There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.
At the time of this writing, the world is trying desperately, and in some levels, chaotically, fighting an incomprehensible contagion, the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Not being born during the two world wars, thus not having suffered the anguish of those eras or the atrocities of the Spanish flu (100 million deaths), Encephalitis (1.5 millions deaths), Asian flu (2 million deaths), and all the other horrifying epidemics that swept humanity, I could not claim expertise on the subject of virus prevention measures. I know I am not alone. Except for anyone over 75 years old, no living person in this world today truly understands the piercing danger and ill consequences of a long-standing and widespread plague that had inflicted civilizations in the past especially under the cloud of insufferable poverty. In contrast, sitting on material comfort and wealth and the daily pamper of digital feeds, the 2020 version of a world contagion is rather a contagion of Fear—the fear to be separated from such material comfort (toilet paper panic-buying), wealth (job loss from home quarantine), and social habits (social distancing)—all to be resolved vainly by an impulsive closure of one’s territories (quarantine and lockdown). In essence, no one actually comprehends the pure logic or radical effects of a lockdown, nor is inwardly comforted by its reassurances for betterment. Yet, people begin to whisper the sunny sides of isolation: time for self-discovery, family intimacy, self-expression, dialogue, awareness of bodily needs, and silence.
Irony as seen, never before in the 21st century have the skies been bluer, villages quieter, streets safer, and nature less exploited. Oceans have been cleared from plastic pollution. Forests have escaped illegal tree cutting. Clouds above and air below breathe void of gas emissions. Could nature be playing with humankind? In Japan, since the traditional public park picnics “hanami” had been prohibited during the cherry blossom season, even flowers will be left blooming without noise and unnecessary congestion.
Inside the Tokyo capital, tucked in the residential community of Setagaya, a petite and simple Japanese garden is not isolating from the world. The Futako Tamagawa vicinity has existed even before WWII. At that time, the land along the Tamagawa River had been filled with farms, village houses, shrines and temples. Even today, some of those farm families still maintain their vegetable plots next to modern residences and apartments. When Futako Tamagawa station (previously Tamagawa station) was completely renovated in the mid-2000s, commercial establishments and high-rise condominiums gradually popped up in the neighborhood, inevitably altering the once remote and quiet private quarter of Tokyo into a bright cosmopolitan town. Despite the concrete and glass pervasion, Futako Tamagawa, about 20 minutes by train from the city center Shibuya, has always bonded with nature. Residents have always felt a close affinity with the river (also popularly known for the annual Tamagawa fireworks) and pocket parks, including the huge Kinuta Park, 25 minutes away on foot.
Just behind Futako Tamagawa station, a secret garden adds to the natural scenery. The Kishin-en Garden opened in 2013. Its name, literally meaning “return to nature,” is a reminder to return and re-invite oneself to the companionship of nature, especially in times of confusion, turmoil, and fear, such as one we are experiencing today. What makes this picturesque spot so worth visiting is because of its open-air location amidst the towering buildings surrounding it and the Tamagawa River just next to it. The entrance from an elevation opens to bamboo railings lining a winding slope (designed thoughtfully for the elderly) heading downwards, completely encircled by pine trees, maple trees, evergreen trees, moss gardens, iris, dandelion and other flowerbeds, and bamboo thickets. The circuitous stone pathway envelops the central pond, which is landscaped aesthetically in the shrunken garden architecture style similar to the Shukkeien Garden in Hiroshima. Around the pond several elements are laid gracefully depicting typical traditional Japanese gardens, such as the Tsuzumi-no-shima stone island, Nishinoyagata-toro stone lantern, Ikada-michi rafting path, Aioi-bashi bridge, Yasuji-no-taki waterfalls, Water of hake (water in a slope), and the charming umbrella-shaped Shigure-tei gazebo, which is said to symbolize the blessings bestowed by the rain.
The main highlight of the park is the Kyu Shimizu-tei Shoin, former residence of the vice president of the Shimizu Corporation Group, an industrial family conglomerate since the 19st century. The traditional house reflects the basic features of Japanese architecture, such as the tokonoma recessed space for ornament display, tatami mat rooms, shoji windows, fusuma sliding doors, kutsunugi-ishi stone for taking off one’s shoes, and the engawa veranda connecting the interior with the exterior garden. These specks of heritage exude a soothing sensation in the midst of an overwhelming modern work culture.
There are stone benches on the upper levels and around the pond that provide perfect resting spots for reading, chatting, contemplating, or simply gazing at the spectacular scenery. Exiting the park up to the hill overlooking the long and wide Tamagawa River while catching a quick glimpse of the trains buzzing over the river completes the canvas of culture and tradition peeking through the shadows of modern Tokyo. In these times of human disconnection, a reunion with nature welcomes all here at Kishin-en.