A dreary drizzle of rain falls on the November day I’ve set aside for walking out along the Kokubunji gaisen (cliff line) in western Tokyo. Despite the weather, my hope is to catch some late autumn colors, so I yank on my trusty rubber birdwatching boots and head out west on the Chuo Line.
Kokubunji Station, rebuilt back in April, is now as fresh and fashionable as a mini Ginza. I nip into the new Kokubunji City Information Service, a tidy local tourist office, to find it manned by Satoshi Hamada, 68.
“I’m a complete amateur to all this,” he tells me and, before I know it, he’s making a call to his superior. While we wait for a response, I peruse some maps and information on local sights, mentally willing the rain to evaporate. Finally, Morihiro Sugimoto, 52, from the city office makes a personal appearance, armed with recommendations.
Thanks to suggestions from both Hamada and Sugimoto, I elect to explore Tonogayato Garden, just minutes from the station. I pocket some guide pamphlets — including one that touts Kokubunji as being “in the belly button of Tokyo” — and I quickly suss out that there are different versions to the garden’s history.
Most agree that Tonogayato’s land was first developed in 1913 as a villa for one Sadae Eguchi (1865-1946), complete with a garden that the businessman named Zuigien, which loosely translates to “Garden of Abiding Good.” Eguchi, a senior director of Mitsubishi, assumed the vice presidency of the Southern Manchurian Railway in 1931 and served in the House of Peers (the upper house in the National Diet from 1889 to 1947).
In 1929, Eguchi’s boss, Hikoyata Iwasaki (1895-1967) — grandson of Mitsubishi founder, Yataro Iwasaki (1835-85) — purchased the property and promptly redesigned the premises. By 1934, Iwasaki had created a classic kaiyū-shiki (pond-circling promenade) garden, complete with a Japanese-built, Western-style wooden house and formal teahouse.
The rain lets up as I arrive at the garden’s gate. Its modest ¥150 entrance fee bears no relationship to the grand first impression Tonogayato makes: the expansive upper lawn, bejeweled in droplets of mist, curves precipitously downward into green-black hidden depths below. The sensation is of standing on a small green planet, surrounded by clouds of Japanese maples, just turning red and orange.
This first glimpse alone makes me understand why, when the garden came under threat of redevelopment in the late 1960s, the neighborhood galvanized a forceful protest and worked actively to preserve it. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government eventually made the decision to buy the property in 1974, opening it to the public in 1979.
I enter one of the garden’s Western-style features — a long, curved tunnel of bush clover, the leaves of which have turned gold and copper. As I descend toward a breathtaking grove of the world’s largest bamboo variety, mōsō (Phyllostachys edulis), I muse on the vital power of public voice, without which this oasis would have been paved over.
I stop to chat with a family out commemorating shichi-go-san (a rite of passage celebrated when children hit the ages of 7, 5, and 3) with their twin 3-year-old girls, Sana and Risa. The Kondos tell me that this is their first visit to the garden, and we share exclamations of how spectacular it is. Sana and Risa’s mom, Megumi Kondo, 31, coaxes her daughters with gummy candies to pose for photos; I find myself hoping that, one day, the girls will bring their own families to the garden.
Rounding the next bend, the scene dramatically shifts: it becomes clear that Tonogayato Garden is tucked into a riser of the Musashino Plateau. Invisible from the garden’s lawn above, the Jiro Benten pond is the hidden heart of the garden. The crystal-clear spring water cascades from a small waterfall and, as your eye ascends, you notice the viewing deck of the Koyotei (“Autumn Leaves Pavilion”) tearoom.
Treacherous wet stone steps lead through a strata of brilliant maples on the brink of full color. Every now and then, I’m surprised by the distinctive “thunk” of a shishi-odoshi (bamboo and water feature made to scare off deer or wild boar), coming from somewhere near the pavilion. These shifts — in sound, texture, view and footing — require one to move, and think, at a different pace.
The viewing platform at the summit is empty but for a cozy couple, Hisaya, 55, and Chihiro, 35, Aoki, both also viewing the garden for the first time.
“It’s the perfect gradation of colors,” Hisaya says, gesturing toward the shifts from green to crimson.
Chihiro nods thoughtfully. “The air is fresh and it just feels so comfy here,” she adds, leaning back into Hisaya’s shoulder.
Leaving them to further explore the 21,000-square-meter garden, I eventually wind back around to the front lawn, where I’m surprised to encounter a small crowd, including the Aokis, holding straw ropes — maypole style — around a pine tree. This is the annual installation of the yukitsuri, a conical arrangement of ropes meant to shield fragile trees from heavy snowfall, and anyone in the garden is welcome to participate.
“We were supposed to do this yesterday,” master gardener Takashi Otani, 51, tells me, “but it rained all day. You’re so lucky.”
That’s exactly how I feel as the Aokis offer me one of their straw ropes. Otani demonstrates the half-hitch knots that get tied around a bamboo slat hoop circling the bottom of the tree. The hoop is not a perfect circle, but more curved, like a skirt caught in a gentle breeze: “That’s the graceful shape we are going for,” Otani says.
Otani has been gardening for 30 years, he tells me; and because the best gardeners usually rotate every five years to tend different gardens, he intimately knows many of Tokyo’s finest.
“Tonogayato is not like a daimyo garden, he says. “It started as a vacation house garden for a businessman, then Iwasaki reshaped it, incorporating in the design the area’s natural slopes and using a lot of native plants, but it still has a younger feel compared to the Edo Period (1603-1868) designs.”
I ask Otani if he has a favorite tree in Tonogayato. He does, in fact. “It’s the large mokkoku (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), over by the toilets,” he says. I go to check out the hardy evergreen, an understated specimen with shiny spoon-like leaves resembling a camellia’s, and new sprouts gleaming a lovely bronze color. Thanking Otani, I sense that rain is about to fall again and head out of the garden.
Walking slightly downhill, alongside Tonogayato, I pass through a smoke-tinged din seeping from an open pachinko parlor. Walking by the rain-sodden backsides of concrete buildings, I realize that this is what the garden might have become without neighborhood support.
When the rain strengthens, I slip into a slim lane between two houses to explore Sweets Hata, a small cafe with homemade treats. It is my duty, I think, to try out the shop’s specialty, advertised as a Kokubunji original.
Sweets Hata’s owner, Fusa Ikeda, 70, is passionate about the work-intensive caramel and walnut confection she creates using only Kokubunji-sourced nuts. Really?
“Absolutely,” she says, setting down a big jar of the local produce in front of me. “These are the sweetest. Nothing like the onigurumi,” she says, dissing Japan’s native “ogre walnut” in favor of the English walnuts she sources from a nearby farmer. “When his are gone,” she says, “I sometimes have to go door to door, walnut-hunting my neighbors’ trees.”
As I sample one of her treats — which frankly 100 percent merit traveling to Kokubunji to buy while they last — Ikeda pulls out a chart of walnuts worldwide and begins a mini-lecture that, I hate to admit, goes over my head. Luckily, Ikeda’s adorable, almost-2-year-old granddaughter distracts us both by ever so gently rearranging the shop’s confectionery displays. I can see Ikeda has a devoted apprentice in the making.
Sipping coffee, I learn from Ikeda that, further downhill from her shop, there are stone monuments marking the headspring for Tokyo’s No River, a tributary of the Tama River, along with a plethora of other historical sites. Nuts, I think, checking the weather, now a true downpour. Giving in to circumstances, I opt to follow up on her lead for the first backstreet story of the new year, with sly hopes that her supply of walnut confections will last until then.
Backstreet Stories will continue with a second exploration of Kokubunji next month. Kokubunji Station is on the Chuo Line, around 20 minutes and ¥400 from Shinjuku Station. Tonogayato Garden is a two-minute walk from Kokubunji Station and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m; admission ¥150.