On a glowering October morning, I exit the Chiyoda Line at Yushima Station and stroll northwesterly through the back streets of Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.
I am in search of Kyu-Iwasaki-tei, the Western-style residence commissioned by Baron Hisaya Iwasaki (1865-1955), third president of Mitsubishi, the company his family founded. My path climbs off the public road, wends below mature trees, then dead-ends at an uninhabited 19th-century mansion.
A chilly wind tosses the spidery limbs of a Himalayan cedar in the grounds. Ornate arches, pilasters, and fish-scale shingles give the place, now open to the public, a haunted air. I shell out ¥400 to enter and creep shoeless on the creaking parquet floors. From somewhere down the high-ceilinged hall, I hear haunting music. A soprano sings Yoshinao Nakada’s melancholic “Chiisai Aki Mitsuketa” (“Hints of Autumn Found”) and my skin prickles. I have, it seems, stumbled on one of the free seasonal concerts held at Kyu-Iwasaki-tei.
Baron Iwasaki, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, commissioned English architect Josiah Condor (1852-1920) to incorporate elements of U.S. estate designs into his Jacobean-style structure. This explains a graceful Ionic colonnade on the second-floor balcony at the rear of the home. It is here, with music wafting from below, that Maki Nishihara, celebrating her coming-of-age 20th birthday, poses in formal kimono and Nihongami (formal Japanese hairstyle) like a reincarnation of one of the Baron’s beautiful guests from a century past.
“It’s all real,” Nishihara says, which is reassuring to hear on several levels. She is, though, referring to her hairstyle, achieved without wig or hairpieces.
I learn that she is studying tea ceremony, then enjoy glimpses of her as she tours the estate with her parents. She helps me realize that Condor designed a house that, despite its likeness to an English stately home, could showcase rather than eclipse Japanese decorative sensibility. Only in the rooms done in aquamarine and gold kinkarakawa-gami — a wallpaper made from layered sheets of washi (thick, traditional Japanese paper) to resemble leather, then embossed and gilded — does the complexity of her kimono seem a trifle discordant.
Gardens spool out behind Kyu-Iwasaki-tei, dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) when feudal lords of the Echigo-Takada clan designed them. Though shrunk to a third of their original girth, and bordered now by some hideously bland apartment and office buildings, a selective eye can still pick out vistas of beauty.
I wander through a hall connecting the Western-style home to the Japanese residence, whose Shoin style harks back to almost 1,000 years ago. After admiring the expansive formal tatami rooms, wall paintings and characteristically Shoin tokonoma (alcoves for displaying scrolls and flowers), I enjoy a bowl of green tea and a sweet shaped to mimic a small glossy persimmon. In the tidy Japanese garden beside me, a single bright-red leaf falls on the moss, where it glows like a coal as the sun makes a brief appearance.
After tea, I make a quick round of the main gardens, heading for where I imagine members of the postwar Headquarters of the Allied Occupation, temporarily housed here, would have gathered. The billiards room, a dusty gothic Swiss-style chalet, is locked. I peer through the windows, spying the staircase down to a tunnel said to connect this building and the main residence. Something startles me from the shadows, but a flash of gleaming green eyes makes me think it was only a cat.
I head back toward the station along a quiet street in the shadow of Yushima Shrine. But it’s lunchtime, and I’m lured in by a tree-covered garden terrace and the aroma of roasting garlic coming from Due Italiano. The restaurant’s owner, waitress and cook, Hatsue Toda, is loath to give her age but, swift as a meerkat, pronounces that all first-time customers must order the tomato pasta.
Truth be told, I’m glum; plain old tomato pasta bores my socks off. But at Due Italiano the dish arrives loaded with organic grilled veggies and mozzarella “flown in weekly from Italy,” according to Toda. “Here it comes now,” she says as a guy pops out of a delivery van bearing a long box draped with cheese cloth. All the way from Italy? I’m not sure, but I’m content to stay focused on my meal. Cheap and tasty food in a quiet garden puts this place on the map for me.
Down the road, I stop at Yanaka Coffee, a tiny shop with burlap bags of beans, convivial customers and a hypnotic aroma. At this offshoot of the original in Yanaka Ginza, you choose one of 20 types of beans and get them custom-roasted. “Coffee quickly loses flavor after roasting, so you have to use it quickly,” Barista Tanaka says. He shows me a barrel of artisanal, Jose Farm “parchment” beans from Brazil, with their translucent tan skins intact. “This seems to help preserve their freshness,” he says.
Over coffee, I ask about a wooden home, elegant in pitch-black and pristine white, across the street from the cafe. I get directed toward two women drinking ice coffee and chatting nearby. Both live-wire women, Kazuko Okubo, a 75-year-old self-confessed Steve McQueen fan, and Ayako Kikukawa, 73, were born and raised in Yushima.
Thrusting tokens of “downtown kindness” on me — fragrant apples and rice crackers — they explain that this Meiji Era (1868-1912) house has a name: Hagurodoh (Black Feather Grotto). It has survived, they tell me, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, fires, bombs — and even the neighborhood urge to renovate.
“Well, frankly, I don’t like that old-style house as much as this kind,” Okubo quips, pointing to the humble storefronts, rusty and fuscous, on either side of us. Then I learn that she owns Yanaka Coffee’s building. Laughing, Kikukawa promises to introduce me to the owner of Hagurodoh.
From there, across busy Kasuga Avenue and in an aging mall, I enter Hagurodoh Kimura Tohsuke Co., an art gallery run for 40 years by second- generation owner, Shinako Kimura. She tells me how her father entertained and sold work to various celebrities, including Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
A couple of curious folk lounge on the gallery sofas drinking tea. One man, in particular, appears to be covered in dirt. He catches me staring.
“You think I look like a bum, I bet,” he says, tilting his head. Kimura quickly clues me in. Her guest is Sadao Yasumoro, internationally renowned for his tea-house gardens and his exquisite walls and fences fashioned from bamboo and other natural materials. “I’m not a garden designer,” he remarks, “but a garden philosopher.”
Yasumoro is currently reworking the garden of Yushima Tenjin shrine. Invited to watch for a bit, I thank Kimura for her hospitality and follow after Kikukawa, who generously guides me through Yushima’s mossy green alleys to the foot of Onna-zaka (Women’s Slope), the easier steps up to the shrine.
Sited on the highest hill in the area, Yushima Tenjin has graced its lofty position since it was built in 458 to enshrine the mythical deity Ameno-tajikaraono-mikoto, God of Strength and Sports. Since 1355, the spirit of famed literary scholar Sugawara Michizane (845-903) has also resided there. This means that during the season of entrance exams — coinciding with when the shrine’s plum trees blossom in early spring — it can get crowded with folk praying for academic success.
This autumn afternoon, however, there are few visitors and they scarcely notice Yasumoro in his blue workmen’s hanten (cotton jacket) and hat, hugging a turtle-shaped boulder just delivered from Hokkaido. “This turtle tried many times to slip away,” he jokes, “but we caught him finally with wire ropes.”
Yasumoro is constructing a waterfall of boulders sourced from around Japan, “because that makes everybody happy,” he laughs. But his love clearly lies in the subtle details of beauty he has added around the shrine: the energy of stones dynamically balanced in moss, mustard-colored soft earthen walls, a fence of bamboo that is a symphony of stabilizing and swirling branches. As he explains all this to me, a small group forms and follows us around. They, and I, are mesmerized by a philosophy we might have taken for granted without his explanation. At this shrine to scholarship, we feel our spirits stir with new learning.
So much of Yushima, from its artistic heights and friendly streets to the creative fingers in its earth, is of a quality that could haunt for a lifetime.