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Spring training in Mukojima

by Kit Nagamura

It’s hard to think of February as springlike, what with snowfalls, freezing winds and a dusting of dead leaves everywhere. But I know from experience that the intrepid Prunus mume, or plum tree, blooms this month, and a trek to see some blossoms seems de rigueur. From the Tobu Isesaki Line, I get off at Higashi Mukojima Station to search out Hyakkaen, a garden that has showcased plum trees for centuries.

Before I clear the south end of the station, though, I find the Tobu Museum of Transport and Culture. I pop in — it seems rude not to, having just availed myself of their services — and for ¥200 I pay to see “The Charms of Railways.”

I’m not much of a “trainiac,” but like most of the young children in the museum, I’m immediately drawn to the various simulation stations where visitors can practice driving model trains and buses, or choose to navigate along a virtual track with realistic and vertigo-inducing high-definition screens.

“It’s more difficult than it looks,” says 17-year-old Yamata Suzuki, looking not unlike a conductor in his school uniform. He explains the mechanics of turning and braking until I develop platform-performance phobia and drift off to examine the full-scale displays.

Inside the museum’s 1924 Deha 1 Class No. 5 electric railcar, I admire the warm and elegant wooden interior, velvet seats and clerestory windows. Then three museum guides, popular with the youngest museum visitors, link shoulders, make like a train, and as they chug along, inform me that the 1890 Beyer, Peacock and Company No. 5 steam locomotive is set to “depart.” At this, the locomotive releases an ear-piercing whistle, as a conductor sets its massive metal wheels spinning in place. The sound is impressive — deafening, in fact. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t spin my own wheels too long, so I thank the staff and head out again.

Walking toward the Sumida River, I pass through a neighborhood of rusting storefronts and weathered facades. One, a machine-tool shop, is strangled by dormant vines, and curtains billow out from its leaf-filled offices. Clearly, the area has seen better days. But it has also suffered and survived far worse, including fires, floods, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II bombing raids.

Approaching Hyakkaen, or Garden of One Hundred Flowers, I keep my expectations in check, but I can already detect the fragrance of plum blossoms. I pay the modest ¥150 entrance fee and, glancing through the official brochure, learn that Hyakkaen has been replanted numerous times since its establishment back in 1804 by antiques dealer Kikuu Sahara. Gifted to the city in 1939, it was designated “a famous site of historical significance” in 1978.

Most of the gardens I’ve seen from the Edo Period (1603-1868) are highly refined, formally landscaped affairs, designed to reflect the elite learning and wealth of their daimyo (feudal lord) owners. Hyakkaen, by comparison, has almost no topographical landscaping and no set spots from which one is meant to appreciate a premeditated vista. Instead, the grounds have a slightly higgledy-piggledy appearance.

Takeshi Tsuchiya, the 39-year old head of the garden’s service center, happily tells me that the garden gets a lot of TLC, but agrees that it has a casual atmosphere. “Your shoulders don’t stiffen up here, and you don’t feel like you need to be solemn and dignified,” he says.

Tsuchiya kindly offers to show me around the area’s 29 sekihi (stone monuments) with poems and paintings created by friends of Sahara who helped design and plant the original garden. “My favorite stone is the Nisshin-no-hi,” Tsuchiya says, “which honors two deities, Kukunochi-no-Kami and Kayano-Hime-no-Kami, the Shinto gods of trees and fields.” Tsuchiya believes Sahara himself placed the monument when first planning the garden.

As we stroll, Tsuchiya tells me he chose a career in garden management because he wanted people to delight in growing things. “Delight” is the word for this garden, teeming as it is with birds and fuzzy with pussy willows. Under one magenta plum tree I detect a cinnamon scent. “Cinnamon?” Tsuchiya exclaims, eyebrows shooting up. He promptly pulls down a sprig to check, then laughs. “I never noticed this, but you’re right!”

We come full circle at the garden’s entrance, and Tsuchiya excuses himself to oversee the transplanting of bulbs and seedlings. I head to the garden’s tiny teahouse, named Sahara.

The air inside is noisome with fumes from kerosene heaters as I slide back the glass doors. I sit down and order matcha (powdered green tea) from the slight yet exquisitely composed man behind the counter. His hair is tied in a small ponytail, and he looks like one of those characters in a historical TV show who pretends to be a farmer, yet is secretly the world’s most kick-ass swordsman.

My order comes with a trio of sugar-coated vegetables to balance the bitter matcha. “The vegetable flavors come through nicely,” my tea master remarks. I taste one, hesitantly, and am surprised at the texture and nuanced sweetness of this local wagashi (Japanese sweet). We chat, and I eventually ask my server his name. I should have known: He turns out to be the eighth-generation descendant of the garden’s creator. It is somehow deeply moving that Shigemoto Sahara, 63, still spends his days watching over his ancestor’s world.

Shigemoto paints me a picture of the man behind the plants. Kikuu journeyed from Sendai in the late 1700s as a teenager and worked in a Kabuki shibai ochaya (theater teahouse). His contact with that culturally savvy crowd helped him succeed in his next profession, selling antiques. “But he engaged in illegal auctions, and the authorities caught him,” Shigemoto confides. “They made him quit his job. I think he initially came here, to what was just barren fields, to hide out.”

According the Shigemoto, his ancestor was an energetic iconoclast, fond of writing kyōka (comical tanka) poems and entertaining all kinds of artists. Though Kikuu initially planted 365 plum trees, his literati friends convinced him to raise four seasons’ worth of flowers, particularly those mentioned in classic compilations of poetry such as the “Manyoshu.” “Still,” Shigemoto says, “in this garden, the gods of nature change things all the time. It’s not so much created as tended. In fact, some suggest that Hyakkaen was Tokyo’s first biotope.” Today, Hyakken’s 10,000 sq. meters feature only 60 plum trees but more than 500 kinds of flowering plants.

It’s well past lunchtime by the time I leave Mukojima Hyakkaen, and the area’s restaurants are closed. Fueled on green tea alone, I head toward the Sumida River. I come across Shirahige Jinja (which dates to 951 A.D.) and inquire at the window about the roots of the name: “white whiskers shrine.” The priest, sporting a black goatee, hands me stacks of pamphlets on the Shinto religion and reveals that the name originates from a white-bearded Korean deity worshipped by immigrants to the Lake Biwa area. The Korean god apparently resembles Jurojin, one the Japanese seven lucky gods and the deity of wisdom and longevity also honored at Shirahige Shrine.

Continuing along what was once the edge of the Sumida River, I pay quick respects at a local kosodate jizō (child-rearing bodhisattva), then, drawn by a delicious scent, cross the road to the fluttering banners of a shop called Kibikoya.

Inside the three-seat establishment, I find Masaru Fukunaga, 66, burying steamed skewers of kibidango (sweet millet dumplings) dredged in sugared kinako (soy flour). I continue my calorically challenging day and order a set. Fukunaga relates how his son’s enthusiasm for kibidango, the favored sustenance of folk hero Momotaro, is what convinced him to try it as a business venture in the early 1980s. He and his wife took on the project, researched the competition and even helped experts in Tokyo’s Kappabashi restaurant wholesale district design a special machine to make the tiny dumplings. Fukunaga’s versions are plumper and boast a nuttier taste than most I have tried.

Circling back to Hyakkaen once more, I recall Shigemoto’s words that “the garden attracts repeaters.” I make one final round of the bases before the garden’s “time to go home” music crackles out in the pale pink dusk. Over a small plot of land to the east, slated for an apartment complex but saved from development by garden supporters, a sliver of moon seems to dangle from the branches of a plum tree. Just to the south, Tokyo’s Skytree tower sheds a new light on Mukojima’s future — hopefully one that hits a home run for Hyakkaen as well.

  • MichaelChean

    Kit: Another beautiful essay. Thanks!