A revelation in Akatsuka, a northwest suburb of Tokyo

To the uninitiated, Tokyo’s suburbs can look like an impersonal sprawl: small houses crammed side by side, high-rise and low-rise apartments, and shopping streets; restaurants, shrines and temples are dotted around. But spend a little time, and the ability to live – even individual personalities from various quarters – soon emerges.

A neighborhood with lots of personality and a few surprises is Akatsuka in the Itabashi district of Tokyo, just south of the Arakawa River that forms Tokyo’s border 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, this is just a small local park; a few keen anglers sit around a small pond with their lines. Take a one minute break and more focus.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The pond sits at the bottom of a steep escarpment that once guided the Arakawa River eastward. The river still flows east, but now flows just over a mile north of the park, which is technically on the edge of a floodplain.

The park is actually made up of two parks: the lower park with the pond and an upper ‘castle park’ at the top of the escarpment, the site of a 15th century ‘castle’ fortification which monitored river traffic. Nothing remains of the so-called castle today, but it is pleasant to climb one of the steep paths and meander around the plum garden which now stands where the old fortification once stood.

There are two interesting little museums at either end of the lower park.

At the northern end is the Itabashi Historical Museum with several large ancient cannons at the entrance, a symbol of this region’s past role in protecting the river. The museum showcases Itabashi’s geological and historical roots in two large exhibit halls. Although little English is available, the time periods for each posting are provided in English. The maps and illustrations, as well as the artifacts, fill in the blanks enough. Artifacts range from prehistoric shards demonstrating the importance of the ancient river to a cross-section of a giant pickle barrel that reveals this region’s ancient prowess in producing and pickling daikon radishes. According to the Japanese explanation, a barrel of this size could pickle up to 4,000 daikon at a time.

In the courtyard behind the museum are other giant pickle barrels and some early hand-operated firefighting equipment. The courtyard is flanked by a 19th century palace ko minka traditional farmhouse and a small barn/warehouse. Both are open and full of artifacts. Long before it became a suburb of Tokyo, this rich river bottom was highly productive agricultural land. The farmhouse and barn/warehouse contain tools and farming equipment from the past.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The Itabashi Art Museum stands at the southern end of the Lower Park. The museum has planned exhibitions, which usually last about 2.5 months each. The current exhibition (until June 5) presents three modern Japanese artists of the 20th century: Chozaburo Inoue (1906-1995), Masaaki Terada (1912-1989) and Iwami Furusawa (1912-2000). For those who think that Japanese art is entirely ukiyoe or nihonga, this exhibition is a surprise.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Akatsuka Fudo Falls

The road that skirts the art museum and continues up a hill behind it is called Tokyo Daibutsu-dori for reasons that will become apparent shortly. About 150 meters along the road and across the art museum is a steep hill with a trickle of waterfall known as Akatsuka Fudo Falls. The source of the falls is an artesian spring on the side of the hill, the outlet guarded by a small statue of Fudo Myo-o. Although the volume of water appears to have diminished in modern times, the falls were once a popular site for misogui ritual cleansing, especially for those planning or making religious pilgrimages.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The Big Buddha of Tokyo

Continue up the hill and take the first right to find the entrance to Jorenji Temple on your right. The majestic stairs and elegant gate of the 600-year-old temple are inviting enough, but step through the gate and you’ll soon spot the 13-meter seated Buddha, popularly known as the Big Buddha of Tokyo. It was completed in 1977 at the request of the temple’s chief priest, who had experienced both the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Great Tokyo Air Raid of 1945 and wanted to erect a large Buddha to bring peace and protect against future disasters.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Despite the towering size of the Big Buddha, the rest of the temple grounds contain myriad other pieces of Buddhist statuary and architecture that are also worth the time and study. Some were created with the patronage of the Tokugawa shoguns. There are also hungry carp in the temple pond (buy carp food where amulets are sold).

Once in the main courtyard of the temple, it is tempting to exit through the side aisle. Just make sure you’ve examined all four statues in the temple. san mon gate. The two statues facing the floor of the temple are particularly artistic – Chinese in form and dress, but with Indian-style blue faces. They are said to have the role of expelling demons, they would be easy to miss if you don’t exit through this door.

Amazing Akatsuka Botanical Garden

A short walk from either entrance to Jorenji (to the right of the main entrance, to the left of the side entrance) is the Itabashi Akatsuka Botanical Garden, a well-designed and well-maintained garden with different areas to explore.

The ponds near the main entrance fill with lilies and lotuses during the summer months. Walk to the left, between the ponds, and see various fragrant bushes and wildflowers. Take the right path to reach a small French rose garden, a peony garden and an amazing little Japanese garden.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

On the knoll between the two paths are grasses and wild flowers, a grove of cherry trees and another of camellias. Azaleas abound on another side. Behind all this and across a small alley is a more traditional Japanese-style garden and next to this a demonstration garden that teaches children (and adults, no doubt) how vegetables are grown and harvested.

From the Botanical Garden, it takes 18 to 20 minutes on foot to return to Nishi-Takashimadaira Station or about the same distance, continuing through a residential area, to Narimasu Station (Tobu Tojo Line or Line Yurakucho subway station).

Even a walk through a suburb of Tokyo with a train station as the destination could reveal other information and perhaps even more surprises. Enjoy!

  • The Itabashi Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Admission fee.
  • The Itabashi Art Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission varies by exhibition (the current exhibition is free).
  • Jorenji is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
  • The Itabashi Akatsuka Botanical Garden is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (4:00 p.m. in winter; completely closed for five days on New Years); Admission fee. The Visitor Center is closed on Mondays and the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of each month.

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

© Japan today

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