High on a hill in Tokyo’s central Mita district, the Australian Embassy is easy to spot. Two national coats of arms bolted to the outside of the building feature oversize images of emus and kangaroos, designated as symbols of this self-styled progressive nation because they supposedly can’t walk backwards.
But ambling into the history of the embassy site is fair dinkum fascinating. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate required the nation’s wealthy lords to maintain a residence in Edo (present-day Tokyo).
The Hachisuka clan from Tokushima in Shikoku was no exception; their Edo residence was situated on land now owned by the Australian government.
Mochiaki Hachisuka (1846-1918) was a grandson of Shogun Ienari Tokugawa, but anticipating political upheaval in the leadup to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he shrewdly shifted his alliance to the Imperial throne. Newly relaxed laws on foreign travel during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) then allowed Mochiaki to attend Oxford University in his late 20s, before returning to serve as second president of Japan’s House of Peers (the upper house of the Imperial Diet).
Mochiaki’s son, Marquis Masaaki Hachisuka (1871-1932), and grandson, Masauji (1903-53), both studied in England as well, at Cambridge University, and returned with a liking for British architecture. In 1927, they built a Western-style home with Art Deco lines and landscaped gardens on two levels. Purchased by the Australian government in 1952, the ivy-cloaked mansion housed the embassy until 1988, when it was torn down and replaced in 1990 with the present aluminum-and-concrete structure.
Escorted by charming embassy Media and Project Officer Noriko Honda, I was conducted on a quick circuit of the upper lawn garden. The lower garden, which the embassy sold off two decades ago, is thick with 400-year-old trees that camouflage a cave and an ancient well some believe was the first bathing place of the renowned Heian Period samurai, Watanabe- no-Tsuna (953-1025).
At the embassy’s rear gates, I peer through a lace of spider webs and practically Jurassic foliage. I spy several mossy clearings and remnants of the old paths — but no well. Oh well.
As consolation, Honda shows me a massive, 4.8-meter-high Edo Period tachi gata (pedestal) stone lantern in the upper gardens that blends organically with the garden’s stunning cycads and conifers.
But kangaroo-style, I need to hop ever onward, so I bound downhill heading north. Mere paces from the embassy, I pass a kosodate (child-raising) Buddhist jizo statue in a small shed.
There’s no explanation posted, so I stop passerby Tokiko Nomoto, who, at 71, climbs the slope like someone half her age. “That’s the Shioami Ojizosama,” she informs me. The Sea-Bathed Bodhisattva? “Well, it was pulled out of the ocean not far from here, and you can see from its face that it spent some time in the water,” she says. The stone jizo has a decidely salt-bitten appearance. I am reminded that before landfill and construction, the bluff I’m standing on was on the ocean’s edge.
I ask Nomoto if she knows how the jizo went to sea.
“Who knows, really? Perhaps a typhoon carried it out,” she says. Staff at a nearby temple, Ryugenji, look after the rescued jizo. The priest’s wife there agrees that its origins are mysterious, but suggests that in the 1620s, when many temples were made to relocate away from central locations so the city of Edo could expand, the jizo might have been misplaced or discarded.
Back on the street, a flock of school children just out of school charge down the hill on either side of me, then disappear up a flight of worn steps. I follow them to find Moto Shinmeigu, a wooden shrine situated inside the second floor of a modern concrete structure.
“I’m responsible for the rebuilding of this shrine in 1996,” chief priest Shigeru Aoki, 75, says. “It took me more than a decade to get everyone’s stamp of approval to do so. But the old place had a straw roof. Bugs came in! Rain came in! Someone just had to fix it, so I did!”
But how old is this shrine, I ask, expecting an Edo Period answer. “In 2005,” Aoki-san grins, “Moto Shinmeigu turned exactly 1,000 years old. It was established in the Heian Period by the 66th emperor of Japan.” He points out a glistening drum beside me. “And that was made from a tree growing in the precincts all that time, an ancient zelkova. The tree was sick, or we would have left it,” he says wistfully.
When I ask Aoki if I may take his photo, he dashes off, all dimples and laughter, and returns in richly brocaded priestly purple hakama trousers, carrying a tray with glasses of chilled green tea. I am moved by his kindness, and as we chat, teeny golden insects float through a shaft of afternoon light and the sounds of children echo through the shrine. I imagine I could sit here for the next 1,000 years.
Mosquitoes prick the moment, though, so I thank my nice priest for his time and tea, and head down the hill. Apartment buildings are mid-build here, and I wonder if the area’s construction-material shops have sprung up simultaneously.
I peek into one, Matsumoto Shoten, which sells plumbing supplies. “We’ve been here since, oh, 1916,” says 70-something Shigeo Matsumoto. “No we haven’t,” counters his nephew, Minoru Matsumoto, 39, as a customer pops into the store. “Hey, get me an elbow and a nipple,” he says, slowly focusing in on me. I know he’s after plumbing gear, but there’s an awkward nanosecond before Shigeo’s brother Keisaku, 77 — the store’s owner — returns from an errand. “Actually, we’ve been in business since about 1950,” he says, glancing at his brother. “We get foreign customers here, DIY fanatics, but please tell people that we only take cash, and we don’t speak English,” he pleads.
“Hey, but we speak body language,” Shigeo adds. Minoru looks embarrassed, but the customer is amused. I decide to give as good as I am getting, so I request a plumbing-fixture stance from the three proprietors for their photo. They make like drainpipes, but even mid-pose, Shigeo says, “Look at our shop logo! What do you think it is?”
“It’s a water drop!” Keisaku exclaims — “and any day now, some kid is going to graffiti in some eyeballs on it!”
If the day were not trickling away, I’d doodle on the logo myself.
Crossing the Furukawa River, swallowed by concrete banks and a highway overhead, I continue straight ahead, down a quiet stretch of road with a Little China feel to it.
I pop in to Kai Fu Go, a pretty tea shop by day and bar by night that serves “cheap snacks” to accompany quaffs of shochu spirits mixed with jasmine or oolong tea. Owner Kotaro Shitara, 56, is shy and will not come out from the back to talk with me at first. “In the backstreets,” he calls out, “we all prefer to hide in the back.”
This may be why he doesn’t know about Komachien, a Chinese foot- and body- massage parlor across the street on the second floor. Their sensual Shangri-la of superb reflexology treatment (which I can’t resist) begins with a tingling salt scrub, then moves into an intense foot-prodding before finishing with tea and organic treats.
It’s on different feet that I leave, springing past a small fish shop that’s closed for the day. Two girls blow soap bubbles in the street and an old woman watches from her sidewalk chair.
I brush past racks of plastic-wrapped clothing at Hasegawa Fashion in search of the street-association’s chairman, Susumu Hasegawa, 69, who offers me a sharp picture of its history.
“Some of our best business years were in the 1950s,” Hasegawa recalls. “Young men traveled here from the countryside to help build Tokyo Tower. Before they went home, they came here to have a suit made to show their families they had been successful in the city.”
He goes on the explain that the street was until recently inhabited mostly by field hands who’d come to Tokyo to find better-paying work. “That’s why we have the Kakashi Matsuri (Scarecrow Festival) on our street every October. In fact, of all the festivals in the whole city of Tokyo, ours was voted the best!”
Sure enough, neighboring Ogawaya, a homemade-tofu shop, displays a poster proclaiming this street the Festival Grand Prix winner of 2008. I duck inside to say hello to owner Hidekazu Shibuya, 70, who has been making tofu here for 50 years.
“I learned my skills from my father, but my kids won’t do this. Tofu shops are disappearing rapidly,” he says. As he shows me his grinder, steamer, and strainer, children pass by, calling out “tadaima!” (“I’m home”). Are they all his, I ask. No, as it turns out; the neighborhood kids just feel at home with him.
When I drop in at Musashino Soba, several stores down, it is still early for a bowl of noodles. Hiroshi and Kimiko Horie, 68 and 60, good-naturedly offer to cook me something, but I’d rather talk.
“We used to serve grilled eel,” Hiroshi recalls, his wife on his arm, “but during the war, it got expensive, so we opted to serve a cheaper meal. And anyway, we lost out to a more famous eel restaurant.”
With no hard feelings, Hiroshi points out the competition up the hill, named Nodaiwa. I detect the sweet fragrance of grilling anguilliformes as kimono-clad Hatsue Ota hastens me into the three-story, 170-year-old eatery with a warm antique interior.
Fifth-generation owner, Kanejiro Kanemoto, 81, has just this evening flown back from his Paris branch of Nodaiwa, but I find him grilling dinners in the sizzling kitchen with his team of chefs.
“He’s here every single day,” says his daughter, the sixth-generation heir apparent, “and he climbs the Japan Alps in his free time.” Haute cuisine from a mountain-climbing, jetset octogenarian? Can’t get much higher than that.