In late March when most deciduous trees are still bare, the buds of kobushi (Northern Japanese magnolia) shed their gray fur coats and burst into bloom. Each pure white flower has six petals faintly tinted pink peeping deep inside, sending forth a delicate fragrance. Farmers in northern Japan used its exuberant florescence as the signal to get ready to start planting and gave it an alias, tauchi-zakura (paddy-tilling cherry). Kobushi should not be confused with the earlier blooming haku-mokuren, which has larger flowers and is often planted at Buddhist temples. Less celebrated than Somei Yoshino, the cherry which blooms at about the same time, kobushi allures with its artless grace.
Shakujii Koen, west of Ikebukuro, has many cherry trees, but it is also the best place in Tokyo to see kobushi. There are two ponds, Shakujii Ike and Sanpoji Ike, protected by woods. Surrounded by residential areas, the relatively small park feels wild with tall grasses sheltering ducks and birds on the water. The area provided a stage in medieval times for glorious battles and a saga of a noble warrior and his princess daughter. An added bonus is a beautiful pagoda at a nearby temple.
The walk begins from Nerima Takanodai Station, about 20 minutes from Ikebukuro on the Seibu Ikebukuro local, with a short stroll along the Shakujii riverside.
Cut across the square in front of the station, bear right and cross the highway ahead at the stop light off to your left. Walk across the park to reach the recently landscaped Shakujii River. Turn right and go to the end of the walkway, taking either the cherry-bordered higher path or the brick-paved riverside. At the street, go right and soon left to reach Shakujii Koen. There you will find many kobushi lighting up the woods, including a magnificent old tree in a quiet corner. The narrow pond just ahead is Shakujii Ike itself, where rice used to flourish in the old days. Now visitors can take a boat for a leisurely ride under the gently swaying willow branches.
Walking straight into the park, the pond will be on your right. Take the first left fork, though, for a detour to a metal-fenced corner protecting an especially old kobushi. Nature is preserved well in this quiet, hilly section. On the right-hand hollow in the ground, the wonderful magnolia divided into three trunks at the root soars 20 meters high. Being in the shade of other trees, it will bloom a little late, in April. Several Somei Yoshino trees also will be blooming a short distance away.
Back at the pond, turn left, taking the cobbled path by the water or the trail over low hills. Just past a group of enormous metasequoias, notice an arched stone bridge; you will be coming back to it. Around the outdoor theater on the left and on the height beyond it are planted yamazakura, the mountain cherry native to Japan, which blooms after Somei Yoshino.
Continuing along the pond, you will come to a paved road. Take a detour left after first crossing the road. At the stop light, turn right to visit Dojoji Zen temple with its impressive kuromatsu (black pine) in front. The serenely beautiful compound is a minimuseum of Buddhist architecture, featuring, among other things, a five-story pagoda in the Kamakura Period style. Among the buildings are post-World War II reconstructions, built in strict accordance with the original plans. The temple has only one sakura, but many maple trees surround the pagoda, which will give a good reason for a return visit in November.
Leaving the temple, go right to visit Sanpoji. Attractive wooden carvings decorate its classical gate and main hall. Exit by turning right (as you face the main hall) along a white wall and turn left at the end of the path. At the T with a large wooden gate, go left.
The fenced-in area on the right is the site of Shakujii-jo, a medieval fortress. Only narrow mounds winding through the tall cedars remain as relics of the fort. Before the advent of high stone walls to protect Japanese castles, these earthworks were the only barricades. The fortress belonged to the Toshima, a mighty clan which expanded from Chichibu and gained control of the northwestern part of present-day Tokyo. The clan name is kept in what is now Toshima-ku, though the ward covers only a part of their once extensive territory. The clan was defeated in battle in 1477 by Ota Dokan, who was based at Edo where the Imperial Palace now stands. The Toshima fortress here used to cover all of Shakujii Koen and the entire block you have just walked, as well as Hikawa-jinja ahead.
Continuing on the same road past Hikawa-jinja (the tutelary shrine of the Toshima, founded at the turn of the 15th century), bear right to walk between houses and onto a graveled path down to Sanpoji Ike. At the pond, go right first to find several large kobushi, two old ones in particular hanging over the waters. When Somei Yoshino also blooms, its pink and the kobushi’s white are blended happily together, announcing that spring has really arrived.
Backtrack and visit the red-painted shrine of Benten, the goddess of water. Natural spring water continues to feed the pond, nurturing tanukimo (bladderwort) and other wild aquatic plants at the pond center, which are nationally designated for preservation. The area is also a bird sanctuary thanks to the hunting prohibition imposed since the Edo Period.
Leaving the shrine, go right to stroll on the board walk. At a point where the planks form a small triangle, ascend the stairs to left. The top area tends to be crowded with merrymakers in the ohanami season. However, make a sharp right along the metal fence. Soon on your right is a tiny shrine perched high on crooked tree roots. A short distance ahead along the fence is another small monument. These are said to be burial mounds connected to a legend about Toshima Yasutsune, the clan head vanquished in the 1477 battle.
Recognizing his defeat, it is said, Yasutsune threw a golden saddle on his snow-white horse and rode into the Sanpoji pond to commit suicide. His daughter Princess Teruhime followed soon after, preferring to die young rather than live in captivity. Standing alone, looking down at the pond through dark woods, you might be tempted to believe the old saga.
Descend to the pond and turn left. More kobushi grow along the way. At the end of the board walk, bear right and cross the road to return to the Shakujii pond. Cross the arched bridge you saw and another one beyond it to reach the road on the other side. Turn right and go to the end of the walkway. On your left en route is an Italian restaurant, L’Onion, serving fresh aromatic meals. Tables set up in the small garden overlooking the water makes Tokyo seem very far away.
At the end of the walkway, turn left. At the next stop light, go right to reach Shakujii Koen Station and return to Ikebukuro.