At the tail end of this year’s cherry-blossom season I set off for one of Tokyo’s prime viewing spots, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. My idea is to walk the quiet backstreets circling the garden, then canter through the park itself, which features several late-blooming varieties of sakura cherry trees.
Exiting JR Sendagaya Station in Shibuya Ward, I head north and through a dank passageway under the train tracks to the garden’s Sendagaya Gate.
The street is nearly deserted and flanked by stone embankments quilted with moss. As I head uphill, I recall that the garden is only a small portion of the land granted to Kiyonari Naito, a trusted vassal of Japan’s first shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), who established the nation’s political capital in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Legend has it that Ieyasu offered Naito all the land that he could encompass in a single, non-stop gallop on horseback. In those days when such places were still rural, Naito rode to Sendagaya in the south, north to Okubo, west to Yoyogi and east to Yotsuya — before his horse dropped dead.
A portion of Naito’s land was used to set up a rest stop along the heavily trafficked Koshu Kaido (one of five major roads linking Edo with outlying provinces). Along with its hitching posts and provision merchants, Naito’s rest stop named Shinjuku (shin meaning “new”; juku meaning “lodging”) also offered male travelers a roll in the hay. By the 1700s, Shinjuku was mentioned in a hayari-uta (popular song) as a place known for “the surprise of finding courtesans in the midst of horse manure.” A print by the woodblock master Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) alludes to the same in a depiction of Shinjuku dominated by the hind haunches of horses, with their droppings in the foreground — and a line of inns receding into the background.
I don’t expect to find horsetails on my 21st-century walk, but find them I do.
Passing the Sendagaya Gate, I stumble on Il Violino Magico, purveyor of violins, violas, contrabasses and cellos. Inside, the light is honeyed with varnish and the amber glow of instruments in glass cases.
Customer Naoyuki Tanaka, 38, has traveled from Tokyo’s northern suburb of Saitama to purchase, after 15 years of study, his first violin. At the sight of my camera, shy shop manager Takayoshi Kaneoka disappears into a back room, but Tanaka gallantly offers to pose for a photo. As I shoot, he confides that he is single, and “would be interested in a foreign girlfriend.” I promise to spread the word.
In a studio off to one side, I glimpse Seiichi Haranaga, 33, bow hairs taut between his leather glove and lips. He is surrounded by violin bridges, necks, and — sure enough — golden-colored horsetails from around the world. “Italian horsehair is the strongest,” Haranaga opines, and I learn that rehairing a bow retails at about ¥5,500 and a violin revarnish can require a month to complete and dry.
Worried I’ve fiddled away their time, I bid my thanks and head off northward. I find Akiko Akatsu, 62, the Tokyo branch manager of Osaka fashion brand Eternally Blaze. She’s blissing out on her park-side porch. Over coffee, Akatsu, dressed in the casual chic of her brand’s apparel, tells me, “Our clothing has a ‘no age, and no season’ concept.” Shop assistants show me some Eternally Blaze designs that sneak a hip-teen look into garments tailored for more mature women. I admire the styles, but am in danger of coveting items beyond my budget, so I thank Akiko and move on.
Passing a stretch of abandoned wooden homes showing bamboo ribs, then some rust-riddled apartment buildings, I come across the relatively modern facade of Technos College, a Japanese-language school with a 40-year history. Manager and instructor Yang Xiao Ping, who hails from Taiwan, gives me a brief tour of the classrooms — “a great view of the park from each”— and touts the program strengths: very cheap rates and witty instructors. “That’s right,” pipes up 20-year-old student Magali Walidel from Lausanne, Switzerland. “Yang-sensei is especially funny.”
Rolling her eyes, Yang-sensei points me on my way, noting that just north of the school, a four-lane bypass is being built along one of the quietest corners of the park. A construction worker I meet confirms this, racing off to make me a copy of the plans for this route that will connect up sections of Meiji Dori avenue and lessen congestion around Shinjuku Station.
Because completion is a few years off, I have to detour toward the Takashimaya department store opposite the South exit of the station, then east into Shinjuku Ward, and down narrow alleys lined with what may be Tokyo’s cheapest hotels. One, ¥1,800 a night, slouches toward decrepitude, more barn than boarding. A fresh-faced young man pops out, and explains it is his grandmother’s business, built just after World War II. He begs me not to take a photo of it, and I agree, but ask if this is because of questionable clientele. “Noooo,” he says, catching my drift, “Our rooms are booked for months, mostly by itinerant laborers.” Still, he doesn’t want photos, so I rein in my impulse.
Next I hit the promenade between the garden’s popular Shinjuku and Okido Gates, noting a farrago of boutiques, sports shops, and eateries.
Take Dog & Cafe, for example, which welcomes humans even without a canine escort. Pooch treats includes liver paste and pumpkin-ball entrees, fur- and nail-trimming services — and even hotel facilities for temporarily abandoned hounds, at twice the price of those for humans on the other side of the park.
From there I float into Largo, a snowboard-goods shop specializing in Gentem sticks hand-crafted by Taro Tamai of Hokkaido. Fumi Kikuura, 52, has been selling slick fishtail-shaped and bamboo-cored snow surfers for a quarter of a century. “We’re made for maniacs and pros,” Kikuura says, “but we do get foreigners in here, too.”
A few doors down, I drop into Tokyo Aqualung Service, and dream of plumbing the depths with the dive shop’s pro, Seiichi Shimada. “I think we’re Tokyo’s oldest diving school,” Shimada, 46, tells me, “and I can get you certified in four days — one day of lecture, one of pool practice, and two days of sea lecture.” The package includes private instruction, food, equipment and transportation for just under ¥80,000. On condition I do not name names in print, Shimada shows me scuba snaps of some of his famous clients, hidden behind masks and regulators.
The thought of squeezing into a wetsuit one day soon causes me to pass up several spiffy Chinese restaurants, and opt instead for Piman, a vegetarian eatery with 30 years in the neighborhood. Only after I order a mushroom pilaf — four kinds of mushrooms in brown rice, mountains of alfalfa sprouts, cabbage, daikon, and tomatoes — do I realize each dish has a curative theme. Some reduce irritation, some prevent cancer, and mine is meant to lower cholesterol. Regardless, it’s filling and I feel healthy as a horse when I pay the check.
Then, near the park’s Okido Gate, I peek into order-made interior-decoration shop 403, drawn to its elegant display of kumiko (wooden latticework screens), including shoin-shoji (room dividers) and ranma (transom inserts) handmade by craftsmen in Toyama Prefecture. Fashioned from various timbers, the patterns — flax-leaf, sesame and sakura — remind me that I had hoped to end the day in the garden.
To complete my course, I follow a small path toward the south flank of the garden. I had planned to spur myself briskly through this area of private homes, but stumble on Tonomine Naito Shrine. Amid towering keyaki (Japanese Zelkova) trees — some so old they were probably here when Naito saddled up for his circuit — I am surprised to find a small shrine to his horse. Like an escapee from a carousel, the doe-eyed white equine peers mournfully from his sacred locked stall in Naito-cho, the area named as much in his honor as that of his rider.
From here, I gird my loins and return to Shinjuku Gyoen’s Sendagaya Gate, pay the ¥200 entrance fee, and inhale deeply with relief at the sight of rolling hillocks and pseudo pastures. The garden’s closing time announcements start a mere 10 minutes later. I am joined in jovial defiance of curfew by a professor from Kobe and his wife, and Katsumi Kojima, 55, an artist who paints faces on acorns with white correction fluid. Kojima sets us on a steeplechase around the garden he knows well, pointing out hidden trees in full bloom and the otherworldly, aerial roots of mighty cypress. Until, that is, we’re finally herded by park officials at full gallop off their grassy terrain.