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Eats, shoots and leaves in Hakusan

by Kit Nagamura

It’s hunting season in Tokyo. I kit up and trek out to the Hakusan area of Bunkyo Ward, hoping to shoot (with camera) the wild shades of autumn.

Of all the bright leaves I plan to bag, origami papers are last on my mind. However, emerging from Exit A1 of the Tozai-Mita subway line’s Hakusan Station, a sign directly across the street reads, in English, “Gallery Origami House” — so I zip over to investigate.

Glued to his computer, 29-year-old staffer Satoshi Kamiya is too busy to chat. That’s fine, because the gallery’s displays of origami masterpieces from around the world speak for themselves: impossibly intricate scaled dragons, dramatic masks, realistic insects, a spiky puffer fish and a life-size crane.

The space was opened 21 years ago by Makoto Yamaguchi, 66-year-old author of numerous books on origami and chief editor of Origami Tanteidan, a magazine focused on practical and theoretical aspects of origami. I note that quiet Kamiya’s works are among some of the best pieces shown. Yamaguchi’s gallery also sells a variety of subtly color-gradated papers and creative diagrams that almost make me want to join the fold.

But on my current quest, vistas should unfold, so I cross the street again, heading north. I pass the tiny plastic-enclosed terrace of Italian Bar Milan, where owner Kenkichi Honda, 37, preps a big bowl of mixed olives. In business but a year, Chef Honda’s place already smells like success, garlic and parsley fragrances wafting from the kitchen, and informal deck- seating around Suntory whisky barrels.

Climbing one of Bunkyo Ward’s many steep slopes, I fight like a salmon through Toyo University students on their lunch break. To escape, I duck off left into a nondescipt alleyway and discover Hakusan Shrine (founded 948, but moved to this location in 1655). Famed for its June Hydrangea Festival, the shrine’s tranquil grounds are just as lovely in fall foliage, when the shrine hides shyly behind a curtain of yellow willow leaves. Sunlight floods the hilltop and cats scamper in the fallen leaves as I count 14 mikoshi kura (portable shrine storehouses), attesting to Hakusan’s longevity and importance.

I’ve done this trip backwards, I realize, locating and descending the shrine’s entrance steps. At busy Hakusan Avenue, on a whim, I take a quick jog left to discover what must be one of Tokyo’s tiniest sweet shops, Matsuemon. In a display case scarcely a meter wide, shop owner Shin Abe, 45, offers both wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and wayogashi, which mingle Western and Japanese flavors. I buy one of the latter, an “omelette” comprising a thin green-tea sponge cake folded over whipped cream and studded with sweet chestnuts. It is fantastic. Abe’s all-natural ingredients and organic, unprocessed green tea give the cake both balance and depth of flavor, and its contrasting textures are an added pleasure.

As I finish up, Abe explains why he quit a good desk job to open his own shop. “The joy of creating things is what I need,” he says. “That and personal one-on-one interaction.” I’m in danger of having a personal one-on-one interaction with another “omelette,” but am saved when a customer pops in and buys the last one.

Glad for the workout, I climb an extra-steep hill through a neighborhood quiet but for occasional heavy panting of student running teams sprinting the slopes. I enjoy these pink-cheeked distractions until I reach a dead-end wall, behind which is my day’s main quarry: Koishikawa Botanical Gardens.

I get to the front gate only to discover that tickets to the garden (¥330) are only sold at the neighborhood convenience store. I go back, get one, and roll up to the gate again. Once inside, I know it’s worth every yen.

Strolling Japan’s oldest botanical gardens on a glorious day when the maples and ginkgoes are turning colors, what are the odds of seeing no one? I walk for over an hour and have the place apparently to myself with the exception of a white heron shaking a leg along the pond’s muddy bottom, trying to scare up dinner.

At the main research facility, a late Art Deco building by Yoshikazu Uchida, I meet the garden’s genial head, Jin Murata, who has just returned from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu with a plant I have never seen before. “It’s a Balanophora japonica,” he says, clearly excited, holding up a network of tubers and brilliant-red inflorescence. “In Japanese, it’s called tsuchi torimochi (earth birdlime). People use the rhizomes, which are very sticky, as a glue to catch little birds.”

I ask Murata the main focus of his work. “Maintenance,” he answers, laughing. “Tending 161,000 sq. meters of over 4,000 species of plants takes time,” he explains — “and money.” Hence Murata’s “Life in Green” project (green.todai-kikin.jp), which aims to raise funds to support research and facility upgrades in the garden.

Murata fell in love with plants early on. When he was 10, his observant and clever dad offered to pay him to put together a catalog with photos and notes of all the plants in their neighborhood. “I finished when I was 12, and my father pretended to still be interested,” Murata says. After specializing in botany at the University of Tokyo, a field-trip sighting of a pitcher plant poured Murata permanently into his own “life in green.”

From Murata, I learn that Hakusan Jinja (shrine) was originally located within the botanical gardens, and that it also served as the childhood home of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), Japan’s fifth shogun. Tsunayoshi planted a medicinal herb garden on the property in 1684, and the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), established the country’s first hospital for the poor; the well once used inside the sanitorium still exists.

Among many contenders, the garden’s most important treasure, according to Murata, is a towering 300-year-old ginkgo tree. I thank Murata for his time and head off to see the female gymnosperm from whose ovules Sakugoro Hirase became the first ever to discover, in 1896, the fertilization of seed plants by spermatozoids. She is dazzling in leaves like gold coins, a living monument to Japan’s entry into modern botony, and to beauty otherwise.

I exit the park and walk to its southwest corner, where, on Murata’s recommendation, I visit the red-and-white wooden Koishikawa Annex of the University Museum, University of Tokyo. Curator Miyoko Hoshino, in charge of an art show on the premises, explains that this is the oldest of all the university’s buildings, dating as it does from 1874. Once housing the Igakko (Medicinal College), the entire building was dismantled at the nearby Hongo campus and reassembled here in 1969. Hoshino points out that the architecture is giyofu in style, or pseudo-Western. “This is what architects unfamiliar with Western proportions and techniques dreamed and imagined was Western,” she says.

Wandering, I see exactly what she means: It’s Greek meets Buddhist temple. Ionic columns have onion-shaped brass toppings, eaves carvings are not of dragons but fat white camellias, and the green cupola has Greek Revival lines but Daruma eyes. It is an unexpectedly charming fantasy.

The show Hoshino is orchestrating (through Dec. 5) is similarly dreamlike. “Fantasma: Kate Rohde’s Chamber of Specimen” mingles colorful rhinestone- encrusted taxidermy works by Australian artist Rohde with the museum’s specimens. “The university collection here, of posed bones, organs and animals, no longer has academic value,” Hoshino says, adding that the museum is slated for an overhaul in 2011, when it will be devoted to architectural displays.

When I inquire about a place nearby to grab a non-taxidermied bite, the museum staff shrug. So, imagine my surprise to find, two minutes away, Chizuko Ono, 65, frying up sweet beet-flour piroshkis and loading meat into a tangy borsht at Russian restaurant Sonia.

Ono’s grandmother was stuck in China at the end of World War II, but ran off to live with friends in Russia, where she stayed for eight years. “She got the last boat back to Japan,” Ono says, “and she brought her recipes.”

Ono, with 36 years in the business, reduces the original recipes’ spices a tad, but adds quality Japanese beef, succulent cabbage . . . and the results are so fantastic that I order everything in double, to take the flavors home. As steam condenses on Sonia’s windows, fall leaves and dreamy tunes from David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” swirl in my head.