No one would regret getting wet in the rain while admiring irises. Any complaints would melt away before the array of dainty flowers saluting you above crisp green leaves.
Irises have captivated the hearts of Japanese since ancient times. A native species called kakitsubata became popular because of an anecdote in the 10th-century “Tales of Ise.” It seems that an aristocratic poet, becoming weary of a fashionable life in Kyoto, set out on a long journey. Arriving at Yatsuhashi (meaning “eight bridges”), he saw irises in full bloom in a marsh crisscrossed with the eight bridges that gave the area its name. The sight filled him with longing for his wife far away, so he wrote a verse for her, beginning each line with a syllable from the flower name, ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta. Ever since, kakitsubata and zigzag wooden bridges have been linked as a motif in art, literature and gardening.
The Edo Period chiyogami paper illustrated here is a fine example. The motif also inspired designer Ogata Korin (1658-1716) to create a lacquer box titled “Yatsuhashi” and a silk screen, “Kakitsubata,” both now designated as National Treasures.
The irises we see today are usually hana-shobu, which was first cultivated in Edo about 500 years ago. In Yakushi Ike Koen, in Tokyo’s Machida City, they are outstanding in their splendid idyllic setting. With other attractions such as time-mellowed wooden buildings nestled in a luxuriant green valley also planted with azaleas and hydrangea, the park is a joy to visit. Irises are usually most beautiful in the morning, but last longer on a rainy day. Afternoon visitors may also enjoy dinner at an authentic Cajun restaurant near the station.
The adventure begins at Machida Station on the Odakyu Line, 35 minutes by express from Shinjuku. From the north exit, go straight ahead for one block and turn left at Daiwa Bank. At bus stop 21, take bus No. 53 or 55 to Sugawara Jinja, about five minutes. (You can skip the walk and go straight to the Yakushi Ike stop on the same bus.)
Getting off at Sugawara Jinja, enter through the torii gate and climb the stone stairway for a quick visit to the shrine. The location, next to the old highway to Kamakura, was important when that city was the political center (1185-1333). The woods remain from a hilly forest whose abundant springs were used to supply soldiers in military operations with water.
Returning to the road through the woods, cross the intersection ahead to the right and walk straight. Notice an unassuming ramen restaurant, Raimon, on the right with many potted flowers and benches, which is recommended for lunch on your way back (open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m., closed Mondays). At the second stoplight, turn left for Younji, a temple with large trees and a beautiful garden.
Exit downhill past the belfry and turn right on the road, keeping right uphill to Hon-Machida Iseki Koen (open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; closed Mondays), an archaeological park commemorating prehistoric habitation sites discovered during housing construction in 1967. A Yayoi and a Jomon Period home have been reproduced, both dominated by steep thatched roofs.
From Iseki Koen, go right and immediately right again. At the T-junction turn left, where the walk hugs a wild hillside. Just before an intersection take the first right, passing between houses. Soon there will be a concrete-walled canal on your left. Follow the canal until you reach a major road with a pedestrian bridge off to the left. Cross the bridge toward the Seven-Eleven and follow the curvy main road for about 10 minutes, passing a small orchard on your right.
The signs with red arrows point to a dahlia garden, which you enter through a roofed wooden gate. The dahlia garden is open July-October, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Tuesdays. A small admission fee is charged.
From the dahlia garden take the right fork up Nanakuni-yama into a pleasant forest. The dirt path is a remnant of the old Kamakura Highway, and on the left you’ll see a square wooden wellhead, used in medieval times to water cavalry horses.
Beyond the well, the left fork into the woods looks tempting, but go right on the paved road to an irregular intersection, where you take the narrow dirt path on the right. Keep straight at the next crossroads and turn left at the T-junction. When the road curves left, take the dirt path along the edge of the forest.
Soon you come to a black gate at the back of Yakushi Ike Koen, and a path down to the old Yakushi Temple (open 6 a.m.-6 p.m., till 7 p.m. in June, July and August). The temple on the slope of Nanakuni-yama was probably founded in the 8th century, but its hall, decorated with elaborate dragon carvings, was rebuilt in 1881. In the valley below, rice used to be cultivated. A reservoir built at its center filled up over centuries until Machida City acquired the land in 1961 to create the park.
Two landmark buildings have been preserved here. The Nagai House below the temple is probably from the late 17th century and is a designated Important Cultural Asset. The exterior walls with chopped wood piled high, the spacious earthen floor used for indoor work and the raised room with its bamboo-slatted floor all silently speak of the austere life of a farming family 300 years ago.
Leaving the Nagai House, go right on the path to the back of the Ogino House. (Note the small granary in late Edo Period style.) Home to a wealthy doctor’s family around the end of the Edo Period, the Ogino House contrasts with the rough farm style of the Nagai House. Its main entrance in the gable end, its small earthen floor and its fine construction details all display a flair for urban elegance.
From the Ogino House turn right to reach the iris fields, absolutely the highlight of today’s walk. The original narrow valley has been lavishly landscaped to create an intriguing sense of depth. About 22,000 irises blooming in sequence from June 1-20 may be admired close up while strolling along the boardwalk and mud banks. A water mill, gazebo and hydrangeas enhance the changing effects.
To head back, take the path by the water mill up to the road, turn right and cross at the light to reach the bus stop (No. 53 or 55 again). To explore the park further, proceed along the large pond toward the lotus pond at the far end and leave by that exit. When boarding your bus, make sure to get a ticket with a number which indicates your fare when getting off.
Get off at Sugawara Jinja for that ramen lunch at Raimon. The chashumen at 950 yen is excellent.
For dinner, the Cajun restaurant Lafayette is unique in Tokyo. From the bus terminus retrace your steps to the rail tracks and cross them to walk through a vibrant shopping street. Allow time to browse on the way. Just past the stoplight, look for Lafayette in the basement of the second building on the right. Evans, the chef, joyfully cooks spicy Louisiana Cajun meals while his wife Akiko tends to the guests (open 6 p.m.-1 a.m., closed Mondays).