Edo, as Tokyo was called until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, was a large but verdant city whose population of more than a million lived in harmony with nature. The greenery deeply and favorably impressed European diplomats and botanists who were accorded the rare privilege of entering the city of the shogun.
Among these foreigners was Rudolph Lindau (1830-1910), a Prussian posted to Japan as Switzerland’s trade representative and consul. In his book “Un Voyage Autour du Japon” published in 1868, he described his first view of Edo, in 1862, from a high point on its western border, probably near present-day Shinagawa: “This city is very favorably located. Much larger than any grand capital of Europe, it is situated on gently undulating terrain, embraced by a smiling sky and bordering on a beautifully curving, magnificent bay.
“So many parks and gardens fill the city that, from a distance, it looks like one immense park. One sees trees planted everywhere, clustered in masses or lining streets. Their dense foliage hides modest homes of merchants, revealing only the buildings of temples and residences of daimyo lords.”
The great expanse of gardens Lindau saw were those of the samurai houses, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines which, all combined, occupied more than 80 percent of the city space. Indeed, more than 1,000 large and small gardens are said to have been created by daimyo and priests to beautify their surroundings.
Meanwhile, over on its eastern side, Edo was densely populated by commoners living in crowded tenements. Without space for a garden, many of them grew plants in pots that lined the narrow lanes — a sight still common in Tokyo’s shitamachi. As well, they flocked to the many seasonal plant fairs in town or to picnics they held in the suburbs to enjoy flowers, fireflies, chirping insects or views of snow-capped landscapes.
The green life of Edo people is apparent from ukiyo-e prints by Kunisada, Hiroshige and Hokusai. A contemporary of Hiroshige, Hasegawa Settan (1778-1843), also depicted their nature-loving life in a best-selling guidebook, “Edo Meisho Zue (The Famous Places in Edo).”
Written by Saito Gesshin (1804-78) and published in seven volumes from 1834-36, “Edo Meisho Zue” introduces the history, major sights and festivals of Edo and its suburbs. The well-researched narrative is enlivened by Settan’s realistic artwork, with many of the plates showing people viewing flowers and children chasing fireflies, or temples and shrines amid deep woods.
Tokyo is not Edo. The old city’s wealth of nature has succumbed to the surges of modernization and urbanization. Natural and man-made disasters in the 20th century also played havoc with it. Still, there are many pockets of green in and around the city waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by contemporary walkers.
In this new series, selected prints of Settan’s woodcuts will be used each month to invite the reader to enjoy a short walk comparing “then and now.” Sometimes, when modernity has become too dominant, the walk will be to an alternative but similar location.
To start us off, this month’s Settan print is a lovely rendition of cherry blossoms in Koganei, a former farming village 28 km from Edo that is now part of Koganei City in Tokyo’s western suburbs.
In the 1730s, thousands of cherry trees were planted there along the banks of the Tamagawa Josui canal, which cuts across the area. The splendid spring view, hazed in pink with Mount Fuji on the horizon, was praised highly by poets and writers, and its fame became all the greater after visits by the Meiji emperor and empress.
The illustration depicts Koganei-bashi Bridge over the canal, with a particularly large flowering tree in the foreground. The trees it shows, probably around 80 years old by then, are the yama-zakura (mountain cherry; Prunus jamasakura) variety, which — unlike the ubiquitous Somei-yoshino (Tokyo cherry; P. x yedonensis) whose leafless branches are packed with masses of flowers — opens both its flowers and leaves at the same time. Usually pale pink, the single, five-petaled flowers match beautifully the soft reddish-brown of the new leaves, and their quiet elegance has always been admired by classicists.
As well, the hard wood obtained from the slow-growing tree was in great demand to make printing blocks for all kinds of publications, including ukiyo-e, until book production using metal type and engraved picture blocks began in 1870.
Even today, Koganei is famous for this native species of cherry. Rows of yama-zakura line the sides of the canal, with many young ones planted by local volunteer organizations. Owing to the abnormal weather this year, some of the trees might unfortunately be past their blooming peak by the time you read this. However, a visit to the adjacent Koganei Park will reward you with the sight of sato-zakura, roselike ornamental varieties that attract sakura aficionados till late April.
The easiest way to get to the canal and park is from Musashi Koganei Station on the JR Chuo Line, about a 25-minute ride from JR Shinjuku Station. From there, take bus No. 12, 13, 14 or 15 from the front of the Seiyu building and get off at Koganei-bashi, the fourth stop. Turn left just before the bridge for a 25-minute canalside stroll, crossing the fourth bridge, Kihei-bashi, to walk back along the other side. On the way, you can pay a quick visit to Kaigan-ji Temple, whose entrance is marked by a pair of huge ginkgo trees and a thatch-roofed gate. The temple has three large yama-zakura trees and a beautiful pine inside.
From the temple, cross the intersection of Koganei-bashi and turn left to enter the park through its west entrance, where you will encounter groves of cherry trees. Yama-zakura are planted here and there in the park and in rows along the parking lot ahead.
Do not miss visiting the Tatemono-en open-air architectural museum (entered through the large green-roofed building) where some of the finest examples of residential and religious buildings of Edo/Tokyo have been preserved. You may exit the park at the far end of the parking lot and take the pedestrian bridge to backtrack along the canal to the bus stop for your return.
For a break, try Ogawa, a cozy restaurant near the station. Getting off at the bus terminus, cross over to the Nagasakiya store, behind which you will find the restaurant on the right. Home-cooked Western-style lunches are served with rice and soup on the side. (Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m.; closed Monday.)