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Daimyos and deluge around the Kanda River

by Kit Nagamura

Most major stretches of greenery in Tokyo are tax-trimmed remainders of massive estates once owned by Edo Period (1603-1867) feudal lords, or daimyo. So, in the wake of this summer’s torrential rain and dodging some early autumn typhoons, I set out to find a daimyo domain or two.

From Omokagebashi on the Toden Arakawa Line, I cross the Kanda-gawa (Kanda River) to discover a path running east along the waterway. In less than 10 minutes, and walking a pretty straight line, I cross ward boundaries eight times — first I’m in Shinjuku-ku, then Bunkyo-ku, then back in Shinjuku-ku, and so forth, which suggests either the work of a palsied cartographer or a battle to claim the waterway.

The Kanda-gawa was one of the first major josui (waterworks) projects in old Edo (present-day Tokyo). Tokugawa shoguns dug a canal to combine existing small rivers and spring water from the Inokashira Pond out near Kichijoji, channeling it right through the burgeoning city as a convenient drinking-water supply and transport route. Gracefully undulating hills on the northern banks of this man-made river were prime daimyo digs, and I’m headed that way.

The riverside path serves as a shaded haven for joggers and dog-walkers, and a curious outpost of craftsmen, both modern and traditional. I come across Saica Architects, where Hikoichiro Kawashima is busy drafting in an office with no glass in the windows.

“We can’t afford windows, yet,” he says, laughing as neighborhood kids dash in and out of the open-air office. “We pull down the metal shutters when it rains, but we’re hoping to get windows before winter.” With a three-partner firm, plus an associate from Italy and a philosophy that aims to “achieve what looks impossible, like a flower blooming in a rock,” I’m guessing they’ll score windows soon.

Nearby, in equally — but necessarily — drafty circumstances, skeins of intricately patterned Edo Komon fabric are produced at Tomita Some Kogei. Since 1914, the atelier has used centuries-old techniques of stenciling, steaming and dying fabric in designs once favored by samurai for their kimono. Appointments are required to visit the atelier (call [03] 3987-0703, in Japanese), which offers an evocative glimpse into the area’s history.

I emerge from the shaded path to discover Shin Edogawa Park, once part of the Kumamoto, Kyushu-based Hosokawa clan’s Edo estate. A Taisho Era (1912-26) building to the left of the entrance, erected as a study hall for later Hosokawa generations, still sports an enormous institutional-style clock. The park is mostly pond, with densely wooded, looping routes circling the spring-fed feature. I stop, mesmerized by the chaotic thrum of cicadas. A suited salaryman pauses nearby to gaze at the pond, then alarmingly makes a run for the exit. What’s the problem, I wonder, until I see my arm providing a blood buffet for no fewer than seven mosquitoes. I run, too.

Heading east, I come to Munastuki-zaka, or Chest-stabbing Slope, a murderously steep uphill stretch deserving of the name Edoites gave it. Peering up from the bottom, I delay the inevitable by trotting up to Sui Jinja, a tiny monument to the god of water on the west side that locals say dates from the Edo Period. On the east side of the slope, I find Sekiguchi Bashoan, where haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) lived from age 34 to 38, employed in maintenance on the Kanda Josui. A stone bearing Basho’s most well-known and diversely translated haiku (“The old pond / A frog jumped in, / Kerplunk!” in Allen Ginsberg’s version) sits near a tenebrous pond on the property, but the poem was written in 1686, when Basho had already moved to his Furukawa, Sumida Ward, hermitage. Nonetheless, the commemorative hall, bamboo stands, precipitous paths and fragrant flowers here evoke poetic tranquillity.

Leaving the hermitage, I’m back at the foot of old Chest-stabber. Up I go. I would laugh at the little stools provided for climbers at the halfway mark, except I’m short on air.

Near the top, I find Eisei-Bunko, a tree-nestled museum displaying treasures collected by the Hosokawa clan since the 1300s. Inside, a murky green tint on doors and walls of the early Showa Era (1926-89) building makes it look a bit like a hospital. “It was designed to be an archive,” curator Hidekazu Miyake explains, as we pass huge shelves of rare books and enter a display of priest Ekaku Hakuin’s (1685-1769) Zen paintings. The museum is closed until Sept. 23, when a new exhibition will feature 16th-century Noh masks from the Hosokawa daimyo collection.

Across from the museum, I find Shouen, a lavish estate reclusive behind locked gates, currently owned by the Noma family of Kodansha Publishers, Inc. Seiichi Ishikawa, governor of the nearby Kodansha Noma Memorial Museum — housing impressive Taisho Era and modern Japanese-style paintings — kindly agrees to guide me through Shouen. The 1897 beauty, used as a location for NHK’s 2007 morning drama “Dondo Bare” (“Clear Skies”), has a main room with the longest tatami mats I’ve ever sprung across, and windows custom-made in England with an etched design of sudare (thin bamboo blinds). These details blend with, rather than distract from, the gardens outside, half tended, half tangled and wild.

No doubt Shoen’s natural forest is inviting to fireflies released as attractions during summer evenings at neighboring Chinzan-so, a wedding facility built on the former estate of Prince Arimoto Yamagata (1838-1922). Haruki Murakami sympathized with such lost bits of light in his novel “Norwegian Wood”; the university dormitory he depicts and lived in as a student, Wakeijuku, is next door to Eisei-Bunko. The front desk throws up paperwork when I inquire, but friendly construction workers and students answer my question: The west wing building Murakami occupied has been completely demolished. End of story.

To walk off my disappointment, I head west to Chinzan-so. Vice-manager Yoshihisa Watanabe and Customer Relations Manager Yasushi Hirayu graciously agree to walk me through the mazelike interior of the wedding palace. Here, employee Toshie Nagamoto nimbly adjusts priceless ornaments in one of the 50 wigs of real human hair used in Chinzan-so’s Japanese ceremonies. “These weigh less than they did a decade ago,” she says, “only 600 grams instead of a kilo.” She gingerly displays a box of bekko, or tortoise-shell ornaments, that cost ¥800,000 to rent for the day. The uchikake (ceremonial outer kimono) her colleague Koichi Tada carefully unfurls for me, an exquisite tamadome (hand-knotted embroidery) robe, costs a little less, only ¥700,000 per use.

The managers cheerfully take me around the garden that Baron Heitaro Fujita (1869-1940) purchased from Prince Arimoto, then landscaped and decorated with sundry cultural treasures. The garden’s Muromachi Era (1336-1573) three-story pagoda from Hiroshima, built without nails, vies for attention with a giant chinquapin, a sacred tree 4.5 meters in girth and estimated to be more than 500 years old.

Dusk falls when I follow the river again to Edogawabashi on the Yurakucho Line. Usually lethargic and a bit tankish in odor, the Kanda runs swiftly with rain. I think of the Toshima Ward sewer workers swept to their deaths this August by a flash flood, some of whose bodies were recovered in this very river. The sunset highlights patterns over the rocks and water, creating an inky calligraphic haiku to their loss.