly rendered human figures, Buddhas, trees and mythical beasts. A covered veranda encircles the garden, which features a well-kept lawn, a long, narrow hedge of azaleas, a small pond and pines whose branches have been shaped to resemble clouds. As you walk along the covered walkway and come around to the opposite side, look back across the pond toward the building, and you will be rewarded with the best view of the garden.
These two gardens are ideal places for quiet, leisurely contemplation. But there’s time for fun in Shibamata, too. Be sure to visit the Tora-san Kinen Kan, a museum that honors the world’s longest-running film series (according to the Guinness Book of Records), spanning 48 films from 1969 to 1995. The series, titled “Otoko no Tsurai Yo (A Man’s Life is Hard),” was set in this exact neighborhood of Shibamata.
Some of the sets of the films are re-created in the museum and you can also have your photo taken with Tora-san (the late actor Kiyoshi Atsumi), through the clever trickery of a camera and screen that enable you to line up next to his image.
As you head back to the station, you will now recognize that statue we saw earlier. There he is, Atsumi, in the role of the lovable tramp, once again a loser in love, but ready to hit the road selling whatever he can at the country’s temple markets and fairs. Say hello. And give yourself a treat when you get back home — many of the films are available on DVD with English subtitles.
Yamamoto-tei: 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; closed 3rd Tuesday of each month. Admission: ¥100. Every Sunday at 1:00 p.m. there is a koto concert (except the 5th Sunday).Seasonal tea or coffee with sweets or other light fare served for ¥500. Check www.katsushika-kanko.com or call (03) 3657-8577 Shibamata Taishakuten: Weekdays 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Check www.taishakuten.or.jp/eng-taishakuten1.htm or call (03) 3657-2886 Tora-san Kinen Kan (Memorial Hall): 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Closed every 3rd Tuesday. Admission: adult ¥500; children ¥300. Check www.katsushika-kanko.com or call (03) 3657-3455.