With autumn nipping at the air, deciduous trees are primed to put on a color display known in Japanese as koyo. Though usually written with Japanese characters for “crimson” and “leaves,” koyo can also be written with the characters for “yellow” and “leaves” when describing varieties of trees such as those turning just now. Rikugien, in northern Tokyo near the Nanboku and Yamanote lines Komagome Station, is considered the capital’s finest Edo Period (1603-1867) garden for viewing koyo, no matter how you write it.
Rikugien’s Somei Gate, open only on weekends and special holidays, is directly in front of the subway exit. Otherwise, it’s necessary to follow the brick wall that squares off the nearly 88,000-sq.-meter garden (roughly the size of four city blocks) along Hongo Avenue. A spattering of craft shops en route confirms that the path to the Daimon, the main entrance to Rikugien, is well trodden by tourists. Clothing fashioned from kimono vie for attention with scented scarves and potpourri, pottery and jewelry shops, but I resist.
The sight of Yushi Ishida, 13 years old, pulling a length of tightly tied fabric from a wide vat of viscid indigo dye grabs me, though. “I love the patterns I can make,” the local junior-high student says, explaining why he often hangs out with proprietors at the shop Kobo Fureai. Once a kimono purveyor, the shop now sells ready-made aizome (indigo-dyed clothing) and also offers classes in how to make your own “to-dye-for” clothing. Ishida, dressed top to tail in his own creations, is so absorbed in the process that he barely notices when I move on.
A bit further toward the garden, I cave in to a package of usagi monaka, Japanese sweets of bean paste sandwiched between thin, rabbit-shaped wafers at Kousagi Wagashiya (Little Rabbit Japanese Sweet Shop). My thought is to consume them in the garden, with tea.
It took feudal lord Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa (1658-1714), an intimate retainer of Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, seven years to design and landscape his undulating, pond-centered garden. Yanagisawa hoped his creation, completed in 1702, would show off his literary knowledge and dedication to poetry. He named it after the six forms of poetry, or rikugi, set out in the “Shi Jing,” the “Chinese Book of Songs,” comprised of three genres (folk songs, festive songs, and hymns) and three styles (narrative, straightforward comparison and implied comparison). As one strolls the garden’s paths, surrounding vistas are meant to call to mind 88 poems drawn from famous collections such as the “Manyoshu” and “Kokin Wakashu.”
You don’t need to know your waka from your tanka (two classic forms of poetry) to enjoy the garden’s shifting visions of water and trees, or the occasional good-looking gardener in traditional garb, hand-pruning a pine to perfection.
“Rikugien is surrounded by buildings,” says professional gardener Kiyoshi Takeda, aged 43, whose job places him on rotation at Japan’s best gardens. “Rikugien’s situation is not ideal,” he continues. “But it does limit the number of harmful bugs that fly in, and as a result, the maples here are incredibly healthy — more so than in the countryside.” In fact, Takeda notes, Rikugien is the first formal garden he has ever worked in that uses absolutely no pesticides.
My eye is drawn to Takeda’s holstered snippers. “I polish these every night,” he says, whipping them out to show me. “A 90-year-old master craftsman in Kyoto made them for me,” he says, hefting the simple-handled kiribashi and the loop-handled warabite shears. I hate to clip our conversation short, but the rest of the garden beckons, so I offer him the sweets I just bought (and he accepts them) before heading off.
I circle past secluded tea houses hidden between ancient trees, spot craggy islands that provide depth to the pond views, marvel at daredevil turtles riding the backs of carp churning below the bridges, and dodge giant wood spiders (Nephila maculata) hanging out in webs like Halloween props.
Reluctant to leave the golden haze of the garden, I decide to follow its brick-wall perimeter round — but on the outside of the garden. Across from Rikugien’s main gate, I find a familiar pink-cheeked character, Anpanman (bean-filled sweet-bun man), directing me to the basement store of froebel-kan (sic), a publishing company with 101 years of history in books for and about raising children. In 1907, the company named itself after German educator Friedrich Froebel, creator of the first kindergarten and inventor of educational toys that feed a child’s natural interests. The store brims with froebel-kan’s signature publications, including books featuring Takashi Yanase’s Anpanman and Martin Handford’s “Where’s Wally?,” creative puzzles and wooden building blocks. It’s the kind of place Santa needs to know about.
Emerging back into the nippy afternoon, I follow my nose to Cranach, a Vienna-style cafe named after Lucas Cranach (c. 1472-1553), a German painter who lived in Vienna for a short time. Opened 12 years ago by a local resident named Naomi Arai, whom it must be said bears no small resemblance to Cranach’s 1532 “Venus,” the cafe features 18 varieties of coffee. The atmosphere — full of quiet neighborly talk, clinking china cups and the sound of hot water being poured into individual pots — provides stark contrast to the vibe of chain stores.
Continuing my circuit, a little faster for the caffeine, I pass the pseudo-Greco columns of the headquarters of a new religious sect named Tenshin Seikyo Seido. As I turn the next corner, I can barely hear myself think for the “caw-cophony” of crows overhead, presumably roosting in Rikugien. Even the combined shouts of Bunkyo Gakuin junior- and high-school girls at PE classes are drowned out, and I make haste to get away.
Finally, the sun setting, I discover the weather-shredded lantern of traditional Japanese restaurant Rakan. Owner and chef Tadayoshi Kimura is, at 75, spry and infectiously happy. “I serve food you can really eat,” he says, explaining how he and his wife prepare everything from scratch, using absolutely fresh ingredients and minimal seasoning. “You need to call me in advance; I don’t do it any other way, really, because I have to go out that day to get the best of the market,” he apologizes. Already eager to reserve, I next learn that Rakan has a fifth-floor room with an unobstructed view of Rikugien. Toward the end of November, when the park is lit at night to show off the full splendor of koyo, six or more guests can reserve that room for a double feast, gastronomic and visual. “I tell people that’s my back yard,” Kimura says, with a laugh that’s been around the block many times. “And I think some people believe me!”