To the uninitiated, suburban Tokyo may feel like impersonal sprawl: small houses crammed cheek-by-jowl, high rise and low-rise apartments, and shopping streets; eateries, shrines and temples are sprinkled in. But spend a little time, and the live-ability — even individual personalities of various neighborhoods — soon emerges.
One neighborhood with plenty of personality, and a few surprises, is Akatsuka in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, just south of the Arakawa River that forms Tokyo’s boundary with Saitama Prefecture.
Akatsuka Tameike Park explains a lot
Akatsuka Tameike Park is less than a 15-minute walk from Nishi-Takashimadaira subway station. At first glance it’s just a little local park; a few avid fishermen are sitting around a small pond with their lines in. Pause for a minute and more comes into focus.
The pond sits at the bottom of a steep escarpment that once guided the Arakawa River eastward. The river still flows east, but is now flowing a little more than a kilometer north of the park, which technically sits at the edge of a floodplain.
The park is actually two parks: the lower park with the pond, and an upper “castle park” atop the escarpment, the site of a 15th century “castle” fortification that stood watch over river traffic. Nothing of the so-called castle remains today, but it is pleasant to climb one of the steep trails and meander around the plum garden that is now on the site of the old fortification.
There are two worthwhile small museums at either end of the lower park.
At the north end is the Itabashi Historical Museum with several large antique cannon at the entrance, a symbol of this area’s past role in protecting the river. The museum introduces the geological and historical roots of Itabashi in two large exhibition rooms. Although little English is available, the time periods for each display are provided in English. Maps and illustrations, as well as artifacts, fill in the blanks sufficiently. The artifacts range from prehistoric potsherds demonstrating the importance of the ancient river to a cutaway of a giant pickle barrel that reveals this region’s former prowess at producing and pickling daikon radishes. According to the Japanese explanation, a barrel this size could pickle as many as 4,000 daikon at once.
In the courtyard behind the museum are more giant pickle barrels and some early-modern manually operated firefighting equipment. The courtyard is flanked by a nineteenth century ko-minka traditional farmhouse and a small barn/warehouse. Both are open and chock full of artifacts. Long before it became a Tokyo suburb, this rich river bottom was highly productive farmland. Both the farmhouse and the barn/warehouse contain tools and farm equipment of those bygone days.
The Itabashi Art Museum stands at the southern end of the lower park. The museum has planned exhibitions, usually lasting around 2.5 months each. The current exhibition (until June 5) features three modern Japanese artists of the twentieth century: Chozaburo Inoue (1906-1995), Masaaki Terada (1912-1989), and Iwami Furusawa (1912-2000). For those who think Japanese art is all ukiyoe or Nihonga, this exhibition is sure to be a surprise.
Akatsuka Fudo Falls
The road alongside the art museum and continuing up a hill behind it is called Tokyo Daibutsu-dori for reasons that will become apparent shortly. About 150 meters along the road and on the opposite side from the art museum is a steep hill with a trickle of a waterfall known as Akatsuka Fudo Falls. The source of the falls is an artesian spring on the side of the hill, the outflow guarded by a small statue of Fudo Myo-o. Although apparently the volume of water has decreased in modern times, the falls was once a popular site for misogi ritual cleansing, especially for those planning or making religious pilgrimages.
Tokyo’s Great Buddha
Continue up the hill and take the first right turn to find the entrance to Jorenji temple on your right. The 600-year-old temple’s stately stairs and elegant gate are inviting enough, but pass through the gate and you will soon spot the 13-meter seated Buddha popularly known as the Tokyo Great Buddha. He was completed in 1977 at the behest of the temple’s chief priest, who had experienced both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 1945 Great Tokyo Air Raid and wanted to erect a Great Buddha to bring peace and protect from future disasters.
Notwithstanding the dominating size of the Great Buddha, the rest of the temple’s grounds contain myriad other pieces of Buddhist statuary and architecture that are also worth time and study. Some were created with the patronage of the Tokugawa shoguns. There are hungry carp in the temple’s pond, too (buy carp food where amulets are sold).
Once in the main temple courtyard, it is tempting to exit through the side driveway. Just be sure that you have examined all four of the statues in the temple’s sanmon gate. The two statues facing into the temple ground are especially artistic — Chinese in shape and dress, but with Indian-style blue faces. Said to have the role of expelling demons, they would be easy to miss if you don’t go out through that gate.
Amazing Akatsuka Botanical Garden
Just a few steps from either entrance of Jorenji (right out of the main entrance, left out of the side entrance) is the Itabashi Akatsuka Botanical Garden, a well-designed and well-maintained garden with various zones to explore.
Ponds near the main entrance fill with lilies and lotus in the summer months. Walk to the left, between the ponds, and discover various fragrant bushes and wildflowers. Choose the righthand path to reach a small formal rose garden, a peony garden and an amazing little Japanese garden.
On the hillock between the two paths are herbs and wildflowers, a grove of cherry trees and another of camelias. Azaleas abound on another slope. Behind all of this and across a little laneway is a more traditional Japanese style garden and next to that, a demonstration garden that teaches children (and adults, no doubt) how vegetables are grown and harvested.
From the botanical garden, it’s an 18 to 20 minute walk back to Nishi-Takashimadaira station or about the same distance, continuing on through a residential neighborhood, to Narimasu station (Tobu Tojo line or Yurakucho subway line).
Even a walk through a Tokyo suburb with a station as your destination could reveal further insights and maybe even more surprises. Enjoy!
- The Itabashi Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30-17:00; admission free.
- The Itabashi Art Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30-17:00; admission varies depending on the exhibition (the current exhibition is free).
- Jorenji is open daily 9:00-15:45
- The Itabashi Akatsuka Botanical Garden is open daily, 9:00-16:30 (16:00 during winter; closed completely for five days at new year’s); admission free. The visitor center is closed on Mondays and the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of every month.
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.© Japan Today