Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Rock gardens, ryokan and rafting in Tokyo's Mitake

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Ninety minutes west by train from central Tokyo, Mitake is still within city limits, but feels a world away. The morning train I catch is full of seniors and students outfitted for climbing Mount Mitake, with poles, waterproof boots and backpacks. My goal, however, is not at the summit but at the base of the mountain: Kajikaen, a century-old ryokan (Japanese-style inn) near the Tama River.

Though Kajikaen closed for business in 2017 due to overwhelming demands on its aging owner Akira Usami, I have heard that he is assiduously maintaining the property itself and has applied to the government for its heritage status.

Dedicated to hospitality: Akira Usami, owner of Kajikaen.
Dedicated to hospitality: Akira Usami, owner of Kajikaen.

I’ve set up an appointment to meet Usami. I make my way from Mitake Station to the ryokan under a spring sky so clean it almost squeaks. The scent of cedars wafts down from surrounding mountains, and bush warblers are warbling their hearts out.

In front of a frail bamboo gate, I find Usami, a trim and handsome 71-year-old, dressed in a mandarin-collared manager’s jacket, as though ready for business. I joke that my suitcases will arrive later and he laughs, a delightful fluting sound. Suddenly, from somewhere near my shoulder, I’m startled by another sound, like two coconuts clacking together.

“That’s a tree frog,” Usami explains. “Kajikaen was actually named after a frog, but a different kind: The kajika has a bell-like voice and lives near rivers.”

We doff our shoes and begin a tour of the ryokan, which enjoys an extraordinary location, overlooking the aqua rapids of the Tama River. The ryokan features elegant details, such as sliced Yakushima cedar trunks serving as dramatic ranma (transoms) between the larger rooms, gleaming stone hallways connecting the several levels and shoji of refined craftsmanship.

Museum worthy: One of Usami's artistic tokonoma (display alcove) arrangements at Kajikaen. | KIT NAGAMURA
Museum worthy: One of Usami’s artistic tokonoma (display alcove) arrangements at Kajikaen. | KIT NAGAMURA

To my surprise, Usami has arranged every tokonoma (display alcove) as though guests were expected, with a seasonal hanging scroll, vase and fresh ochabana (flowers used for tea ceremony). He bends swiftly — the movement is practiced — to pinch a faded blossom from a sprig of fringed orchid. “Ochabana rarely last more than four hours,” he says, “the length of a tea ceremony.”

I remark that the artwork Usami has displayed seems of uncommon virtuosity, perhaps even museum quality. Usami nods, and begins to list the artists’ names as we go from room to room. I admire work by haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), a nanga (southern school) painting by musician and poet Uragami Gyokudo (1745-1820) and a soft landscape by his contemporary, Tani Buncho (1763-1841). The collection is priceless, and there is nothing between the scrolls and me other than a breeze from the rushing river below and shadows from the trees outside. “This,” Usami says, “is how scroll paintings were meant to be experienced.”

Hotels of yore: The now closed-for-business Kajikaen ryokan as seen from across the Tama River. | KIT NAGAMURA
Hotels of yore: The now closed-for-business Kajikaen ryokan as seen from across the Tama River. | KIT NAGAMURA

“The oldest half of Kajikaen, built about a century ago, was initially a restaurant,” Usami tells me, as we take seats in a room with a sprawling river view and I sip the amber-hued, iced plum wine he offers. “The ryokan facilities were added in 1931,” he adds, “and my grandfather took over the business from 1948, the year I was born.”

Growing up in a ryokan household was tough, Usami recalls. Aside from the lack of privacy, locals judged Usami’s family as both too wealthy and too servile. “There were only two kids in this town with leather shoes,” Usami says, “and I was one. I got bullied a lot.” Usami’s father also abandoned the family when Usami was an infant, which surely didn’t help matters.

Usami bears no rancor, however, and says this hardship caused him to take refuge in the study of poetry and painting. The fruits of his knowledge are everywhere in the ryokan, even on the fan-shaped hall light shades, which bear his own haiku in calligraphy, which he changes with the seasons. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a man and a place so perfectly suited to one another.

Paddles at the ready: Amateur rafters take to the Tama River. | KIT NAGAMURA
Paddles at the ready: Amateur rafters take to the Tama River. | KIT NAGAMURA

As we chat, I hear distant shrieks floating up from the river below. Glancing down, I see amateur rafters shooting the Tama rapids. Across the water, my eye alights on what looks like a rock garden. “That’s the Gyokudo Art Museum,” Usami tells me.

Truth be told, I’d happily spend the whole day savoring plum wine, bush warbler song and the peaceful dance of green leaves surrounding Kajikaen, but curiosity calls. Usami graciously points out steps that descend from the rear of the ryokan down to a suspension bridge over the river, and waves me off until I am entirely out of sight.

Crossing the bridge, which bounces slightly underfoot, I find my way to a museum dedicated to the life and work of Gyokudo Kawai (1873-1957). Paying the ¥500 entrance fee, I wander inside a clean-lined modern Japanese-style building designed by architect Isoya Yoshida in 1961.

Kawai, I learn, evacuated from war-torn downtown Tokyo in 1944, and made Mitake his home during the last years of his life. His love of the area is reflected in several scroll paintings that appear within the museum’s rotating display of his lifework.

After being treated to Kajikaen’s open displays, I find the necessary evil of the museum’s protective glass distracting from Kawai’s delicate amalgamation of Western and Japanese painting techniques. Still, the museum includes an interesting recreation of the painter’s studio, which was actually situated on the other side of the river, a 10-minute walk from Kajikaen. Additionally, the grounds feature a major karesansui (dry rock garden) by renowned landscape designer Takeshi “Ken” Nakajima (1914-2000), itself worth the price of admission. I pause to admire the rock positioning and gravel “waves” before heading off to locate another Mitake area museum.

High and dry: The karesansui (dry rock garden) at the Gyokudo Art Museum, which houses a collection of artwork by Gyokudo Kawai. | KIT NAGAMURA
High and dry: The karesansui (dry rock garden) at the Gyokudo Art Museum, which houses a collection of artwork by Gyokudo Kawai. | KIT NAGAMURA

On an old map I have, the Kushi-Kanzashi Museum looks nearby, but it’s about 2 kilometers away on Highway 45. I recognize the hair ornament museum by its 2-meter-wide giant comb mounted to the exterior.

Inside, the museum’s elevated view of the river is as breathtaking as its displays of kushi (combs), kanzashi (hair ornaments) and inrō (cases used for medicine and personal seals). The museum shows about 400 adornments at a time from its holdings of 4,000 items. Most of the collection was owned by Chiyo Okazaki (1924-99), an entertainer and restaurateur. During hard times, Okazaki sold her collection to the Ozawa family, owners of the Ozawa Brewery, who opened the museum.

I meet the current museum director’s wife, Yuka Ozawa, 57, who explains that the combs were meant to be tucked into elaborate hairstyles popular during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Each is an intriguing work of art, showcasing exquisite maki-e (gold and silver lacquerware work, often sprinkled with metal powder and polished for varying texture), mother-of-pearl inlay and carving.

I ask Ozawa if she has ever tried on one of the combs. “You’d have to have really abundant hair to pull these off,” she says, laughing and shaking her head.

The museum traces the transition from art nouveau combs of the Taisho Era (1912-26) to the gradual slide into plastics and cheaper materials of the Showa Era (1926-89) years.

As I’m about to leave, Ozawa inquires if I’d like to meet some local traditional crafts people. Does a comb need hair? Yes. With that, she rings up an acquaintance, and arranges a meeting with a family of Edo-Yuzen artisans.

Edo-Yuzen dyers, Eigo Koshihara (front), 40, and his father Junsaku Koshihara, 72 | KIT NAGAMURA
Edo-Yuzen dyers, Eigo Koshihara (front), 40, and his father Junsaku Koshihara, 72 | KIT NAGAMURA

The Koshihara studio, a 10-minute drive from the museum, is headed by Junsaku Koshihara, 72, and includes his son, Eigo, and daughter-in-law, Nobuko, both 40. Junsaku, in elegant kimono, allows Eigo to lead the discussion once we are inside the studio’s oasis of fabrics in sublimely nuanced color schemes, depicting flowers, animals and glorious autumn leaves.

Edo-Yuzen, also known as Tokyo Tegaki (hand-painted) Yuzen, was named for a mid-Edo Period fan designer, Miyazaki Yuzensai (1654-1736), who developed a rice-paste resist outline technique that allowed for delicate color gradations to be painted inside the impermeable lines. The Koshiharas have so mastered the technique that the bulk of their customers come to order kimono or obi fabrics directly from them, in person.

When Eigo picks up a tiny soft tube of itomenori (outline paste) and demonstrates the first step in Edo-Yuzen, I ask to try my hand at it, on a scrap of fabric. Tension fills the air, and I think there is a fear I might spurt paste all over the room. Instead, I do well enough for Junsaku to lean in and utter encouragement. But, sure enough, at some point my line thins, then fattens, and everybody leans back with a sigh. “It really does take about 10 years to do it well,” Junsaku says, and we all laugh.

Junsaku and Eigo invite me to their upstairs workshop, where silk stretches out like a white river across the room. The design being worked on at the moment — of flying squirrels — has been commissioned to Eigo. As I peruse its adorable subject matter, Junsaku drags out some sketchbooks he has filled over the years. “If a flower blooms, I rush to draw it,” he says.

It strikes me that this is the river of impulse Mitake’s beauty inspires.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5