After an international business trip last week, I found myself enroute to Kanazawa via Tokyo with a whole day to spare. I think normal people might have decided to sleep off the jet lag or take it easy and go shopping, but no! It was sunny and warm outside, the complete opposite of snowy Kanazawa, and I was determined to enjoy the day. I asked Japan Guide what fun things were near me. If you aren’t familiar with Japan Guide, it is my absolute favorite means of doing general, especially last-minute, travel research, as it provides a good, brief overview of what any given area in Japan has to offer in English. It’s a great starting point: quick, streamlined, and perfect for when I am feeling too lazy to try to navigate the world of tourism online in Japanese. Using the suggestions there, I usually go straight to the sources to get more information in either Japanese or English.
What is there do to near Ikebukuro when you’re not in the mood for Ikebukuro on a sunny late-winter day? Go to a garden, of course!
Well, maybe not for the cherry blossoms.
Rikugien (六義園) is located near the north exit 14 (北口) of the Komagome Station (駒込駅) on the JR Yamanote Line (山手) and is a 6-minute ride from Ikebukuro. The area around the station has wide streets, is filled with cute boutiques and restaurants, and seems to be fairly residential. The romanization is not a typo, but comes from the Chinese reading of the kanji.*
Rikugien, hidden behind walls, is worth your while for several reasons. First, it’s a “strolling-type garden” (kaiyûshiki teien, 回遊式庭園), like Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen (兼六園), and similarly features flora and landscaping to provide points of interest in all seasons, (even winter) with manmade hills, aquatic aspects, and a spectacular view.** A massive garden in an urban area, it takes about one hour to properly stroll through, or two hours if you are like me and go back to take new paths, take a ton of photos, get lost trying to get out because of construction, and stop to tweet about how awesome this garden is.
Speaking of awesome, my love of Yoshinaga Fumi’s Ôoku has helped me learn the names and kanji of the major players of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japanese, which makes getting around in historical areas much easier. Case in point: this garden was commissioned by the fifth Shogun Tsunayoshi’s (綱吉) confidant Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu（柳沢吉保), and I could read and understand that name and had an idea of the era in which the garden was constructed (1695-1702). Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t learn anything from reading manga!
Apparently Yanagisawa was a literature nerd, as the 88 “scenic views” of the garden are not just there to be pretty, but evoke 88 images of the oldest Japanese poetry anthology, the Manyôshû (万葉集). The name of the garden refers to the six types of waka poetry (詩の六義): allegorical (風), enumerative (賦), metaphorical (比), allusive (興), plain (雅), and congratulatory (頌).
The “views” of the garden are marked with bilingual sign posts with a simple English explanation and a more comprehensive one in Japanese.
One of the reasons why a poetry-themed garden appeals so much to me is that it emphasizes a cultural value for literary pursuits. Ideally, a person of the upper tiers of Edo society would not only be skilled at managing an estate and at physical pursuits but would also appreciate poetry, tea, incense, flowers, and the world of geidô (芸道), artistic/cultural activities.
Yet, it’s one thing to compose poetry because one is meant to and another to build a garden where the points of interest are meant to replicate poetry in miniature.
With so few people visiting on a weekday in the winter, it was quite easy for me to imagine myself as lord of the garden, though I didn’t come up with any particularly good haiku or tanka. (I have yet to attempt a waka in Japanese.)
This tea house and some of the stones in the pond were damaged in the Tohoku earthquakes last year.
One aspect that I love about Rikugien is how it incorporates narrow paths and dense vegetation…
…with wide open skies, both of which make you forget that you’re in central Tokyo. Until you get the right angle on the view, of course:
While the garden is more famous for its cherry tree and maple leaves, there was still quite a lot to enjoy even in the late winter.
Because this winter was colder and snowier in Kanazawa than usual, there’s a delay predicted for the blooming of our plum blossoms and cherry blossoms. I was thrilled to see some blossoms on one enthusiastic plum tree at Rikugien. Sakura get all the credit, but plum blossoms are just as lovely. They stick around longer, usually about a month from start to finish; perhaps they are not as poetic, but they smell like oranges and champagne!
Even though the wind was strong, it felt great to be out in the sunshine after being on two international flights in a week. Next step: finally buy one of those copies of the Manyôshû with pretty pictures and contemporary Japanese essays about the poems.
Open 9:00-17:00 everyday (last entry 16:30). Closed between Dec. 29 – Jan. 1.
Cost: 300 yen regular admission. See website for chilren’s, seniors’, et al., prices; yearly passes available for 1200 yen. Free on May 4 and October 1.
All of the information about the park that doesn’t come from the websites is (translated) from the signs posted around the garden.
*Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association (東京公演教会). “Rikugien Gardens.” http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/rikugien/outline.html
**Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association (東京公演教会). 「六義園公演」。http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/contents/outline031.html