Tokyo’s clear skies and piercing sunshine can make even the frostiest of winter walks surprisingly pleasant. Knowing this, I get off the Tokyu Oimachi Line at Togoshi-koen Station, thinking to track down the park for which it is named.
The morning is windy and ice-bright as I head northwest. Eight minutes into my walk through residential backstreets, I realize that I haven’t encountered a single living soul. Eight minutes of nobody in Tokyo is worth comment. I wonder if the cold has kept everyone inside.
A quick map check reveals that I’m near two parks: Bunko no Mori (Library Forest), and Togoshi Park. I pass Bunko no Mori first, but it’s a deserted and somewhat desolate patch of grass, so I head on. Locating Togoshi, I can tell from the outside that this is the prettier of the two, but clearly the more high-maintenance. Aside from an impressive Japanese-style gate, Togoshi Park’s entrance is marked by elegant pines trussed up with yukizuri (ropes tied to prevent heavy snow from damaging branches) and hand-knotted bamboo fences. This is no dime-a-dozen city park.
Admission to Togoshi is free, I discover, but since there’s no one around to high-five, I check an info plaque to absorb the park’s history. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the park grounds and surrounding area, including Bunko no Mori, composed the shimoyashiki (suburban residence) of the Hosokawa clan, feudal lords from Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu. The estate and garden were purchased by the Mitsui family in 1890, and in 1932, the lands were donated to the Tokyo government. Today, Shinagawa Ward manages the property.
I meander down the park’s path under sweeping canopies of old-growth trees. Park maintenance gardener, Makoto Araki, 42, the first person I’ve seen since leaving the train station, is busy hefting a giant bag of leaves on top of a pile of bags over 6 feet high. “That’s a lot of leaves,” I observe, in a way that sounds a tad desperate for conversation. “This is just January’s accumulation,” he tells me. “The pile is much bigger in November, and peaks in December. We’ve got big trees here.” Having exhausted the topic, I let Araki get on with the sweep of his work.
I walk downhill, passing fragrant beds of daffodils, their heavy heads dozing in the sunlight. When I reach the pond, the park’s center piece, I’m still alone but for flocks of ducks dabbling, sleeping and washing their feathers in remarkably clear waters.
Exploring behind the pond, I ascend steps polka-dotted with bird droppings, climbing an artificial mountain that the Hosokawas built to achieve a grand view of their estate.
It’s only when I’ve completed the park’s circuit that I finally encounter two fellow visitors. Kikutaro Toku, 73, and his granddaughter Die Kashima, 3, are happily tossing a tiny bag’s worth of bread crumbs to the ducks, laughing when half the offerings are plucked from the air by an acrobatic seagull. I hang with them a while, enjoying their intergenerational bond, then head on again.
It seems a bit unfair to compare the enclosed grandeur of Togoshi with Bunko no Mori, but when I walk back to the latter, I do. Bunko no Mori also has a pond, but its waters hold no life beyond a solitary blue heron, ankle deep in the murky waters. An elderly man ambles over, and furtively tosses bread to the bird. To my surprise, the heron exhibits no gluten intolerance. Instead, grabbing the slices, the heron swishes them in the water, then wolfs them down like soggy fish. “Don’t tell on me,” the man pleads, “I’m not supposed to do this, but that bird needs to eat. There’s nothing in the pond for him to catch.” I make a motion to zip my lips, and he smiles, relieved.
At first, Bunko no Mori appears to belie its name. There’s neither forest nor library. Instead, its sprawling grassy area more resembles the emergency evacuation site it is designed to be, if needed. However, in the park’s northwest corner, a building with bricked-up windows piques my interest: could this be the library hinted at?
Again, a signboard provides answers. The 1922 reinforced concrete building, an early example of such construction in Japan, was one of several that housed the Mitsui family archives, a rich collection of old maps, ancient Korean and Chinese texts, and rubbings. The library survived both the 1923 earthquake and World War II bombardment, but after the war its collection was sold to the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California Berkeley. There’s nothing lonelier than the emptied shell of a library, I think.
Heading off west, I am drawn down a corridor of old trees, with stone lanterns and ancient komainu (guardian lion-dogs), which culminates at Togoshi Hachiman Shrine, founded in 1526. Near the shrine’s gem, a small daintily-painted noh theater, I find several people enjoying tea and sweets provided by the shrine. An on-site vendor also brews fresh coffee, which makes the shrine feel like a suave cafe.
I follow the flow of people exiting the shrine, and find the tranquil Miyamae shōtengai (shopping street). Here, there is a shop stuffed with vintage curios, a tatami-maker’s workplace and a sushi restaurant with a noren curtain so worn that it’s wabi–sabi (the aesthetic celebrating the beauty of impermanence) wonderful.
Then, I start to notice the oddball shop names. Cons, for instance. Its shutters are closed, so I’m not sure who runs Cons but perhaps pros? Next is Husky Gelato. The company, which started here, purchases imperfect or remaindered farm produce to blend into its products, instead of letting it go to waste. I take a peek at the fabulous flavors — fig and rare cheese sounds great — but the day is so cold that I make like a Siberian sled dog, and mush.
When I come to a shop called Spread It, though, my jaw drops. I ask shop owner Ririri Otsuka, 43, what inspired the risque name.
“‘Spread It’ comes from the idea of spreading something on bread, like butter,” Otsuka says, offering me a menu of the shop’s sandwiches. Does she know the words have other meanings? “I’ve heard something like that,” she says, smiling enigmatically.
Chatting, I learn that Otsuka is an artist and her husband, Yohei Hayashiguchi, 38, runs architectural firm Spread, from the shop’s back office. Their multi-business approach to art-centered lives is a trend I’ve noticed among young entrepreneurs in Tokyo.
I order a carrot and tuna sandwich on toast, and a black coffee, then sit back to admire Hayashiguchi’s functionally minimalist shop interior, with its white walls that are used for art and slide presentations. When I compliment Otsuka on her superb coffee, Hayashiguchi offers to introduce me to the neighborhood’s favorite roaster, Mr. Coffee. I can hardly hide my smile; the name conjures up an iconic brand of U.S.-style plastic coffee makers.
Mr. Coffee’s owner, we discover, is off running errands, so Hayashiguchi and I stop in at Hacco to Go, a branch of the Niigata Prefecture-based company, Farm8, which focuses on sake-kasu (sake lees) products. My eye is caught by possibly the least healthy of the shop’s offerings, glass jars of dried fruits called Ponshu-gria. The idea is to add any Japanese alcohol, and enjoy a novel version of sangria.
Hacco to Go, I learn, has opened in what was once a greengrocer’s stand. “The grocer now lives upstairs, and comes down to visit us from time to time,” says shop clerk Junki Tsubame, 21.
Next, Hayashiguchi and I pop into Popura Cleaners, because I’m charmed by the shop window’s folksy illustrations of a sudsy washerwoman. The shop clerks can only recall the artist’s family name — Sasaki — but they mention that this shop, too, was once a greengrocer.
I ask Hayashiguchi, jokingly, if the disappearance of Togoshi’s vegetable vendors is a plot. He laughs, but admits the neighborhood is changing in fundamental ways.
When we return to Mr. Coffee, owner Atsuo Otsuka (no relation to Ririri), invites us in for a cuppa. “I roast blended coffee,” Otsuka, 41, says, “none of that single-origin stuff.” Otsuka runs the branding design company Owan, but supplements his income and stimulates community interaction by serving coffee.
“I was extremely lucky,” he says, “because the former owner of this coffee roastery, Mr. Hashimoto, decided to quit. I volunteered to work for free for a year, learning the trade, and then he gave me the machinery and space.”
Now Otsuka supplies bespoke blends to Husky Gelato, Spread It and others. This keeps him connected, and at times, that unity becomes crucial. Otsuka mentions that the Tokyo government has devised plans to demolish half of Togoshi’s shops, to widen the road for emergency evacuation.
“We’re not going to let the Tokyo government wipe us out,” Otsuka says. “We’re working together to design a curve in the road, and a triangular space for shops and socializing.” Bringing people together is the first step, Otsuka insists, and in Togoshi, that’s a connection made over coffee.
Togoshi-koen Station is on the Tokyu Oimachi Line. From Tokyo Station, take the Keihintohoku Line to Oimachi Station and change onto the Tokyu Oimachi Line (21 minutes, ¥300 one way).