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Koishikawa Korakuen/Tokyo Dome City: Tokyo’s eclecticism in focus

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By Vicki L Beyer

Let’s explore one of those neighborhoods where one can experience modern Tokyo and old Edo in close proximity, the Koraku neighborhood of Bunkyo Ward.

Start with a visit to Koishikawa Korakuen, the remnants of a 17th century strolling garden, one of the earliest built in Edo and one of only two such gardens still in existence in modern Tokyo.

Construction of this garden was commissioned in 1629 by Yorifusa Mito, the ninth son of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the first in the line of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa clan. The original garden, comprising 63 acres, was finished by Yorifusa’s son, Mitsukuni, approximately 50 years later. The garden’s name literally means “enjoy after,” and is derived from a Chinese principle of government, that a ruler should worry before the people do and enjoy after the people do.

Today, just 16 of the original 63 acres remains, but it is more than enough to provide a pleasant stroll and a perspective on the life of a feudal lord.

The garden’s design was strongly influenced by Chu Shun Shui, a Chinese scholar who fled his homeland in the waning days of the Ming dynasty. Thus many of the garden’s features echo famous Chinese scenery, including Lushan Mountain and Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. Yet, the garden is not an imitation of a Chinese garden; it is distinctly Japanese.

The best way to explore the garden is to move in a clockwise circle from the entrance at the southwest corner of the garden. In spite of the size of the garden, the design often requires you to explore it a very little bit at a time. The garden does not reveal itself all at once.

Among the interesting features of the garden are its various bridges, including Tsutenkyo -- a vermillion wooden bridge that crosses high above a ravine, Engetsukyo -- a half-circle stone bridge which when reflected on the water beneath it shows up as a full circle and Yatsuhashi -- a bridge made up of 8 large flat stones arranged in an off-set pattern.

At the highest point in the garden there was once a miniature copy of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, but no trace of it remains today. Across Tsutenkyo from this site is Tokujin-do, a shrine built by Mitsukuni to honor Boyi and Shuqi, two Chinese brothers who lived a thousand years before Christ and are revered for their pacifism and virtue. The shrine contains statues of the brothers.

Engetsukyo — the name means “round moon bridge” — spans a stream which is actually a remnant of the original Kanda Josui (also known as the Kanda River), a man-made canal building at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate to bring water from Inokashira Pond into Edo.

The northern corner of the garden, where you’ll find the Yatsuhashi bridge, is more rustic and even has a rice paddy. Korakuen is the only Tokyo garden with such a feature. The paddy is planted and harvested by primary school children every year. Apparently Mitsukuni added the rice paddy because he wanted the pampered wife of one of his sons to understand the hard life of farmers.

As with many Japanese gardens, there is always something blooming, no matter which season you visit. Spring and summer are a riot of pinks and purples as the cherry blossoms (the weeping cherry next to the lake as you enter the garden is particularly famous), wisteria, azalea and iris each take their turn, but then the late summer water flowers, like water lilies and lotus take over, eventually giving way to the autumn leaves, particularly the fiery Japanese maple. Then in the coldest part of winter, the plum blossoms defy the low temperatures and portend spring.

The southern part of the garden is dominated by a large pond, full of fish and turtles and attractive to bird life. On the northwest lakeshore, also look for the large stone lantern that broke during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and was then reconstructed, its cracked pieces cemented back together again. Between the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 air raids, many of the garden’s structures were damaged or destroyed and have never been reconstructed.

The southwest corner of the garden features another, smaller pond and a Chinese gate, that is, unfortunately, not in use. The Mito family once kept their library on this site.

Koishikawa Korakuen sits just west of the Tokyo Dome, which can be a little distracting when you’re trying to capture that perfect photograph of a Japanese garden, but once you’ve had enough of the garden, wander over to Tokyo Dome City, the amusement park and shopping area that sits to the east of the Tokyo Done.

The Tokyo Dome itself is Tokyo’s first all-weather multi-purpose stadium. Opened in 1988, its soft top, kept up by air pumped into the stadium, is rather unique and has earned it the nickname “The Big Egg. The Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team but also hosts numerous other sporting events, as well as cultural events, exhibitions and most major bands whose concert tours bring them through Tokyo. SMAP will be appearing at the Tokyo Dome at the end of September.

Also housed in the Tokyo Dome is the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The entrance is at street level near Gate 21. The exhibits here commemorate Japan’s greatest baseball moments, as well as its best players, both professional and amateur.

The remainder of Tokyo Dome City surrounds the western half of the Tokyo Dome. There is no charge to enter, but there are day and night passes that provide unlimited access to the various rides and other attractions.

There are rides for the kiddies and a large indoor playground called ASOBono! as well as a few rides for adults. Unfortunately the Thunder Dolphin roller coaster that runs along the rooftop of the LaQua building has been “temporarily” closed for more than a year. Combined with rolling skating, bowling, and a men-only sauna that specializes in pampering athletes (this is the Tokyo Dome, after all), one hardly even feels the need for the restaurants and shopping that are also available. Or maybe the men-only sauna is just a place for wives to drop their husbands while they enjoy the shopping. On a hot afternoon, relax in the LaQua courtyard and be refreshed by the Water Symphony fountains.

To thoroughly explore the Koraku neighborhood would be a full day’s effort. But it offers such a wide variety of entertainment options, from history and nature to sports and thrills, even without the roller coaster ride.

• Koishikawa Korakuen is a 3-minute walk from Exit C3 of Iidabashi Subway station or an 8-minute walk from JR Iidabashi station. • The garden is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Dec 29 through Jan 1. Admission is 300 yen. • Website: http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/koishikawa/index.html • The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. during the summer months) Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is 500 yen with discounts for children and senior citizens. • Website: http://english.baseball-museum.or.jp/index.html (look for the discount coupon) • Tokyo Dome City is a 5-minute walk from JR Suidobashi station, Suidobashi subway station, Kasuga subway station, Korakuen subway station. • Ride tickets can be purchased individually, or purchase a day pass (3,800 yen) or a post-5 p.m. night pass (2,800 yen).

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