Archive for the ‘parks’ Category

Object Unfound

May 13, 2012

The centennial celebration of the 1912 gift of cherry trees to the city of Washington, DC has now ended, and the last cherry blossom petals have blown away.  Because of their annual spectacular display along the Tidal Basin, these trees are a part of the American landscape well-known about even by people who have never seen them in person.  What is less well-known about is the reciprocal gift of 50 dogwoods presented by former President Taft and his wife to the city of Tokyo in 1915.

When the Tree learned about this gift a few years ago, we set out on a search for the trees not only in cyberspace but in the wooded spaces of some of Tokyo’s many parks.  Our objective:  To find a living specimen of the original 50.

Led by an on-line article in the Japan Times, we visited Hibiya Park, where, the article claimed, we could find a contingent of the original group of dogwoods.  While we did find a copse of dogwoods there, beautifully in bloom, we also found signs indicating that none of them were part of the 1915 gift, but were later arrivals.

In a small park across from the National Diet Building we found another cluster of dogwoods, but these it turned out were a 1960 gift from the U.S. government to commemorate the completion of the Ozaki Memorial Hall, which was built on the grounds of the park.  (Below you can see the sign explaining the trees’ provenance.  Our translation staff has provided an English version.)

“In 1912 the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, presented cherry tree saplings to the city of Washington, DC for the furtherance of friendship between Japan and the United States.  In return, in 1915 dogwood trees were sent to Tokyo from the American government.

“Ozaki was instrumental in establishing our parliamentary government, and dedicated his life to the development of world peace and democracy.  He is known as the Father of Constitutional Government.

“When it was decided to build the Ozaki Memorial Hall (now the Parliamentary Museum) in honor of Ozaki’s achievements, 250 dogwood saplings were once again donated by the American government, and were planted here upon completion of the hall’s construction in 1960.”

Finally, following a tip from an anonymous blog, which claimed that all but one of the original 50 dogwoods had died, and that this lone survivor could be found in the Koishikawa Botanical Garden of Tokyo University, we went there to verify its existence with our own eyes.  We stopped at the entrance gate to ask the security guard where we might find the dogwood, only to be told that it had been chopped down a few years ago because it had “gone bad.”  Object unfound.

In spite of the dwindling away of the original 50, there is no lack of American dogwoods (cornus florida) in Japan today.  Over the years, it has become the tree of choice for gifts to Japan by American civic and governmental groups like the Rotary Club or the State of Ohio.  And, as with the 1960 gift noted above, by the federal government as well.  During the recent visit of Prime Minister Noda to Washington, Secretary of State Clinton announced at a dinner in his honor the gift of 3,000 dogwoods to the people of Japan.

It remains to be seen how long this renewed symbol of friendship between the two nations will last in the unspecified “Tokyo park” for which the trees are destined.

Some Progress

March 28, 2012

One hundred years ago today, on March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Washington, went down to the Tidal Basin, hoisted their spades, and planted the first two of 3020 cherry trees presented to the District of Columbia by the city of Tokyo.  This low-key but ground-breaking event not only established a  tradition of flower-viewing à la japonaise in America, but also implanted in the collective minds of both Japanese and American people the awareness that a special relationship might exist between their two countries.

One manifestation of this awareness is the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival held at this time of year at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.  This year, to celebrate the centennial of the trees’ arrival, a special extended edition is being held from March 20 through April 27.    According to the festival sponsor, “The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries.”

[www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/about/history]

The original gift came about not through official government channels, but through the efforts of one man in particular, Yukio Ozaki, who at that time was serving as Mayor of Tokyo, and was in fact intended to honor something more specific and controversial than “lasting friendship.” According to the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation, the Mayor arranged for the gift of cherry trees in order “to express the appreciation of the Japanese people for America’s role in assisting Japan” in the Russo-Japanese War.

[www.ozakiyukio.or.jp/english/index.html]

This appreciation, however, was not universally shared among the Japanese, many of whom resented the American-brokered outcome of that war, which deprived Japan of war indemnities and the northern half of Sakhalin.

Known in Japan as “the father of constitutional government,” Mr. Ozaki was a liberal politician who was instrumental in the establishment of parliamentary democracy.  In 1912 Japan, liberalism and a love of democracy were enjoying a brief and fragile flowering that was soon to be swept away by the winds of militarism, which Mr. Ozaki opposed.

In the same year as the gift of the trees, a daughter Yukika was born to the Mr. and Mrs. Ozaki.  When Yukika died in 2008 at the age of 96, an op ed piece about her appeared in the Daily Yomiuri.  The essay mentions the prejudice she endured as a schoolgirl because of her father’s liberalism.  “Cherry trees symbolize the soul of the Japanese people.  A traitor sold our soul,” her teacher told her class, referring to her father and the same blossoms currently being enjoyed at the Tidal Basin.  Yukika grew up to become president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, devoting her own life to helping those who suffer from war.  (The AARJ is active in various war-torn areas of the world including Afghanistan, where it helps people injured by land mines.)

Thus, the original intention of this gift was not just to foster some sort of vague and flowery friendship to which governments could easily pay lip service, but to commit a relationship between two powerful, potentially rival countries to the nurturance and propagation of world peace.  Needless to say, the course of this friendship from that March day in 1912 to today has been anything but smooth and straightforward.  It has endured imperialistic joustings in the early years of the 20th century, open hostilities and mutual bombing raids in World War II, the post-war American Occupation, trade frictions, and tensions over the continuing presence of US air bases and attendant troops on Okinawa even now in the 21st.

Somehow this so-called friendship has survived, just as the two original trees planted 100 years ago today still stand their ground, ancient now and gnarled, testimonies perhaps to the enduring possibility of a “world peace” which seems more elusive now than ever.  Meanwhile, the United States still fights in Afghanistan, and Japan readies itself to shoot down another one of those unidentified flying objects North Korea threatens to launch in their direction some day soon.  No one, it seems, is busier preparing for peace today than anyone was a hundred years ago.  Some progress.

Photo Essay: Pond in Winter

February 2, 2011

On the last day of January, the sun was shining in a blue sky above Zenpukuji Lower Pond.  It was very cold, and the edges of the pond were laced with thin patches of ice.  The ducks moved slowly or not at all.  More birds than humans were hanging out at the pond that day; the jogging path around the pond was at first deserted, though as I made my way to the other side, a couple of photographers appeared, with high-powered-looking lenses hanging from their necks, and here and there I passed someone sitting alone on a bench contemplating the quiet water.

 

Except for a distant wailing of a siren, the sounds of Tokyo faded away.  Everything slowed down and grew still, and all I could hear were faint whistles and coos from the ducks huddled together in the middle of the pond.  As I stood beside the water, listening, people hurried by me on the path, in a hurry to get their walk done or perhaps just moving quickly to keep warm.

 

The ducks had other ideas:  Find a sunny spot and stop there for a while.  When you have to move, do so slowly.  They seemed to be demanding this of the humans, even cooperating in picture-taking as long as you too moved in slow motion.

 

 

This duck seemed aware of me, and paused long enough for me to shoot, but then immediately afterwards dove into the cold water with a soft splash.

 

 

 

 

Three-quarters of the way around the pond, I stopped to watch the lone egret resting on his sunny mound of dried grass.  He was surrounded by paddling ducks.  My eyes on him, I did not see what startled one of the ducks, who suddenly let out a loud quack.  All the other ducks immediately rose up out of the water as one, making a loud WHOOSH and scattering drops like diamonds all around them.  This happened too fast for me to get a picture of it—even the heavy-lensed bird photographers missed it—but I saw it.  It was like a fountain that suddenly turns on without warning.  Jets of water shot up in the air all at the same time.  And then the fountain just as suddenly turned off.

Through all the commotion, the egret did nothing, just kept to his post on the grass, like a meditating old arhat.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at the entrance to the park, the water at the edges was still frozen.  Pieces of ice glinted in the sun that was just beginning to reach it.

During the walk around the pond, I looked for signs of spring, but found only some tightly closed buds on a few trees.  But from the path I could see in the garden of a house that looks out on the park a plum tree that had beat them to it.

 

 

 

 

 

Hai-pho:

Slowly but surely/ the suns rays reach the pond and/ penetrate its ice

 

 

 

High-Tech Tokyo

January 18, 2011

One day last December I attended a renku, or linked poetry, session held at a teahouse within the grounds of Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo. Originally the property of a Tokugawa Shogun, the park is now surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers in what is known as the Shiodome area of town.

 

The park is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, yet located right in the middle of it. Even within the park itself it is possible to escape the 21st century even further by stepping off its wide gravel avenues and through a small gate into a modest garden. Here is the teahouse known as Hobaitei, a one-story structure with three tatami rooms separated by sliding screens, a kitchen for making tea or coffee and for washing up, and restrooms. The only furniture is a low table and some cushions to sit on. Groups like the one I joined that afternoon can rent the house for a few hours at reasonable rates and write poetry together.

 

The sun was pouring in through the glass windows of the sliding doors that overlooked the garden, warming the room and deepening the sweet scent of straw emanating from the mats on the floor. We sat there and composed poetry undisturbed for three hours, while the world outside rushed by.

 

After leaving the park, we headed for Caretta, a new shopping complex where we planned to have an evening meal. I’ll let the PR folks down at Caretta speak for themselves:

 

Caretta Shiodome, a town for adults looking for a place to dine, become stylish, and enjoy culture in a relaxing atmosphere. This 21st century skyscraper consists of four distinctive zones, each providing large-scale international facilities where people can meet and communicate with each other. Why don’t you indulge in a comfortable space and leisurely pace at Caretta, a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything. [http://www.caretta.jp/english/floorguide/index.html]

 

Passing a crowd gathering in the plaza in front of the entrance to Caretta, we stopped to see what was going on, and got swept up in the excitement of waiting for an elaborate Christmas illumination display to be lit up. In the plaza was a tangled-looking arrangement of wires, making it look like a war zone. Above and around us were the walls of towering skyscrapers, and running through them on its elevated track was the Yurikamome (Seagull), an automated train line that operates from nearby Shinbashi Station out to the landfill areas of Tokyo Bay.

 

The crowd grew thicker and thicker, and young men whose job was apparently to keep us under control, called out through bull-horns, telling us to keep away from the walls and leave room for people to pass. On the dot of 5 PM the show began. The rolls of barbed wire suddenly became dazzling spectacles of pulsing white and blue lights. Music blasted forth—not “Silent Night” or any other recognizable Christmas tune, but the theme music to the most recent NHK television drama. Bubbles were released and floated up into the night. Clouds of steam filled the air. Green laser beams came shooting out of somewhere and bounced in green dots off the surrounding walls. The top of a white plastic-looking cone structure periodically turned red and emitted smoke. A voice excitedly and loudly narrated a story, but all I understood of it was that it had nothing to do with Christmas.

 

We went inside to the restaurant and had dinner overlooking the show, apparently “enjoying culture in a relaxing atmosphere.” But frankly, if you want “a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything,” I’d avoid Caretta. I’d go straight back to the Hobaitei teahouse and its doorway into the previous century.