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Asukayama: Among the shogun’s blossoms

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By Vicki L Beyer

Cherry blossoms in Japan are a national event, with people fixating on the best place to view the blossoms (drunk or sober) and complicated plans for blossom-viewing parties with colleagues, friends and family. It’s a fine, centuries-old tradition.

There are a number of excellent locations for cherry blossom viewing sites in Tokyo. It seems that every waterway in the city, large or small, is lined with blossoming cherry trees. These trees are often a major feature of cemeteries and parks, as well. In many cases, the locations also have centuries of cherry blossom viewing history.

In 1720, the 8th Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimune, launched a greening (pinking?) project in Edo, particularly ordering flowering cherry trees planted in three locations: Gotenyama in Shinagawa (the gateway to Edo for travelers on the Tokaido), the grounds of Kan’ei-ji Temple (now the site of Ueno Park), and Asukayama in Oji (the gateway to Edo for travelers on the Nikko-kaido). Yoshimune was something of an ecologist, also championing crop rotation and the development of alternative crops such as sweet potatoes and sugar cane. But his motivation in this case may have been more political than environmental.

The "sankin-kotai" (alternative residence) system of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted from 1635 to 1862, required daimyo and their families to spend alternating years in the capital, effectively holding the families hostage and ensuring the good behavior of the daimyo. Finding ways to entertain those “hostages” was an important aspect of maintaining peace and good order. Cherry blossom-viewing parties were just one of many such entertainments.

Asukayama is a ridge, sitting above JR Oji Station, overlooking the expansive valley of the Sumida and Arakawa rivers just at the place where the Shakujii River breaks through the ridge to make its way to the Sumida River. Historically, it offered fine views northeast to Mt Tsukuba, a vantage displayed in Print 17 of Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo, woodblock prints produced in the 1850s. For a resident of old Edo, spending the day boating up the Sumida and Shakujii Rivers to view the blossoms at Asukayama must have been quite a treat. Asukayama’s fame and popularity was such that it was designated as one of the first public parks in Tokyo in 1873. There is even a late 19th century woodblock print by Chikanobu commemorating a visit to the park by Emperor Meiji.

Still today, a visit to Asukayama Park and the Oji neighborhood can be a treat. At this time of year, there are cherry blossoms to enjoy. In a few weeks, there will be azaleas, and shortly after that, hydrangeas as well.

The park is a long, narrow, north-south strip. The northern third has so many cherry trees that a stroll along its many pathways in the spring feels like you’re walking under cotton candy. This end of the park is accessible by stairs from the central exit of JR Oji station, or - just for something different - take the “Asuka Park Rail”, a little single-car monorail that carries visitors up and down the ridge. (Beware of long lines in the peak season.)

The far south end of the park is known as the Old Shibusawa Garden. This was the site of the Tokyo home of Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa, a Meiji-era industrialist largely credited with establishing Japan’s modern banking system and facilitating corporate operations, both concepts necessary to Japan’s economic development at the time. One wonders at the coincidence that he made his home in this place, so closely associated with Shogun Yoshinobu, who is also well known for economic and fiscal reforms in his day.

Although Shibusawa’s mansion was destroyed by the World War II bombing, two smaller buildings on the estate have survived and are now part of the Shibusawa Memorial Museum, just a few meters away. One is the art deco style library and the other a tea house that is an interesting blend of Japanese and western styles. Both buildings, dating from the Taisho era (1912-1926), saw international political and economic negotiations in their day. Shibusawa often played host to foreign dignitaries on his estate; when U.S. President and Mrs Ulysses S Grant visited during their 1879 grand tour of Japan, Shibusawa arranged a martial arts demonstration for them in this garden.

The Shibusawa Memorial Museum is one of three small museums that sit in the southwest of Asukayama Park. Your ticket also allows you to enter the library and tea house. If you’re visiting in the afternoon, it’s probably best to visit these first, since they close before the museum does. There’s also a special discount ticket offering admission to all three museums. None of them take more than an hour to visit.

At the Shibusawa Memorial Museum you will find displays on the life of Viscount Shibusawa, from his humble farming origins through to his days of political and economic influence. Many exhibits have English explanations, but for more detail, ask to borrow a copy of the English museum guide. In the various photos of Shibusawa, it is particularly noticeable how diminutive this very “big” man was.

Next door is the Kita City Asukayama Museum. Here you will find information and displays on the history, archeology, and topography of the area. Handheld audio guides are available in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese at no charge. The archeological displays take visitors from the Jomon period through the Yayoi and Muromachi periods and up to the present day. Particular features include Jomon and Yayoi shards, a Jomon dug-out canoe, and reproductions of Yayoi period houses, an Edo period tea-house veranda (with a mural to enable visitors to imagine the view of the day), and an Edo period boat house. There is also a diorama of the area, showing how the area industrialized and how public transportation developed over the past century and a half.

The northernmost of the three museums is the Paper Museum. This is fitting, since the Oji Paper Company, was situated near here. One of Shibusawa’s many industrial ventures and the first Western-style paper manufacturing plant in Japan, Oji Paper was founded in 1873. The museum’s exhibits include displays on the various ingredients of paper and the machinery to produce paper and cardboard. The displays on the second floor are very hands-on and kid-friendly, and on the top floor are exhibits on different types of paper products manufactured and used in modern (ie, post-Edo) Japan.

In front of these museums, in the center of the park, is a well-utilized children’s playground, including an old train engine and an old streetcar. The street car is a logical inclusion, since Tokyo’s only remaining streetcar, the Toden Arakawa Line, runs along Meiji-dori on the western border of the park. Across the street from the west-central exit of the park is the streetcar’s Asukayama Station.

One more place to visit in this neighborhood to enjoy cherry blossoms and a touch of traditional atmosphere is Otonashi Shinsui Park. Leave Asukayama Park by the west-central exit, cross Meiji-dori (there is a convenient overhead walkway) and head north. Where Meiji-dori curves to the right, go straight ahead and descend the stairs just before the bridge. This is the original course of the Shakujii River, most of which has been diverted for flood control reasons and runs under the park to be reunited with its regular course just east of Oji Station. The small park contains stone-lined waterways and features such as bridges and waterwheels to retain an Edo-period feel.

To return to JR Oji Station, turn right and follow the park. As you approach the station you’ll find a number of traditional small eateries, the vestiges of the tea houses that once graced this area.

If you have more time and want to explore, cross the channel and ascend to the left to trace the river’s course upstream.

© Japan Today

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An enchanting place for a day trip !

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