A Walk in the Rain: Exploring the Ota-ku suburbs

The bright lights of the big city that is Tokyo so dominate that it is easy to forget that Tokyo also has a number of fascinating suburban neighborhoods worthy of exploration.  In search of the last of the hydrangeas that are so prolific this time of year, I thought I’d take a half-day walk through some residential neighborhoods of Ota-ku, the southernmost of Tokyo’s 23 wards, exploring historic temples and shrines and strolling through parks (see map below).  I knew I was risking rain, but chanced it.  Indeed I was rained on, but it was still a great walk.

I started from Shimo-Maruko Station on the Tokyu Tamagawa Line.  Since part of my goal was just to walk through residential neighborhoods to look at houses and lifestyles, my first stop was the Showa Period Lifestyle Museum, a well-preserved 1950s house tucked down a side street.  The house has been converted to a private museum, containing period furnishings and displays on the daily life of the 1950s-60s, the period during which Japan’s miraculous post-war recovery was most pronounced.  (Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00-17:00; admission JPY500; English pamphlet available.)  The docent kindly gave me a guided tour in Japanese (English tours are also available with prior arrangement: 03-3750-1808).

With this understanding of suburban lifestyles of the mid-20th century under my belt, I retraced my steps back across Kanpachi and on to Komyoji temple. Most tourists don’t realize the abundance of temples in Tokyo, assuming that temples are Kyoto’s domain. In fact dotted throughout Tokyo are a number of historical temples worth a visit, especially if one is “in the neighborhood”.

Komyoji, a Buddhist temple founded in the 8th century by the great Kobo Daishi, sits on a hillock above a pond that was likely a lagoon created by the Tama River.  For reasons unknown, the pond is now hidden behind palings, away from public view.  Still, the serenity of the temple grounds was calming.  I wandered back to the cemetery behind the main temple building and was astonished to find a stunning new-ish pagoda and a very modern stone garden.  The colorful seated Buddha and murals inside the pagoda, kept safe behind glass, were particularly fine.

From Komyoji I walked north through residential streets, observing the shapes and designs of houses in this middle-class neighborhood, most of them built in the last 30 years.  In contrast to the house containing the Showa Period Lifestyle Museum, they often occupied quite small plots, yet still managed to have car parking spaces and sometimes even small gardens or bits of greenery. And flowers in abundance; sometimes hydrangeas but more often other kinds of blooms growing in pots.

Less than five minutes from Komyoji, I came to Zomei-in, a sweet little 17th century temple of the Shingon Sect.  Although it’s best known for its hilltop cemetery behind the temple, I enjoyed the beauty of the ancient-looking cherry tree near the front gate—it must be spectacular  in full bloom—and the little Inari shrine guarding the temple.

Continuing north for a few more minutes, Unoki Matsuyama Park came into view on my left.  It turns out this hilltop park is actually a 6th-8th century burial mound; check out this blog post for more on that.

I walked through the park, with its gnarled black pines on the hilltop (but too many trees to even glimpse the Tama River nearby), and then descended via the stairs to exit through the northwest corner.  I turned right and went up another slope. A few minutes after turning left at the end of the lane, I came onto the remnants of the Rokugo Canal, which remained my companion almost to Tamagawa Station.

The Rokugo Canal, an irrigation canal using water from the Tama River and upstream tributaries, was commissioned by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1597 (when he was lord of the Musashi region, but before his ambition to be shogun had come to fruition).  Extending some 23 kilometers, it took 14 years to complete and greatly expanded the rice production capacity of this area.  It’s often referred to as the “women’s canal” because it was largely dug by the women in the area.  In some places, manually-operated waterwheels enabled raising the water even above the level of the canal.  It’s difficult to visualize that this overwhelmingly residential area was once dominated by rice paddies and farm houses.

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The canal is quite small these days, well-maintained and teeming with turtles and carp.  Following the pleasant walkway alongside the canal, after 20 minutes or so I passed Mitsuzo-in, another Shingon sect temple from the 17th century, adorned with flags in the five colors representing perfect Buddhahood and eternal peace.  A sign outside the new little “chapel” to the right inside the gate invited visitors to step inside freely, so I went in for a few moments of quiet contemplation.  Although it had been raining intermittently for most of my walk, at this point it was raining quite hard.  Perhaps the Buddha was offering me shelter.

Just a few minutes further on, I passed Toko-in, a small Shingon sect temple from the 16th century.  Its green roof, wet with the rain, particularly gleamed, but the feature that caught my eye was the stained glass panel of a phoenix that sat behind the temizusha, handwashing basin.  The Chinese say that a phoenix and a dragon together symbolizes happy marriage and here, just below the phoenix, was a dragon as the water outlet for the basin. Given the rainy conditions, it’s no surprise that I saw no couples nearby, happy or otherwise.

Curiously the canal got wider as I walked upstream.  Perhaps it is because water is siphoned off along the way, although I couldn’t see any signs of that.  The canal disappeared underground as I passed through a tunnel under Highway 2 (a/k/a Nakahara Kaido) that is said to be the oldest tunnel in Tokyo.  A few minutes beyond this, I crossed train tracks and found myself at the entrance to Tamagawa Sengen Shrine.

Tamagawa Sengen Shrine overlooks the Tama River at Maruko Bridge and the Tama River flood gates.  On clear days (ie, in the winter), Mt. Fuji can be seen from here and this fact influenced the establishment of the shrine in the late 12th century.  Hojo Masako was travelling through the area to meet her husband, feudal lord Minamoto Yoritomo, when she stopped here to rest an injured foot.  As her own guardian god was enshrined at the Fuji Sengen Shrine near Mt. Fuji, which she could see from here, she prayed on this spot for her husband’s success in battle, and the shrine was begun.  The shrine today is particularly associated with easy childbirth and happy families.  (Pick up a copy of their English pamphlet to learn the story of why.)

Back down on the street, I passed under the Toyoko line train tracks near Tamagawa Station and turned left to the southern entrance of Tamagawadai Park.  This southern part of the park contains some 3,000 hydrangea plants.  As I expected, wet with the rain, the colors of the flowers really popped.

Further up the hill are the remains of two reservoirs used to provide fresh water to this area in the first half of the 20th century.  The reservoir shapes have been retained with one being turned into an herb garden, while the other contains a lily pond and board walk.

This park is also the site of ancient burial mounds but today I just enjoyed my walk in the rain amid the lush greenery of the park with its pathways, flowers and occasional river views.  The flora of the park, including pine, cherry and maple trees, tells me it would be pleasant and attractive in any season. Perhaps I will become a regular visitor.

I left the park at the north end and just 50 meters down road came to Horai Park, a hillside park with a pretty little pond on the low end.  Leaving at the top end, I followed the gingko tree-lined street leading over the hill (note to self: visit again in the autumn) and down to pretty little Denenchofu Station, the end of my walk.  I have enjoyed checking out the houses along my walk and this clearly is a wealthier neighborhood, with larger houses and larger gardens.  A perfect end to my suburban exploration.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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