Hamarikyu: a slice of Tokyo’s well-preserved past

It’s my last week of work here in Tokyo, and yesterday the folks from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government arranged a walking tour of the Hamarikyu Gardens, located along Tokyo Bay.

The grounds of the Hamarikyu previously served various purposes – as the family garden and duck hunting grounds of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period, and also as a detached palace that was later used by the imperial family after the Meiji Restoration.

The area is awash with several shades of green against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, it was quite a sight and a welcome reprieve from the bustle of Shiodome just minutes away.

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Though most of the original structures were destroyed in the aftermath of the second world war, Hamarikyu has since been faithfully reconstructed – down to small, delicate details such as this wooden wall carving in a teahouse that represents the full moon.

To move from the busy subway to this detached floating rest stop feels almost surreal.

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The visit included us having a sampling of a shogun’s meal that had been recreated by Professor Sachiko Matsushita, an Edo food culture researcher and Emeritus Professor at Chiba University.

Prof Matsushita had gleaned an insight into the culinary tastes of Japan’s Edo rulers by scouring through various materials, including cookbooks preserved from the era.

These, however, often contained only the ingredients and types of seasoning used, so Prof Matsushita completed these recipes in accordance with the preferences of today’s typical Japanese palate.

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The meal was exquisite – consisting sea bream sashimi, shrimp and herring roe sushi, simmered lotus root with salt, fish paste, thick baked omelet, rice and a sweet red bean dessert, just to name a few.

You are, as they say, what you eat and I must confess I did feel a little lofty and refined after the meal, as I looked out at the lush greenery in front of me, sipping on tea as I sat on my tatami.

This lasted for approximately 15 minutes before the commoner in me was beset by a food coma, my excitement having caused me to wolf down the food in mere minutes. Some meals are worth a little post-food discomfort, and this was definitely one of them.

Yesterday’s Hamarikyu tour also included stops at the hunting grounds and a floating teahouse built over a pond, where I was served matcha tea and a traditional sweet treat.

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It felt like I was coming full circle, in a way, because my first week in Tokyo had similarly begun with a tea ceremony at Koganei park. It’s been an amazing ride in between.

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The nakajima-no-ochaya – a floating teahouse where the shogun, court nobles and other officials used to enjoy a scenic view as they sipped on tea. Today, the grounds are open to the public, who can also have a taste of nobility.

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The famous 300-year-old pine tree, that greeted me at the entrance of the Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu is a site to behold in spring, I’m told, when the cherry blossoms are in full swing, but even today, on a regular morning in fall, something about the park today left me captivated.

I tried to rationalise it – this deep sense of serenity and calm – which somehow felt a little different from the usual walk in the park in other parts of Tokyo, or even back home.

I find the answer as I’m introduced to gardener Junichi Fujishima, who showed us the ways in which the pine trees here are trimmed twice a year.

It’s a tedious process – referred to as midori-tsumi in spring and momiage in fall – of pinching and breaking shoots that have newly developed within the year in so specific a manner that the trimmed pine leaves are left in the shape of a perfect arc.

The pinching and breaking is entirely done by hand, without any tools.

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Mr Fujishima has been a gardener at the Hamarikyu Gardens for five years, but has worked with flora and flauna for close to three decades

The art of trimming these trees, I learn, has been passed down over generations. Gardeners work their way around each tree from top to bottom, taking weeks to complete a single section at Hamarikyu. They rotate around three different parts of the Gardens every year, and Mr Fujishima tells me he has a soft spot for the 300-year-old pine tree, which he enjoys tending to.

He also explains how neither pesticides and insecticides nor fancy gardening tools are used in the gardens.

To keep away pests, for example, a two-layered straw mat hugs the trunk of each tree at the start of fall to trap worms that usually burrow into these plant hosts and weakens them. The same method has been employed for centuries past.

A fellow journalist asks if the gardeners take liberties with shaping and designing the arc of the pine trees; it has been hundreds of years since the methods for trimming them were originally dictated.

“No, we continue to follow the way things have been done over the last few generations and have left them the same,” says Mr Fujishima.

Hamarikyu, it hits me then, has unassumingly, yet firmly retained a crucial role in this city amid the large swanky glass buildings that surround it for precisely that reason – that it has remained unflinching in the face of stampeding modernity.

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You can feel it – in the way the leaves of a 300-year-old pine tree rustle, or as you walk on sand and stone instead of concrete, or as you look at tree formations that have stayed in exactly the same shape for centuries.

And it makes a world of a difference – to be in a space, a sanctuary, that is neither pressured nor affected by the demands of the fast-paced, technology-saturated city life.

The struggle between retaining the old and embracing the new is an eternal one – to acclimatise and adapt to the changing needs of today’s world, compromises must be made, whether that means clearing out parks to build roads, or modernising facilities to make them more attractive and accessible to the masses.

But sometimes, retaining a sense of the past also helps us in the journey ahead because it anchors our memories, emotions and feelings and keeps us rooted. The large number of locals of all ages that I saw within just two hours at the park yesterday tells me very clearly that Hamarikyu has lost none of its relevance today.

Instead, this strong sense of the old and refined Edo has given the shiny Tokyo metropolis, in my view, a means with which to ground itself as it hurtles towards an unpredictable future.

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