Shoto-en: a hidden historical garden

In early 1868, Japan was in turmoil.  A few months earlier, the conflict over whether power should revert to the newly enthroned emperor Meiji or remain in the hands of the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for the previous 250 years had ignited into war.  Needless to say, the conflict ultimately centered on Edo, the Shogun’s capital city.

By May 1868, the Satsuma faction that was leading the imperial forces had surrounded Edo, making its headquarters at Ikegami Honmonji, a major Nichiren temple near the Tama River on the Edo outskirts. (Historical note: temples were common sites of military bivouac or even battles.)

Katsu Kaishu (1823-1899), the Shogun’s Army Minister agreed to conduct negotiations with the imperial forces, aiming for a peaceful handover of power.  His counterpart in the negotiations was Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), leader of the Satsuma faction.  Many of their meetings took place in a tea house in Shoto-en, a small traditional garden on the grounds of Ikegami Honmonji.  By July, the fighting was finished, the deal had been struck, and the shogunate was finished.  By September 1868–almost exactly 150 years ago–, the young Emperor Meiji had entered Edo, which was renamed Tokyo (the eastern capitol).

Shoto-en is a small early 17th century garden, tucked in a hollow behind the main temple of Ikegami Honmonji.  In spite of its important role in this historical turning point, the garden is generally closed and hidden from view.  But visitors will have a rare opportunity to visit the garden between 10:00 and 15:00 Thursday, September 6, 2018 through Sunday, September 9, 2018.

The garden sits at the lowest point of the temple grounds; like most traditional gardens it is centered on a pond.  It is accessed through Roho Kaikan, a restaurant and events facility operated by the temple.  Parts of the garden are visible from one of the restaurants year-round.

The pond provides a focal point for the garden, and also guides visitors as they walk through.  Clockwise is recommended.

Sitting in a hollow, the garden is flanked by hills on two sides and even features a small but deep gorge, site of the spring that feeds the pond.

Although the structure in which Saigo and Katsu met no longer exists, there are still three other charming tea houses in the garden.  When the garden is open, refreshments are served at the one that sits halfway up a hillside, giving visitors an excuse to sit a while, relaxing and enjoying the view.

The site of the Saigo-Katsu meeting–one of the highest points in the garden, possibly with a view all the way to Edo back in the day–is marked with a stone tower and a commemorative marker.  Even without the building itself, try to imagine what these two men may have said to each other as they each tried to achieve the goals of their respective sides without destroying the country they both loved.

Not far away stands another commemorative stone–a grave for tea whisks.  While this may sound a bit odd, it is a practice reflected in the current trend of disposing of unneeded items by first expressing gratitude to them.  During tea ceremony, the tea is whipped with a delicate bamboo whisk.  When this essential tool is worn out and can no longer be used it is given ritual cremation and its ashes interred here, a way for tea masters to show respect and gratitude to their tools.

Although this is a small garden–only about 4,000 square meters (eg, 1 acre)–its layout invites visitors to slow down and explore.  Like any good Japanese garden, the views are constantly changing as the visitor changes position.  Various features are hidden or revealed.  Did Saigo and Katsu stroll here as they negotiated perhaps?  Did they stand on the bridge and feed the fish below?

For visitors on Saturday, September 8, there is another unique opportunity at Ikegami Honmonji.  This 700 year old temple complex, a major religious center, is also the site of a 410-year-old five-story pagoda, the oldest pagoda in the Kanto region.

On September 8, the doors of the pagoda will be open, allowing visitors to view the inside of the first floor.  The carvings under the eaves of the pagoda, including of the 12 Chinese zodiac creatures aligned to the compass points associated with them, are interesting enough, but a peek at the artistry inside is truly a special opportunity.  Additionally, between 10:00 and 15:00 a special temple inscription (go-shuin) can be purchased at the pagoda and/or one’s special prayers can be left with the monks, who will include them in a special ceremony.

If you miss out on these opportunities, don’t despair.  Shoto-en is also open to the public during Golden Week every year. Honmonji is open and worth a visit any time, with lots of other activities year-round (examples: January, July and October).

Ikegami Honmonji is a few minutes walk from Ikegami Station on the Tokyu Ikegami line.

© 2018 and Vicki L. Beyer
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