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A Famed Garden in Tokyo Near the Bay

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Written by Reed Venrick.

Take the leafy, shaded path—follow the boardwalk,

enter the Nakajima Teahouse—a name translating to

"in the middle of the island." There, you may sit

on "tatami" mats before "kotatsu" tables and order

green teas from Shizuoka or Uji Province.

As you peer over Hama-Rikyu garden toward

the bay, snack on traditional "wagashi" and "mochi"

desserts, just as the shoguns and emperors and

their wives and children did for centuries, and after

the disaster of World War 2, came visitors by millions.

But in June, 1879, it was here, his steamship anchored

in Tokyo Bay, Ulysses S. Grant—ex-general, ex-war

hero, ex-USA President—the most famous American

strolled, then sat and sipped tea with the emperor Meiji.

Tokyo was the final stop for a round-the-world voyage.

Grant stayed two months in Tokyo, where Hama-Rikyu

Garden and the Nakajima Teahouse, were the chosen

sites. There, Meiji—the emperor of Japan(only 20

years) listened, conversed and introduced a fascinated

Grant to a country transitioning fast from a medieval world.

As reported by historians, the emperor explained the history

of Japan(not least, Admiral Perry's visit, 25 years before),

reflecting on the country's social turmoils, including

the significance of the Satsuma rebellion, dragging Japan

into a civil war that displaced the samurai elite,

The emperor admired Grant—looked up to him as

a mentor, saw him as a political and personal connection

to the USA's growing international influence, even asked Grant

for advice on the ongoing Ryukyu Islands' conflict with China,

and encouraged him to stay on for months to discuss

international politics and learn more about those centuries

of Japan's isolation. But on that first meeting day in June, after

drinking green tea, after eating snacks, after temperatures

cooled down, they strolled about the cultivated trails, and

Grant was shown the aesthetic design of a Tokyo garden.


Then came the planting of trees: Grant's wife, Julia,

dug the soil for a magnolia, Grant, a bald cypress. Soon,

the seasons, the years, and many decades would pass—

a devastating earthquake in 1923, and fire bombings

in the 1940's destroyed much of Hama-Rikyu Garden.

But these generations later, in 2020, Grant's cypress

and magnolia still grow tall and stately—each year

peering higher over the waters of Tokyo Bay, like

many trees there, including the double-cherry blossoms

in spring, and chestnut leaves shading summer afternoons.

As we stroll on under the shaded pergola and out

under the sun, we walk through the old horse training

hectarage—in summer, flowered fields of canola and peony.

Then, amble up, along the levee, where Grant and

the emperor paused to catch their breath and gaze through

the blue mist of the windy bay. Behind them, grew the silent

but eloquent lives of trees and the mystery of nature that unites

peoples, as well, bonding generations for those who visit

the park on lunch breaks and those foreign tourists strolling in,

breaking from the rush and noise of crowds and screeching

rails of Tokyo's trains—people escaping from the angst

of ultra-urbanization, become visitors returning to nature

here in a garden by the bay, created by those ancestors,

who planted trees to provide precious shade and oxygen,

insuring that organic aesthetics was passed onto

today's space travelers on this star-rise island called "Nippon."

Here, where the sun rises first on the rocky edge of Asia

along the Sumida river, where the circle-round-moat marks

a perimeter's flow—all this illustrating that the trunks and great

trees are the best statues and monuments for display.

Showing that not only does the life of trees serve as beacons,

but let's experience what previous generations planted

to show a time capsule—recalling historical encounters

when a president met an emperor and planted the proof

that history is never past—not when history is living still.


Reed Venrick was formerly an English teacher at a Japanese university in Tokyo, Hama-Rikyu garden was his favorite park.


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