A few years ago some friends from the U.S. visited around this time of year. They had a wonderful time in Japan, but observed that they managed to visit Japan during the only time of year when nothing is blooming. Of course, it’s the end of summer and most flowers have probably withered away in the heat. But there is a place in Tokyo where there is always something blooming: Mukojima Hyakkaen Garden.
The garden, located near the left bank of the Sumida River in northeastern Tokyo, was begun in 1804 by Sahara Kiku, a wealthy antique dealer, who wanted to cultivate a pleasant garden where something would always be blooming. “Hyakkaen” in the name means “garden of a hundred flowers.”
Sahara spent two and half decades developing his garden, which was originally a plum grove (and still features plum trees). He gradually added various flowering plants, often at the suggestion of literati friends who drew inspiration from classical Chinese and Japanese poems. His goal was to have a garden were there would always be flowers in bloom. Indeed, even at this time of year when everything wants to wilt, Mukojima Hyakkaen is definitely the place to go to find flowers.
Most of the garden’s late summer flowers are white. Perhaps because white reflects heat?
But there are also delightful splashes of colorful flowers, too. And in other seasons, many other flowers show themselves: chrysanthemums, plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, iris, hydrangea, and on and on.
Hyakkaen was developed during a period of Japanese history when common folk, including merchants, began to participate more actively in cultural and artistic life. It does not have the elegance of a classical samurai strolling garden, although it includes some classical features: a pond, bridges and a tea house. A stroll through Hyakkeaen feels more like a stroll through a country garden of wildflowers.
The garden was donated to the city of Tokyo in 1938 and was largely destroyed by the American firebombing of this area in March/April 1945. It was redeveloped and reopened after the war and is now a listed site under the Cultural Assets Preservation Law.
Three paths emanate from the entrance. Begin boldly by proceeding straight through the quaint gateway that beckons.
Paths crisscross the garden with tall vegetation that prevents expansive views of the entire space. This forces visitors to focus on each little eco-system of the garden, creating a sense of intimacy in many sections of the garden.
Each area of flowering plants across the garden is labelled with a number, said to correspond to a signboard somewhere in the garden that identifies what the flowers are. During my latest visit, I couldn’t actually locate any such signboard in either Japanese or English. This is when a good plant identification app, or a friend who is an avid horticulturalist, can come in handy.
The basic concept is that there is something flowering somewhere in the garden throughout the year. In addition to the flowering plants of late summer dotted across the garden, temporary bamboo trellises hold vining summer plants like gourds and loofahs. They are slightly past their peak now; they were at their best just a couple of weeks ago.
The garden also has several permanent trellises that are home to massive wisteria plants, with their fragrant bundles of hanging blossoms in April and providing leafy shade for the rest of the summer. There is also one trellis holding kudzu (arrowroot), a perennial vine that is a member of the pea family and sports a delicate purple blossom in autumn. Kudzu is very hardy and is, in many areas, regarded as an invasive pest, but it also features in traditional herbal medicines and, if kept under control, can be quite attractive.
Japan has another herbal medicine tradition: the seven herbs of spring. These are seven herbs that are cooked in a kayu (rice porridge) and eaten one week after New Year’s. There is a bit of ceremony involved and eating them is believed to bring health and luck for the new year. Hyakkaen has offered baskets of these seven herbs to the imperial household for decades as demonstrated by a small display near the garden’s entrance (of course, this time of year, the correct plants cannot be displayed). There are also seven herb of summer and seven herbs of autumn (actually seven flowering plants) and Hyakkaen has garden beds for all three in their season.
The garden has several little Japanese-style gazebos, inviting visitors to sit in the shade and enjoy the garden. During the heat of the summer season, glass wind chimes are hung from the corners to provide a pleasant tinkling sound whenever there is a cooling breeze.
In one corner of the garden is a small shrine dedicated to Fukurokuju, one of Japan’s seven lucky gods, and one of the stops on the Sumida Seven Lucky Gods walk that is a popular new year’s pastime. Nearby visitors can buy refreshments, including seasonal delights like shaved ice in summer and hot amazake in winter.
There is also a tea house called Onarizashiki. It contains three rooms that will hold 10 to 15 people each and are available to hire for 3.5 hour increments morning, afternoon and evening. Catering services are also available.
Another interesting feature of the garden is the stone monuments dotted around the garden containing poems or otherwise commemorating famous Japanese “men of letters”. Each is identified by a single hiragana syllabary character, arranged in the order of “Iroha”, a famous ancient poem comprised of one use of each hiragana character.
What garden is Japan is complete without a pond? Hyakkaen has a long pond, crossed by three sweet little bridges. The dimensions of the pond allow it to abut several different areas of vegetation and it also has different water plants, some of the flowering, depending on the season. In early summer there is an area of irises on one edge of the pond. From one end there are also views of one of Tokyo’s newest landmarks: Tokyo Skytree.
There are other distinctive water features in the garden, including a small well and a water harp. To enjoy the water harp, put your ear next to the tube and ladle some water over the stones on top of the ceramic pot into which the tube has been inserted. As the water falls into the pot, there is a pleasant musical tinkling.
The next seasonal flower to expect at Hyakkaen is hagi (lespedeza or bush clover), which will be in full bloom at the end of this month. Although there are bush clover plants in several spots in the garden, most famously it is trained over a bamboo “tunnel” about 30 meters long which visitors can stroll through to enjoy the tiny pink blossoms.
Mukojima Hyakkaen is open daily (except December 29-January 3) from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (last entry: 4:30 pm). Admission is JPY150. Admission is free two days of the year: October 1 (Tokyo Citizen’s Day, when all Tokyo Metropolitan parks are open for free) and Green Day (May 4).
During the pandemic, admission to the garden is limited to those who have acquired an advance ticket online. Use this QR code for quick access to the online reservation system in English.
The garden is an 8 minute walk from Higashi Mukojima station, an 11 minute walk from Keisei Hikifune station, and a 25 minute walk from Tokyo Skytree, traversing a quaint older Tokyo working class neighborhood. Another access option is to stroll up from Asakusa, crossing the river on the new Sumida River Walk and walking through Sumida Park and up Bokutei-dori with its homage to Tokyo’s cherry blossom viewing heritage.
© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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