Furu ike ya An ancient pond
Kawazu tobikomu A frog leaps in
Mizu no oto The sound of water
Last fall Rembukan members hosted a party at a “Ryotei”i of the sukiya-style at Kiyosumi garden. The structure appeared to hover over the stilled waters against a serene backdrop of manicured landscapes. The view was irresistible. For Yuri and I (we came here while courting almost 40 years ago,) the many subsequent visits had not diminished our appreciation for this place. To be cliché, this was and is our island of tranquility within the chaos of Tokyo.
Kiyosumi ’s roughly circular pattern features manmade hills, water and stone elements. It is a surviving representation of one of the “Daimyo” gardens created during the Edo period when warlords were required to take up residence within the city of the Tokugawa rulers.
Kiyosumi originated as part of the residence of a wealthy merchant named Kinokuniya. The rules must’ve been bent for this wealthy man as by caste it was not legal to own such land or to have a dwelling with a genkanii if you were not part of the then fixed bushi class.
The property was later acquired by the Lord of Shimofusanokuni Sekiyado and changed hands again in 1885 in a rundown condition to Iwasaki, Yataro, also a wealthy merchant.iii Iwasaki wanted a place where he could entertain noble visitors and foreigners. The garden’s name became Fukagawa Shimbokuen. The water elements were expanded and stones brought from every part of Japan to make this garden into a Meiji styled paradise. Basho, the famous poet, had lived nearby and his most famous haiku immortalized on a stone tablet was moved to the park.
Severely damaged during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the park was credited with saving the lives of the many people that fled there. Recognizing this public value, the Iwasaki family donated half the park to the city of Tokyo at a time when public philanthropy was not widely practiced in Japan.
Notables entertained here where we were hosting some wonderfully skilled Jo and Iai teachers included English Lord Marshall Kitchener who made a state visit in 1907.
Only notable within our own minds, but very much aware of our surroundings, Rembukan members wore shirts emblazoned with the brush writing of a renowned Kyoto Zen priest. The message, “sen-shin” means to purify one’s heart, to begin anew.
The setting, the Japanese craftsmanship of the wooden structure, the perfect angles at which the veranda boards met at the corners, and the sense of balance was appreciated by all of us, Japanese and Westerner alike. Egrets, koi, and turtles greeted us while offering up an illusion of a perfect setting within nature. Everything but the unpredictable movements of the wildlife was part of a planned order.
The sun dipped behind the horizon and the last rays of the day shimmered over the pond. The view framed in from veranda and low lying roof allowed us time to imagine an ageless scene leading to a natural silence amongst all gathered there. Even the wait staff paused in what they were doing to take in the moment.
For the most part our Japanese guests had never known of this park or come to explore its gifts. None had ever been entertained like this by non-Japanese. Upon learning of the original purpose of the park, a message of irony was not lost by those in attendance. Westerners were hosting Japanese in Japan. Westerners were demonstrating through their behavior a level of respect and appreciation for Japanese tradition that is not commonly exercised within today’s generation of budo practitioners. Certainly, none of our guests had ever interacted on this level with non-Japanese before.
Even before the beer started to flow, the Rembukan spirit of comradery became infectious and broke down cultural barriers, cementing the foundation for a healthy future relationship.
In thinking about Basho’s poem, there is little doubt that the significance we place on this event will leave no permanent mark. By the same token, everything is connected to everything else and I’m left with the question of how will Jo and Iai look in another 100 years? Will ancient traditions wither away or will a sense of continuity prevail? The memory of Lord Kitchener’s visit, what was said, who was present is lost to the history books. After 300 years, the timelessness of a mere 17 syllables still resonates.iv In keeping with our poor dojo humor I’ll end by adding that again the pen will prove mightier than the sword.
i Ryotei is a pun for a double meaning for “cool place”
ii Genkan is an entry vestibule where outerwear can be removed and guests greeted
iii It might be interesting to note that as the bushi class was disappearing that this was in great part due to the economic stresses placed on a warrior class that could not make a living or earn money
iv The poem exudes the Buddhist concept of “Samadhi” Books are written about this concept, suffice it to be; absorption and connection with the universal