Where Diego watches a tea ceremony, pokes around in an old house, and learns more than he really needs to know about the history of instant ramen.
First part of two.
Attending Mass always comes at the top of the to-do list on Sunday, which meant that my first stop of the day was St. Ignatius Church. The church sits on the edge of the main campus of Sophia University, one of Japan’s leading Catholic institutions of higher learning.
Later that morning, I made my way to Tōkyō Station and allowed myself a few moments to appreciate the magnificence of the newly restored building. Originally opened in 1914, the palatial structure was heavily damaged by wartime bombing in 1945 and had to be rebuilt on a less impressive scale in order to resume transport services as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that work began in earnest to fully restore its prewar glory, and in October 2012 the station’s historic Marunouchi Building finally opened to the waiting public.
I’ve been looking forward to this moment for years, ever since I caught a glimpse of the reconstruction works on my very first trip to Japan back in 2009. I was in a hurry to catch a train this time so I contented myself with looking at the splendid interiors, saving the exteriors for the evening (we’ll get to those photos in due course but here’s a good write-up of the station reopening to start).
I say, we’ve definitely come a long way from this.
Down into the bowels of the station now, through a series of escalators that took me ever deeper underground towards the Sōbu Line platforms. Here I waited for the next available Yokosuka Line train bound for Yokohama.
Just before that, I caught sight of a train that should be familiar to all who’ve used Narita Airport in the last few years: an E259 series EMU on the Narita Express (N’EX) service between Tōkyō and the international terminal. N’EX trains use the same set of platforms in Tōkyō Station as the Sōbu and Yokosuka lines.
And here’s my train: an E217 series EMU, the reliable workhorse of several suburban JR lines running through the Tōkyō metropolitan area. I’ve grown quite familiar with – and rather fond of – this particular rolling stock as it’s used on the Sōbu Line rapid service that stops at the station nearest my usual Tōkyō hotel.
Most cars are of the usual single-level configuration with longitudinal benches and lots of open standing room, but a couple of units in each set are double-deckers with proper reclining seats. As one might expect, these are Green Cars and require a supplementary fee for regular ticket-holders or Ordinary JR Pass users to board (but free to use with my Green JR Pass, of course).
If you’ve got a Green Car ticket or JR Pass, the upper level of the double-decker car may be well worth considering (for somewhat better views).
Off I go! Not a particularly long trip today: all of 30 minutes or thereabouts, and probably just around twice the distance from the city centre to Haneda Airport as the crow flies.
From Yokohama Station, a local bus and a bit of walking took me to the gates of Sankei-en. This sprawling garden was laid out in the early 1900s by wealthy silk merchant Hara Tomitarō (who also used the name Hara Sankei) and has been open to the public since 1906. In addition to the fine greenery and wooded trails, the garden is famous for its splendid collection of old buildings that were transported from other parts of Japan and reassembled in various locations throughout the garden. Many of the buildings are several centuries old, and a handful have even been designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government.
The grounds consist of the Outer Garden, which was the first section to be opened to the public, and the Inner Garden, which was formerly reserved for the private enjoyment of the Hara family. I spent my day in the Outer Garden (I’ll have to look forward to a future visit for the Inner Garden) and began by taking a leisurely stroll along the path skirting the central pond.
500 yen gets you through the entrance, but if I were a local I’d happily pony up a few extra thousand yen for an annual pass. I can imagine myself spending many weekend afternoons peacefully unwinding from the stresses of the workweek in this sublimely serene setting.
Easy to mistake these for bronze sculptures of turtles (especially with the things lazing about in the sun like so many brown pebbles), but stare at them long enough and you’re bound to detect enough movement to realise they’re the real deal.
Not far from the pond stands the Kakushōkaku, built in 1902 to serve as the Hara family’s main residence.
To the right of the main path stands the Sankei Memorial, a modern exhibition hall constructed in 1989 to house exhibits related to the garden’s former owner. A little further beyond the hall is this far more ancient structure, a wood-and-tile gateway named the Gomon . . .
. . . which was originally set up in 1708 for a temple in Kyōto. The gate was taken apart and reassembled in its present location during the early Taishō period.
Through the gate, look right and you’ll see the entrance to the Hakuuntei. This traditional house was built in 1920 for Hara Sankei and his wife.
I could be mistaken – the garden map I’m looking at is a little imprecise – but I believe the stately old entrance porch at the end of the path leads into the Rinshunkaku, a villa built in 1649 under the orders of Tokugawa Yorinobu (one of the sons of Tokugawa Ieyasu).
Might have been worth a good look inside, but if memory serves, there were signs indicating that a private function was underway at the time – I also noticed kimono-clad women rushing in and out of this area – so we’ll need to save this one for a future visit.
From here, I started to walk back to the main pond when I noticed signs advertising a tea service in the Sankei Memorial. My interest piqued, I headed inside and (for the cost of just a few hundred yen) was rewarded with the memorable experience of witnessing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the Bototei, the memorial hall’s tea room. The event was supervised by a tea master of the Omotesenke school.
I shot a video instead of taking photographs, as I wanted to document the procedure in detail (perhaps with a view to attempting the ceremony myself in the future).
No worries if you don’t speak Japanese: the staff will provide a leaflet in English describing the ceremony and, step by step, the proper etiquette to be observed when drinking your tea. (Don’t let the apparent formality frighten you off; I assure you, it’s all quite enjoyable and feels very traditional indeed, even if the setup is rather modern and the setting – on stools at low tables instead of on a tatami floor in a proper tea room – not strictly according to custom.)
Contentedly refuelled on tea and sweets, I made my way back to the area of the central pond. There were quite a few people out and about along the water’s edge: feeding the fish, chatting with friends, admiring the views, and generally just having a good time.
From here, I followed one of the gravel paths leading into the thickly wooded grounds of the Outer Garden.
Standing off to one side of the path is the Rindōan, a relatively new tea room (dating from 1970) donated by the Rindō group of the Sōhen-ryū tea ceremony school.
In this part of the country, the delicate blossoms of sakura trees have given way to the fresh verdant foliage of spring. I must admit, after staring at so many clouds of white and pink flowers throughout my journey, it actually comes as a bit of a relief to enjoy simple, lush greenery in a seemingly natural setting. I say “seemingly”, because this is a man-made garden after all and no doubt these woods have been landscaped to within an inch of their life (the veneer of wild, untamed nature notwithstanding), but with no towering skyscrapers in sight or city noises within earshot, it’s certainly a convincingly rural retreat from the bustle of the heaving urban area just beyond the gates.
A short distance away stands the former residence of the Yanohara family. Built during the mid-1700s in the famous gasshō-zukuri style of central Japan, the house once belonged to a headman of Shōkawa village, which was located in the same district as the more famous town of Shirakawa-gō that boasts of many buildings in this distinct architectural style. It was moved to Sankei-en in 1960, when the construction of a new dam (not sure which but probably Miboro Dam) threatened to submerge the area in which the house once stood.
This is apparently the only one amongst all of the old buildings collected in Sankei-en whose interiors are always open to visitors. A good thing too, because the interiors are remarkably well-maintained and offer a vivid glimpse into the life of a prosperous farming household of the Edo period.
After touring the ground floor, I mounted the wooden steps leading into the cavernous space under the building’s thatched roof . . .
. . . where farming implements and other household goods were on display.
I then circled the house from the outside to appreciate the fine workmanship that went into its construction.
Below the path leading back down to the main pond is a tea hut dating from the early 20th century, said to have been brought over from a temple in Nara prefecture.
Ahh, such lush, unspoilt greenery – really brings a calm and soothing feeling to the soul of the world-weary urbanite.
Further along the path stands the former main hall of Tōmyō-ji, an old temple in the Kyōto area. Dating from 1457, the hall suffered typhoon damage in 1947 and was taken apart for storage, eventually being reassembled here in the 1980s.
Remember the hilltop pagoda that we saw earlier? It’s actually from the same temple as the hall just now, but was moved to Sankei-en much earlier (in 1914).
The path eventually leads back to the garden’s main gate, but there’s no rush – allow a few more moments to savour the scenery.
And with that, I was ready to board the bus and see more of what Yokohama had to offer.