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Jindaiji: Waterwheels, greenery, soba and history

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By Vicki L Beyer

Tokyoites, and visitors seeking something a little different for a day out, will do well to visit the Jindaiji area of Chofu, in Tokyo's western suburbs. The last of the autumn colors, and a local festival make this a particularly good time to go.

The area is named for an eighth-century Buddhist temple, one of the oldest in the Kanto area. But you can also explore the metropolitan botanical garden, the ruins of a 16th century castle, and a quaint little neighborhood full of soba restaurants, shops selling sweets and even some do-it-yourself opportunities.

Jindaiji Temple

Nestled on a hillside, fronted by ponds and waterways, Jindaiji Temple's situation is feng shui perfection. Founded in 733, it is said to have been named for Jinja Daio, the Buddhist guardian god of water. There is a romantic legend that explains the name.

Apparently the daughter of a local landowner fell in love with a traveler named Fukuman. The disapproving father banished his daughter to an island to keep the lovers apart. Desperate to be reunited with his lover, Fukuman prayed to Jinja Daio, who sent a giant turtle to ferry Fukuman to the island. The miracle moved the father to approve the union and the child born of it grew up to found Jindaiji temple, which remains associated with romance even today.

Given this legend, it is almost curious that the small hall dedicated to Jinja Daio is a somewhat lonely-looking affair at the far western end of the temple grounds.

In spite of the age of the temple as an establishment, most of the temple's buildings are only around a century old. The oldest structure is the thatched temple gate, which was built in 1695 and somehow miraculously escaped destruction during a fire in 1865. There are two main temple buildings on different levels of the side hill, as well as other minor structures and even a guardian shrine overlooking the entire complex.

Soba shops and waterwheels

The hillside on which Jindaiji Temple sits is the source of a number of natural springs that are channeled into waterways along the valley at the foot of the hill. There is also a pond with small islands, perhaps an homage to the original legend.

Along the lane that runs past the front of the temple are a number of soba restaurants and shops selling noodles and sweets made of buckwheat. Apparently, buckwheat grows better than rice in this area, so it became the principle grain of the area around 400 years ago. Soba noodle requires both good buckwheat and good water.

From November 28 to December 6, the area will be hosting the 34th annual Jindaiji Soba Matsuri. Buy a special "sampler" discount pass for a chance to try small sample sizes of the special soba and sauces of all 23 participating soba restaurants. You can also buy a special "ema" (votive plaque) to be stamped by every establishment, giving you a chance to win a specially designed noodle dipping cup.

In addition to the various soba restaurants, along the streets fronting the temple you'll find no less than three waterwheels turned by the running water of the area. At the far western end of the street, near the hall of Jinja Daio, is "Suishakan", a working waterwheel operated by the city of Chofu with displays on the operation and importance of waterwheels. Admission is free. If you happen to have at least a kilogram of grain you'd like ground, or rice you'd like polished, with prior application, they will do it for you. The grinding/polishing takes about an hour and a half.

At the opposite end of the restaurant district, also look for Rakuyaki, a little shop where you can decorate your own piece of pottery and have it fired, returning for it at the end of your day in the area. There is a wide choice of plates, cups and figurines, and various types and colors of glaze. Finished pottery and china are also available for sale if you're not feeling artistic enough to make your own.

The area also boasts a number of shops that sell soba manju sweets. Maybe pick some up to take home for later?

It is notable that several of the establishments of this area offer free Wi-Fi. Traditional tourism meets the 21st century!

Jindai Botanical Garden

One of the Tokyo metropolitan parks, a horticulturist could get lost in this 42.5-hectare botanical garden.

The main garden sits on top of the hill, behind and above the temple. The site was originally a nursery that cultivated trees to be planted along Tokyo's streets. It was converted to a botanical garden in 1961 and features 30 separate zones of plant life.

There is a sunken Western-style rose garden, a water garden in traditional Japanese style, grasslands, and woodlands. Special seasonal flower or bonsai displays are often to be found near the main garden entrance.

With plenty of paths to stroll along, one can soak up the pleasant greenery while feeling the stresses of the city dissolve. There seems to be something blooming in every season. Unfortunately, the tropical greenhouse is currently undergoing renovation (another pre-Olympic project, no doubt).

There is also an aquatic garden annex at the bottom of the valley, east of the temple. While the best time to visit the aquatic garden annex may be early summer when the irises are blooming, it is also interesting to see the garden now, as preparations for the winter season are underway. Additionally, this section of the botanical garden also encompasses the ruins of Jindaiji Castle.

Jindaiji Castle is a hilltop castle that must have once been quite sprawling. Abandoned by the Uesugi clan after a defeat in the 16th century, there is little left of it now. But this actually makes it all the more fun to wander around the site trying to piece together what it might have been like. The earthworks of moats and dry moats are probably the most obvious. Foundation stones have been laid out for some old structures.

Access:

Jindaiji-bound buses leave frequently from JR Mitaka and Kichijoji Stations as well as Keio Tsutsujigaoka and Chofu stations and also stop at Jindai-Shokubusukoen-mae if you prefer to start or end your visit with the main botanical garden.

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"Fukuman" sounds like a Japanese superhero. But Jindaiji is definitely a cool place to visit.

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