Exiting the Nanboku subway’s Korakuen Station near Tokyo Dome, I gaze up at clouds resembling bunches of purple hydrangeas. Directly overhead, a roller coaster car swooshes by, its passengers shrieking, which is a good sign, because, despite its aquatic name, the Thunder Dolphin coaster doesn’t run in rainy weather. Optimistic, I head west along Metropolitan Road 434, into the Koishikawa neighborhood.
Striding by a building with six small storefronts — neighborhood tobacco stall, bar, gyoza joint, shuttered place — the fifth place stops me in my tracks. The Tokyo Accordion Culture Club? Catching sight of me, Xi-an Yu waves me in. The soft-spoken 61-year-old, hailing from Shanghai, teaches his more than 50 students how to orchestrate the bellows, keyboard, bass buttons and couplers of the complex instrument.
“My oldest brother, who was rather scary, forced me to learn the accordion at age 4,” Yu recalls. Despite losing what many musicians would consider his prime learning years to the deprivations of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Yu nonetheless won a contest at the Shanghai Opera House in 1972, and the accordion became his lifelong squeeze. Before I leave, Yu slides his accordion over his shoulders, and fills the classroom with a melancholic riff so beautifully phrased that it moves me.
Slightly embarrassed, I thank Yu, then duck into the sixth shop to wipe off a salty tear. Coincidentally, shop Toka Busan specializes in salt products, in particular lamps created from hollowed out hunks of Himalayan pink rock salt. Charming owner Yotaro Ogawa, 72, tells me that salt lamps absorb moisture. The moisture, heated by the light bulb inside, then evaporates in negative ions, which supposedly bind to and neutralize harmful molds, bacteria and allergens.
“Plus,” Ogawa says, with a mischievous grin, “in an earthquake, you should grab your salt lamp and run. You can survive for a long time with just salt and water.”
Instead of a lamp, I snag a bag of Kala Namak, or Himalayan black salt, which tastes astonishingly like eggs fried in butter and is thought to quell hysteria, also useful in an earthquake.
Feeling invincible now, I head south, following an elegant stretch of traditional Japanese wall to the entrance of Koishikawa Korakuen, an early Edo Period (1603-1868) garden. Initially designed and planted in 1629 by the daimyo Yorifusa, founder of the Mito branch of the powerful ruling Tokugawa clan, and later completed by Yorifusa’s son, Mitsukuni, the garden is said to reflect both men’s appreciation of Chinese culture. In fact, the garden’s name — Korakuen — means “garden for pleasure after” and was derived from the writings of Song Dynasty politician Fan Zhongyan, who suggested that those in power should meet, “worry before others worry, and only seek enjoyment after others enjoy.”
Korakuen would be enjoyable enough to explore without a stick of knowledge, but as the site is designated by the government as both a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and a Special Historical Site, a dual honor held by only seven other sites in all of Japan, I’ve pre-arranged for an in-depth tour with a staff member. I pay the modest entry fee (¥300), and enter.
I need no guide to admire the commanding central pond, the undisputed heart of this kaiyū-shiki (promenade-style) garden. The idyll, with lotus pond, an impressive pine trained and trimmed like the famous Karasaki Pine at Shiga Prefecture’s Lake Biwa, and darting swallows is marred only by the colossal quilted pillow of Tokyo Dome in the background. At my feet, however, I admire a perfect field of Lilliputian pink nejibana (Spiranthes sinensis, spiral orchids).
Beauty is so often a matter of angle, I think, admiring the soft slopes of Shorozan, a depiction of China’s Mount Lushan. My 35-year-old guide, Kyoko Onoue, joins me, following my gaze. “The dwarf bamboo has just been trimmed to reveal the shape of the mountain,” she says. “We didn’t cut it perfectly because we found some duck nests,” she adds, beaming.
As Onoue and I stroll, she explains that the garden is divided into scenic categories: sea, river, mountain, fields and inner garden. In the river area, a representation of Kyoto’s Oigawa and Togetsu Bridge feeds into a miniature evocation of a ancient causeway over West Lake in Hangzhou.
“Travel during the Edo Period was extremely rare,” Onoue explains. “So the garden offered guests a metaphorical journey to exotic locations.”
Viewing layers of fresh summer leaves reflecting in waters the milky green of an absinthe louche is a trip indeed.
Climbing into the mountain zone, we cross the lacquered vermilion of the Tsuten-kyo Bridge, ethereal in the shifting lace of Japanese maple leaves, and from the top of Shorozan, view the entire garden. As we descend, Onoue points out the subtle beauty and unusual triangular stones in the Chinese-style nobedan (inlaid paving) underfoot. There is beautiful stonework, too, in the recently rebuilt Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge), the semi-circular arch of which only creates a full circle when reflected by the pond below.
The field zone offers an orchard of golden plums, iris beds and then, somewhat oddly, a rice paddy. “This was included in the park design by Mitsukuni to illustrate to his daughter-in-law the hardships of farmers,” Onoue says. Somehow I suspect the lesson was likely diminished by the bucolic setting.
As we head toward the inner garden, the garden’s service center director, Minoru Hachium, 40, joins us. I ask him about various construction projects visible in the garden.
“Reconstruction takes time and is very complicated because, really, this garden represents Japan,” he says. “Korakuen’s been here for 400 years, and we want to protect it for another 400.”
Hachiuma’s main challenge is striking a balance between historical preservation and public demands. For instance, he points that visitors used to be able to buy sake in the garden.
“We stopped that because people kept falling into the pond,” Hachiuma says. “And, we don’t have barrier-free access like at Tokyo Dome. But should we therefore flatten and cover everything in concrete? That’s the kind of issue we struggle to solve.”
I mull over Hachiuma’s words as he and Onoue return to their regular work. Reflections of high-rise buildings flicker between the water lilies in the inner garden’s pond, once part of the Mito clan’s guest villa. When I meet Korakuen’s head gardener, Yumi Kimura (45), I realize that even as the world outside the garden changes, so does the garden itself. Kimura has for 27 years tended by turns most of the legacy gardens in Tokyo.
“Gardens are like women,” he says. “When the gardener changes, the new guy will naturally try to erase the presence of the former guy.”
So, what kind of woman is Korakuen, I ask. “She’s a grandmother,” he responds thoughtfully, “and I am her gentle caregiver.”
Leaving Korakuen, I gaze back at the sea zone, the central pond with islands and a sequestered shrine to goddess Benten, then wave to Onoue and Hachiuma at the exit. Heading south, it now seems perfectly natural to happen upon the Japan-China Friendship Center, where cultural office clerk Jing Gan, 34, explains that the facility, founded in 1953, runs an exchange program, provides dormitory rooms for exchange students, offers programs featuring traditional arts and holds regular shows in its art gallery. I browse the current exhibition of trenchant cartoons on social issues, and note that an upcoming show (from July 10) will feature company logos creatively incorporating Chinese characters.
Back outside, I circumnavigate several soccer fields, lazily considering calling it a day. However, a chorus line of honey-colored violins hanging in the windows of shop Matsuo Gengakki lures me inside. Owner Matsuo Shoji, 37, is part of a violin empire, the main shop of which is in Osaka, with branches in Sendai and Nagoya. Matsuo never imagined he’d enter his father’s business of making, repairing and selling violins. “But my mother died when I was in high school, and my brothers and I rallied around my dad,” he says, smiling.
Matsuo demonstrates a few violin repair techniques for me — adjusting the crucial sound post inside the body and shaving lizard skin for a bow grip. Suddenly, affectionately cradling a 1921 violin, he says: “I wish people would treat their instruments as they do human friends. You know, don’t leave them in a hot car or a damp closet.” Then, as he performs an impromptu concert, I’m moved by the care with which culture is nurtured in Koishikawa.
Already sated, I’m completely stunned by a final unexpected sight. The nearest subway station, Iidabashi, hides below what looks like enormous cicada wings. Inside the station, I learn this is actually a ventilation system conceived of by maverick architect Makoto Sei Watanabe, who designed the whole station.
A synesthetic art installment of poetry in Braille, and a bright green web of lighting fixtures burrowing underground like the thriving roots of imagination, proves that a little care can bring culture anywhere.
Getting there: Several Tokyo Metro lines run through both Korakuen and Iidabashi stations. Koishikawa Korakuen is a five-minute walk from Korakuen Station.