It’s time to bask in sunshine, birdsong, and blossom-filled breezes. Koganei Park, situated at the center of the Tokyo metropolis, looks like the ideal spot for such a “spring-gasm.” The JR Chuo express train whisks me from Yotsuya to Musashi-Koganei in less than 30 minutes, and I alight with glee.
At the station’s north exit, however, I’m confronted with a soul-sucking sprawl-o-rama of pachinko parlors, banks and fast-food joints. Hanging onto hope, I jog off to the right, spotting a stretch of greenery beyond an alley crammed with bicycles. I hike east along the edge of this green patch — a cross between a tree farm and a botanical garden. This slice of paradise is roped, fenced and walled off, but I glimpse fields inside dotted with fallen chestnuts, cherries in full bloom and camellias groaning with oversized, voluminous flowers. The property yawns on, and I wonder to whom it belongs. Finding no one to ask, I continue wandering north.
Along narrow lanes where singing birds are the primary auditory entertainment, I admire tidy suburban homes. The occasional open field, where vegetable farmers turn the soil and mark out rows for spring planting, reminds me that Koganei was once the green grocer of Edo (the old name for modern-day Tokyo).
Ten minutes on, I cross a bridge over the remnants of the Tamagawa Josui, a 43 km aqueduct completed in 1654 to supply Edo with potable water. Ukiyo-e woodblock print artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicted this conduit in several of his works, with its grassy banks covered in yamazakura (mountain cherry trees) planted by Shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa (1684-1751). Today, the banks are narrower and made of gravel, but are still pleasantly lined with cherry trees.
Across the bridge, I enter the 80-hectare grounds of Koganei Park. A light wind carries petals off from the park’s approximately 1,700 cherry trees, rendering the air pointillistic. The hanafubuki (blizzard of petals) settles on picnickers, lovers and children enjoying a kamishibai (paper puppet show) performance. It’s heavenly.
At the end of a broad promenade, I locate the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, a branch of the Edo-Tokyo Museum in east Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. The museum’s grand entranceway, or Kokudan, was originally built in 1940 in front of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of Japan’s first emperor assuming rule. I learn from Curator Kaori Kawakami (45), that all of the museum’s 30 buildings, have been rescued from various areas in Tokyo, carefully disassembled and reconstructed as faithfully as possible here. Kawakami offers me informative maps and a welcoming smile, so I pony up the ¥400 to enter.
Initially, I head left, past charming wooden homes from the early 1900s, mingling Western and Japanese architectural elements. Further on, the displays feature older, thatched-roofed abodes from the Edo period (1603-1868). Inside one, Hiroya Takahashi, a 73-year-old volunteer docent, energetically stokes an irori (sunken fireplace). “We used hearths like these for cooking, and the smoke kept the roof free of bugs,” he tells me. Over the intimate fragrance of burning wood, I detect a fancier scent. “Oh, that’s me,” Takahashi quips. “I’m wearing Abercrombie & Fitch’s Cologne 41.”
Sensing he’s fun as well as informed, I beg Takahashi to show me the highlights of the museum. I follow his cologne through the back garden of the home which early modernist architect Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986) built for himself in 1942. Though Maekawa’s public buildings — among them the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno Park — bear the stamp of his Swiss mentor, Le Courbusier, his private home is more elementally Japanese. Takahashi points out that the house was built during World War II, when materials were sparse and foundation sizes limited. Elegantly simple, with southern-facing windows for light, sliding encasement doors for weather-proofing and a vaulted ceiling for a sense of space, the house makes me want to move right in.
Next we visit Takahashi’s favorite building, and the oldest in the museum’s collection. The elaborately decorated and newly restored Jisho-in Mausoleum of 1652 was originally located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward and was commissioned by Princess Chiyo, daughter of Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa, to honor the memory of her mother, concubine Ofuri-no-kata. When I remark that the vividly painted and detailed woodwork reminds me of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine, Takahashi punches my shoulder. “You know about this stuff,” he says, laughing.
One of the loveliest aspects of the museum grounds is that the area around each building has been landscaped to mimic its original setting, with vegetable plots or wildflowers surrounding farmhouses, and formal gardens for houses such as the one previously inhabited by Japanese politician and 20th prime minister of Japan, Korekiyo Takahashi.
As we enter Takahashi’s 1902 home, my eponymous guide grows grim. “Takahashi was assassinated here,” he says, his eyes widening, “In the 2-26 Incident, an attempted military coup.” We climb to the home’s second floor and my docent sits exactly where the politician met his demise in 1936. “Angered by fiscal cutbacks to the military, young military officers broke in and shot Takahashi seven times, then gave him a diagonal sword cut to kill him quickly, samurai style,” my guide whispers. The formal garden outside, seen through the room’s rippled glass windows, and the pane of history, takes on new gravitas.
Takahashi’s infectious energy spurs us around the east areas of the museum grounds into a zone of commercial buildings mostly built during the Taisho Era (1912-1926). They exhibit that period’s peculiar blend of Western art nouveau influences and Japanese artistry, and are filled with period goods and accoutrements. These structures, which survived earthquakes, bombings and the onslaught of purely functional aesthetics in urban planning, are a delight to behold with their copper-cladding, kanban styling (signboard facades) and fanciful adaptations of European features.
Although the museum deserves more time to do it justice, the afternoon deepens, so I thank Takahashi for his time, and head back toward Musashi-Koganei. Choosing a different return route, I thread a narrow alley, interrupting the badminton match of Shota Otsuji and Ayuki Hakozaki, both 16 years old. Shota, born and raised in Koganei, admits he loves living here “because it’s between the city and the country, and on summer nights, the sound of frogs is actually noisy, which is great.” Ah, boys. When Shota and Ayuki are joined by another friend wielding a popsicle “flavored like Neapolitan spaghetti,” the gross factor gets to me, and I head off to explore a nearby temple.
Sanko-in is a beautifully landscaped temple heavily shadowed by towering trees. At the temple’s rear, I meet Koshin Nishii, 70, head cook at Sanko-in, which I learn takes reservations for lunches of shojin-ryori (devotional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine). Nishii kindly sits for a bit, despite her busy schedule, to recount that Sanko-in was built in 1934 by Narae Nishino, a woman who saved her “pocket money” to build this amadera (Buddhist nunnery). As Nishii prepares me a bowl of jade-colored green tea, wind outside bends the bamboo groves and a wood-burning stove radiates warmth; the place resounds with peace. Before I reluctantly part ways, I reserve a date for lunch.
Returning to Musashi-Koganei Station, I pass again the mysterious green stretch of land with flowering trees and field, this time picked out in honeyed afternoon sunlight. Spying three men, all in their 70s, I call out an inquiry.
“We’re just hired hands,” the men tell me. They point out the owner of the garden, Okubo-san, busy tending to a pine tree. “I don’t give interviews to anyone,” Okubo calls down to me from his ladder, citing privacy issues. I agree to respect this, but watch with admiration as he tenderly rakes his fingers through the pine’s needles, as though through the hair of a child. “I speak to my trees,” he says, finally agreeing to speak with me. “I have a long spiritual relationship with them. This one, I didn’t trim last year because I was visiting a friend in the hospital. I feel bad, because the tree cannot tell me its situation. I simply have to know it.”
What I come to know is that Okubo is a man of depth and responsibility. He is the 16th generation of his family to manage the property, where he now cultivates flowers and natural materials used by tea ceremony masters. He is busy in the spring, but before I leave him in peace, I ask him about a beautifully shaped yamazakura at the corner of his property. “That was planted as a celebration when I entered elementary school. I’ve never touched it. Only a fool trims a cherry tree.”
I am thinking about trees when I meet feisty 94-year-old Kikuko Takekawa, kneeling seiza-style on a park bench near the station, reading her paper surrounded by smokers. “This place used to be a forest basically,” she remarks. “There were even owls. It’s a mess now.” Bilingual, and a mother to three politically active children, Takekawa sends me off admiring the honest tenacity of Koganei residents, and hoping they don’t lose the green that remains.
During Golden Week, May 4-5, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., entrance to The Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum will include numerous special games and events for children.