Senzoku-ike: a suburban escape

Many Chinese cities feature a pond around which there are walkways and parkland where people can relax and connect with nature in spite of being in the city.  Such publicly accessible ponds are not common in Japanese cities, where instead the historic strolling gardens usually had carefully sculpted water features.

Senzoku-ike, just 9 minutes on the Tokyu Ikegami train line from Gotanda, however, is a delightful pond surrounded by publicly accessible walkways and parkland very like those encountered in Chinese cities.  But, like everything else, in Japan things are done in the Japanese way.  It is a relaxing spot where you can enjoy a bit of history and a bit of nature away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The lower end of the pond is just across the Nakahara Kaido from Senzoku-ike station.  Now a major highway, Nakahara Kaido is an historic road connecting old Edo to the village of Nakahara, now a part of the city of Kawasaki, across the Tama River from modern Tokyo.

A boat house is the first thing visitors see as they are crossing the street.  Here one can rent rowboats or paddle boats to enjoy a bit of time on the water.  Whether you do this before exploring the pond from the shore, or after, it will give you a different perspective on the pond and the neighborhood.  Prices range from JPY400 for 30 minutes to JPY600 for 60 minutes in a rowboat or JPY800 for 30 minutes to JPY1,300 for 60 minutes in a Swan paddle boat.

The pond is  about a kilometer in circumference, with a delightful wooded path along most of its shoreline.  Take a stroll around it to discover various features of the park.  I recommend moving clockwise.

Initially the park itself is nothing more than a pathway between the pond and slightly upscale residential houses sitting above it.  I can’t help but recall Edmund de Waal’s family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, toward the end of which he mentioned his great-uncle Iggie, an art dealer who had made his life in Tokyo and lived near Senzoku-ike.  Could he have lived in one of these houses?

About a quarter of the way around the pond, you come upon a delightful footbridge with arches reminiscent of the famous bridge at Iwakuni in western Japan.  The bridge is more decorative than functional, but it is a short cut to the Hachiman Shrine just beyond.

The very name of Senzoku Hachiman Shrine provides a lesson in the history of the pond’s name.  The shrine was established in 860, a time when the Chinese characters used to depict “Senzoku” where two characters meaning “thousand grasses”, and those are the still the characters used in the shrine’s name.  But the Chinese characters used to depict the pond’s name were changed to characters meaning “washing feet” (but still pronounced “Senboku”) not long after the Buddhist saint Nichiren (1222-1282) washed his feet in the pond on a visit here shortly before his death.

The shrine associates itself with another famous historical character, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), the warlord who made Kamakura his capital in 1192.  Hachiman was his family’s guardian god and he apparently worshipped here in 1180 when he was beginning his campaigning against his enemy, the Taira.  Horse images commemorate his visit.  Apparently, Minamoto often purchased his horses from villages nearby where horses were bred and raised, but the legend associated with his visit to this shrine is that he found and caught a horse here that went on to become his favorite battle mount.

This shrine has a fun festival in early September (usually the first weekend of the month).  Mark your calendars!

The walkway continues around the pond, passing a child care facility on the left while there are fishing weirs and walkways right on the water’s edge on the right.  Perhaps this area of shallow water with lots of greenery makes a perfect nursery for young carp, before they’re ready to wander out into the deeper water.  Certainly the carp in the pond are friendly (and greedily begging to be fed!).

There is also a small island in the pond, housing a shrine to the goddess, Benten.  The goddess of music and fine arts, her shrines are often surrounded by water.

After your visit to the island, continue around the pond.  You will soon have a choice of staying on the path or taking a boardwalk over the water.  I always opt for the latter.  It’s a chance to more closely examine some of the pond’s water plants, meet more greedy carp, and get views across the lake to the arches of the bridge.

Returning to dry land from the boardwalk, you are now in a large green space.  On the left are the graves of Kaishu Katsu (1823-1899) and his wife.  Kaishu was a naval officer in the Tokugawa government and was chosen to represent the Tokugawa government in its 1868 negotiations with forces representing the Emperor Meiji during the Boshin War.  Kaishu passed Senzoku-ike on his way to the negotiations at Ikegami Honmonji temple.  He liked the area so much that he built a villa on the pond in 1891.  It was his dying wish to be buried near the pond, with a view of Mt. Fuji (alas, no longer visible from here due to development–and reeds).

Although Kaishu was on the losing side of the negotiations, he went on to take a position in the Meiji government and is well-regarded in Japan.  Apparently a museum to his achievements is now being developed nearby. (Update: the Katsu Kaishu Memorial Museum opened in late 2019.)   In addition to the Katsu graves, there is a marker commemorating the friendship that developed between Kaishu and Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), his adversary in the surrender negotiations.

It is not possible to walk along the shoreline of the last section of the pond.  Instead follow a small residential laneway.  You’ll soon see the gate of Myofukuji temple on the right.  Apparently Kaishu’s villa was just on the left here; there is a small marker.

It was at Myofukuji that Nichiren’s foot washing led to the change of the pond’s name.   But before you walk down to the water’s edge, take a bit of time to explore the temple, known for its “horse-headed Kannon” statue, and the rest of its grounds.

As you  make your way to the pond behind the main temple building, you’ll see lots of commemorative stone markers and statuary. There is a small platform on the water where you can stand and let your imagination take over to see Nichiren’s foot bath in your mind’s eye.  (But don’t emulate Nichiren and wash your own feet; the folks at the temple frown on that and have posted a sign saying so.)

A side gate from the temple leads to the public library next door.  Outside the library, facing the pond, are some tables and chairs where library patrons and locals seem to enjoy relaxing for a bit.  You’re welcome to use this space, too.

Once you leave the library’s grounds, you’re back on the Nakahara Kaido, not far from the boat rental and Senzoku-ike station, having successfully circumnavigated this historic pond.

© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer
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