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A trip to formal gardens yields finds of other kinds in Mejiro

by

Special To The Japan Times

Early summer, before the rains arrive and the squadrons of mosquitoes hatch, is a blissful time to stroll Tokyo’s formal gardens.

I launch off in search of one I’ve heard of in Toshima Ward, near Mejiro Station. The Yamanote Line stop has no connecting trains and its single exit opens onto a modest smattering of restaurants and shops. The vibe is made lively by students on lunch break from nearby Gakushuin University, the alma mater of Yoko Ono, Yukio Mishima, and more than a few members of the Imperial family.

Crossing Mejiro-dori, I choose a narrow lane that leads away from the commercial zone, but pause to peer into Lunco, a small shop that looks part vintage kimono dealer and part art museum. Owner and curator Ranko Nagata, 68, informs me I’ve got it right. Several times a year, she organizes artistic exhibitions of the shop’s merchandise and items she has collected, centered on a specific theme.

Her current show, titled “Hitoe to Mizutama” (unlined kimono and water-drops) features whimsical swirls of fabric patterned with swallows, azaleas, waves and polka dots. Nagata’s young store clerks, dressed in kick-ass kimonos that match the exhibition motif, add a kinetic dimension to the show.

In the shop’s adjoining room, an artisan perched on a folding stool deftly bores holes in a zori sandal with an awl. Tatsunosuke Funabiki, 75, uses his hands, knees and teeth to thread and tie thongs on zori and geta (wooden sandals), with techniques he has perfected over his 58 years on the job. Based in Osaka, Funabiki visits Tokyo only once a year, and offers his services exclusively to Lunco. His customers clearly mark their calendars, because lines form for his services. Funabiki reaches down and cups a customer’s foot, assessing in seconds the shape of her arch and toes. With pliers, he makes sharp adjustments to the thongs on her zori. When he finally slides the zori onto her foot, she actually coos at the fit. I glance down at my old sneakers, wishing that they, too, could benefit from the Funabiki effect.

Meandering north again, I pass trellises groaning with full-blown roses and postprandial moms pushing prams along the manicured street. Pausing at a walled-in property with an elegant nagaya (longhouse) entrance way, I realize I have found Mejiro Teien, one of Tokyo’s youngest and smallest formal gardens. The 2,845-square-meter kaiyushiki (promenade) design was created by landscape architect Kunie Ito (1924-2016), and completed in 1990.

Entrance is free, so I circle the gourd-shaped central pond to view the garden’s 4-meter waterfall, artfully constructed from 860 tons of rock. From the garden’s highest point I admire the ukimido, a hexagonal gazebo that appears to float over the pond, and a svelte stone pagoda. I learn from a pamphlet that the garden’s proportionally oversized teahouse, Sekicho-an, hosts classes and gatherings. Today, an attractive couple in wedding finery gaze out from the teahouse’s upper level, and on the stone terrace below, a small crowd trains their cameras on the pond.

Following the shutterbugs’ line of sight, I spy the paparazzi bait: a female spot-billed duck paddles along followed by 13 bobbing ducklings barely bigger than bathtub toys. “They were born on May 2, and none of them have disappeared, which is great,” says Shiori Ishii, 29, the park director, whom I meet as she makes her garden rounds.

In the crisp spring air, the distinctive snip-snip of clippers rings out across the pond. Here and there, I spot gardeners in blue jumpsuits braced up in the pines. I accompany Ishii to go talk to them.

“A lot of the trees here need care,” says Reiji Motoki, 46, adjusting his tool belt and pointing up to the pine he is tending. “This garden is like a young athlete with skinned knees, and we’re the older classmates who have to give her first aid,” he says. Takahito Yamaoka, 31, of Seibu Ryokka Kanri, the company charged with caring for Mejiro Teien, nods agreement. Among the gardeners, I’m surprised to see a woman in one of the trees, hard at work.

“That’s Norie Watanabe,” Motoki says, smiling. “She’s 21 and just passed her licensing test.” Both Motoki and Yamaoka seem assured that Watanabe will mature and grow stronger apace with the garden’s trees.

Thanking Ishii and the gardeners, I swing by the gazebo to chat up a few foreigners resting there. They insist they are only visiting Tokyo, but they seem oddly familiar with Japan. One of the men, Arthur Fleisher, 84, explains: “My grandfather’s brother was B.F. Fleisher,” he tells me. “You know, the owner and publisher of The Japan Advertiser from 1908 to 1940.” Benjamin Wildred Fleisher helmed his English language newspaper until it eventually merged with The Japan Times. It’s a wonderful kismet to meet the relative of a brave publishing pioneer in Japan.

Pushing on, I cross the Seibu Ikebukuro Line tracks as the safety boom drops just behind me, and an express train whooshes by. I zigzag northward again to a T junction, where I find a small gallery exhibiting works by female graduates of Tokyo University of the Arts. B-gallery owner Haruko Cho also hangs her own work, large photos printed on corrugated Nepalese Lokta paper of hand-sewn soft sculptures. The result is pillowy mysterious images with tactile appeal. In her studio behind the gallery, Cho also offers reasonably priced art classes to children and arranges international children’s art exchanges.

Beside Cho’s gallery, I locate what might be Mejiro’s most distinguished landmark. Jiyugakuen Myonichikan, a former high school for girls founded by educators Yoshikazu and Motoko Hani in 1921, was established here in buildings that bear the unmistakable stamp of U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Built concurrently with Wright’s Imperial Hotel, the school buildings display similar Oya stone detailing and geometric “light screen” windows.

Abandoned as a school campus in the 1930s, Wright’s original 2×4 wood and plaster buildings were near collapsed by the 1990s. Luckily, in 1999, the national and metropolitan governments elected to restore and structurally reinforce the buildings, which now enjoy designation as a national important cultural asset.

Public visitors are welcome (entrance: ¥400, or ¥600 with tea and sweets). Out of kindness, Public Lectures Section Manager Shinya Watanabe, 52, agrees to show me around. “I love the drama of Wright’s cave-like narrow hallways that lead into huge spaces, a pianissimo to crescendo effect,” Watanabe remarks as we enter the main hall, which was once used for worship.

Watanabe directs my attention to the hall’s tiny hexagonal chairs — “girls were smaller in the 1920s,” he observes — and then points to the hall’s wall fresco, “Exodus: Chapter 13.”

“This work was uncovered during restorations,” Watanabe says. “It had been mortared over during the war years, to keep it from being destroyed by anti-foreign edicts.”

Stories like this give me chills, as do carefully preserved buildings that echo with a past otherwise unimaginable. Watanabe assents, and informs me that the school’s auditorium, just across the street, is also mid-restoration. That structure was designed by Arata Endo, Wright’s friend and great admirer.

Thanking Watanabe for his insights and time, I head back toward Mejiro station, passing en route a mysterious building utterly swallowed in green vines, yet with bicycles and wash lines strung outside. A passerby, out walking his corgi, tells me that it’s an eyesore, inhabited by the impecunious. Looking down, though, I note the man’s dog — named Pudding — has a little cart rigged to compensate for hip dysplasia, and it reminds me we all need a little assistance sometimes.

At Mejiro Station, I’ve still got energy to burn, so I head down the slope between the station and Gakushuin. A cute postbox styled after manga character Makoto-chan catches my eye, and that’s how I find Tokyo’s Philatelic Museum. Inside, I learn the petite museum was the dream-child of stamp collector Meiso Mizuhara (1924-1993), who sadly never lived to see it completed in 1996.

The museum space is divided in two: One side displays and sells stamps from around the world — think Romanian stamps of orchids, the U.K.’s David Bowie issue, and racy nudes from Sao Tome and Principe — as well as stamps from the past six decades in Japan. Nostalgia requires that I fill out an order for stamps from my early years in Tokyo. As clerks seek out my requests amid the stacks, I dash over to the official museum section (entrance fee, ¥200). Through the end of this month, the exhibition is “Lots of Green,” featuring nearly every possible permutation of green stamps.

Between the two sections, I pause to admire a mosaic composed entirely of discarded stamps, the result of group projects that occur every third Sunday at the museum. Picking up and paying for my wax packets of miniature memories, I decide Mejiro gets my wholehearted stamp of approval.

Kit Nagamura’s Backstreet Stories appears on the first Saturday of the month.