A few days ago I went for my first walk in a fortnight. I walked through silent early-morning streets flanked by blazing azaleas, and with every step another muscle filament loosened and an additional knot slowly unlaced itself in heart, soul, spirit, whatever you want to call that core of our being. I lifted my face to the sun, as if to be kissed by a lover, and … I was happy.
April was a tough month, butI'mfromAfrica and I got through it, to be greeted by an explosion of colour as summer finally made a grand entrance. Glory be unto all gods who have blessed us with this season of warmth, flowers and velvet twilight. Amen. (I'm listening to "Thine be the glory", based on Händel's composition, as I type this. Not joking. Listen to the King's College Choir performing it here. I love hymns, though I agree with Tim Minchin: nice chords but dodgy lyrics.)
Anyway. I was walking through Adachi,¹ a neighbourhood that seems to terrify my eikaiwa students from Tokyo's genteel western suburbs. It's the poorest of Tokyo's 23 special wards, it has the highest percentage of families on social welfare, and 40% of children attending junior high school receive public financial assistance. It's also supposed to be a hotbed of crime.
Yes. Well. The thing is, kids, your blogger used to work in Lagos, Kigali and Johannesburg, in other words, you're going to have to try harder to scare her. Sorry.
So there I was – walking through safe, innocuous, entirely inoffensive Adachi – on my way to Gochisan Henjōin Sōji-ji, commonly known as Nishiarai Daishi, to visit its peony gardens.
It's one of Tokyo's great temples, and visitors flock there over New Year and on other religious holidays. It's said that Kōbō Daishi² visited this temple in a period when residents were racked by an unspecified disease. He healed them with prayers and water that began flowing from a dry well in the area.
The main temple building is big, imposing and austere. If I were you, I'd ignore it and focus on the peony garden (in April and May) and the complex's other quirky features.
If you have warts, this Jizō can help you: take a pinch of salt from the statue, rub it on your warts and there you go. (If you want to know more about the purifying role of salt in Japanese religion, read this post.)
Or pay a sad visit to the temple's Mizuko Jizō³ (水子地蔵) or Water-Child Jizō. He's the guardian of children who die prematurely, through abortion or any other means.
Or, if you're lucky enough to be in Tokyo in early summer, linger in the peony gardens. I've written several posts about peonies, but let me try to share new information with you.
Peonies, Latin name Paeonia suffruticosa, used to be the national flower in China until 1929. It was brought to Japan by scholars in the 8th century, and is called botan (牡丹) in Japanese. You can read more about its history – and fascinating association with lions! – in this post.
Though peonies are summer flowers, it's possible to cultivate a winter variety as well. As Sumiko Enbutsu explains in her book A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo:
Using a naturally occurring variety that blooms twice a year, gardeners control the flowering season by pinching off buds produced in early summer and cutting back leaves in August sp that the second budding in October can grow well in a temperature range of 15 to 20 degrees Celsius. Protected from frost and kept in a sunny place, the buds will open in January. Called fuyu-botan (winter peony), these lovely blooms are traditionally exhibited under small straw sheds and charm their audiences in bleak winter gardens.4
How to get there
I assume you don't want to walk from Asakusa to Adachi, as I did? Hmm. Thought not.
This temple is so important that it has its own station (as does the other great Kōbō Daishi temple in Kawasaki) called Daishimae. It's on a special extension of the Tōbu Skytree Line that takes you from Nishiarai Station one stop further to Daishimae Station. Once you exit the station, the temple is in front of you. OK, technically speaking it's immediately towards your right, but let's not get pedantic. You can see it, so you can't get lost.
You can also walk to Nishiaraidaishi-nishi Station on the Nippori-Toneri Liner, which would be a rather cool thing to do, since this line is an automated guideway transit system.
|Daishimae Station. I walked to the temple. I took a train back home. I love trains as much as I love walking,|
and I wanted to travel on this ultra-short line.
This post is for Meg, because I've been promising her a peony post for yonks, and for Adriana, who introduced me to the temple.
1) Read more about Adachi in this post.
2) Kūkai (774–835), posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi, is the monk who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. Think of him as the Jesus Christ of Japan.
3) Read more about Mizuko Jizō in this post.
4) Read more about winter peonies in this post.
5) Gadzooks. I've become my own main source of reference.
|Above and below, a statue of Kōbō Daishi next to the temple in one of the smaller peony gardens|
|Cherry blossoms at the temple|
|A magnificent wisteria bonsai at the temple's entrance|
|This amused me: an old water wheel plus a vending machine. Ah, Tokyo, I love you so very much.|
|Can't merely enjoy flowers. Must buy crappy clothes, too.|
|Ru loves roofs.|
|Peonies are so sensual ...|
|I'm trying to show you that peonies are huge flowers: bigger than my hand.|