The Kannon-do main hall of Gokokuji temple, built in 1861, is the oldest wooden temple building in Tokyo. Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Exploring Tokyo’s architecture through the ages: A walk in Bunkyo and Toshima

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By Vicki L Beyer

The Tokyo metropolis is well known for the way that it constantly renews itself. So much so that visitors often claim it is next to impossible to find historical buildings. Yet, if one looks, buildings that exemplify different periods of Tokyo’s, and Japan’s, history can indeed be found. In this urban stroll of about 5 kilometers, through parts of Tokyo’s Bunkyo and Toshima wards, one can visit buildings representing the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Taisho Period (1912-1926) and the Showa Period (1926-1989); a glimpse of architecture through the ages.

The walk begins and ends at Exit 1a of Edogawabashi station on the Yurakucho subway line, going in a counter-clockwise circle. A map is provided below.

Hatoyama Hall

The first destination is the Taisho Period home of the Hatoyama family, Japanese political leaders for four generations (most recently, Yukio Hatoyama was prime minister from 2009 to 2010). The hilltop Hatoyama Hall is a Western-style home built in 1924 for Ichiro Hatoyama, the second generation of the political dynasty.

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Hatoyama Hall, with its rose garden in the foreground Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Designed by well-known Japanese architect Shinichiro Okada, a long-time friend of Ichiro, the house, with its pretty rose garden, is predominately Western in design, with artistic Eastern flourishes throughout, including pigeon motifs (hato in the name Hatoyama means pigeon). The beautiful stained glass windows are particularly noteworthy.

Some rooms of the house are furnished, while others are given over to museum-style exhibits, particularly about Ichiro and his wife Kaoru, a dynamic educator and note-worthy figure in her own right.

Hatoyama leaders frequently used this home for political discussions and entertaining foreign dignitaries. If these walls could talk, what tales they could tell!

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Admission: 600 yen (adults); 400 yen (university/high school students); 300 yen (primary/junior high students)

Gokokuji temple

The Nio-mon outer gate of Gokokuji temple, at street level, was built in 1697, but it is not even the oldest structure in this massive temple complex. That honor belongs to Kannon-do, the main hall, which was built in 1681, under the patronage of the mother of the fifth Tokugawa shogun.

Kannon-do is said to be the oldest wooden temple structure in Tokyo, having been fortunate to escape the fire bombings of World War II. The massive hall contains various art treasures and visitors are allowed to enter the hall to view them (no photos allowed).

The complex is made up of a number of structures built at different times so that this site alone is a microcosm of temple architecture across the ages. The newest and oldest buildings on this tour are to be found here.

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The courtyard of Gokokuji temple, a contemplative atmosphere Photo: JENIFER ROGERS

In addition to the Nio-mon and Kannon-do, there are two other 17th century structures and an 18th century worship hall called Daishi-do. Churei-do is a Meiji Period worship hall, built in 1902 and dedicated to soldiers who died in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). There are stone lanterns dating to the Taisho Period while the Furo-mon gate at the top of the stairs and the Taho-to stupa were both built in 1938. The newest building on the site, the Hondo, is a stylish ferro-concrete structure opened in 1988, right at the end of the Showa Period.

There is also a large seated bronze Buddha in the temple courtyard. Have a seat on a nearby bench and soak up the peaceful atmosphere.

The temple is surrounded on three sides by its massive cemetery. Among the luminaries buried here are former Prime Minister Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922) and British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920). See if you can find the grave of Keizo Ogawa and his wife, Sachiko, founders of Ginza Cozy Corner (hint: there’s a bust of the two of them). There are some off-limits imperial graves and a separate section dedicated to fallen soldiers of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.

Zoshigaya Missionary House

Located west of Gokokuji, the Zoshigaya Missionary House was built in 1907, toward the end of the Meiji Period. Also known as the McCaleb Old Missionary House, it was the home of Rev and Mrs John Moody McCaleb, American Christian missionaries to Japan from 1892 to 1941. The McCalebs ran a school near their two-story six room home for many years.

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The Zoshigaya Missionary House, a great example of Meiji Period Western architecture Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The design of the house, and especially its massive windows and fireplaces, is quite interesting and seems almost out of place in Tokyo.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (also closed third Sunday of each month)

Admission: free

St Mary’s Cathedral

It’s a bit of a walk to the Showa Period entrant on this architectural extravaganza—follow the map closely.

St Mary’s Cathedral, sitting on a plateau above the Kanda River valley, is a towering steel and concrete structure designed by renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), perhaps best known for his designs of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

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Sweeping lines of the Kenzo Tange-designed St Mary’s Cathedral Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The cathedral was also dedicated in 1964, having been built to replace a 1900 wooden Gothic church that was destroyed in the World War II air raids.

Masses are held regularly in Japanese and Korean. Tourists are welcome to enter the cathedral when there are no services. The massive pipe organ (the largest in a Japanese church), the modern lines of the baptismal font, and the replica of La Pieta are especially noteworthy. Like the courtyard of Gokokuji, it can be pleasant to sit in the sanctuary for a bit and soak up the atmosphere.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: free

Shoseikaku and the Higo-Hosokawa Garden

Shoseikaku is another Meiji Period structure, but this one is a more traditional Japanese-style home. Built around 1887, the two-story house was used by the Hosokawa family (once lords of Kumamoto Castle) when they were in residence in Tokyo. It sits in the Higo-Hosokawa Garden, which is a lovely strolling garden on the banks of the Kanda River.

Part of the original 1887 house has been renovated and a seamless extension includes administrative offices, lavatories, and tea rooms. Several of the original rooms are open to visitors. Yoga lessons and traditional tea ceremony are held occasionally (but not at the same time!) in one of the ground floor rooms of the original house. On the second floor, visitors can watch a video of the history of the Hosokawa family, the house, and the garden, or just enjoy the view and appreciate how this type of Japanese home was designed in concert with its garden, to bring the outside in.

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View of Higo-Hosokawa Garden from Shoseikaku, a harmony of house and garden still important in Meiji Period Japan Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. in winter) daily; ground floor of the house open until 9 p.m.

Admission: free

Sekiguchi Bashoan

This walk concludes with one last glimpse of Edo architecture, sort of. Just next door to the Higo-Hosokawa Garden is another small garden called Sekiguchi Bashoan, the Sekiguchi home of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). While Basho is best known as a haiku poet and travel diarist, apparently he also had some knowledge of hydro-engineering and lived four years (1677-1680) on this site while supervising the engineering of the Kanda waterworks. The small house on the site is a postwar reconstruction of the original allowing visitors to imagine Basho’s lifestyle.

The lush garden features banana trees (Basho’s favorite) and a small pond. A sign at one point contains one of Basho’s most famous poems, possibly the most famous haiku ever:

an ancient pond

a frog jumps in

the splash of water

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The pond in the lush garden of Sekiguchi Bashoan. Was Basho inspired by the sounds of a frog here? Photo: VICKI L BEYER

It could be that Basho took his inspiration from this pond, although his famous poem wasn’t written until 1686, years after Basho moved from this site.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Admission: free

From Sekiguchi Bashoan, it’s less than 10 minutes’ walk along the Kanda River back to Edogawabashi Station. Do you feel like you’ve traversed nearly 340 years of Japanese history?

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Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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