Gardening, Japan, Urban Walking
Comments 14

A Glimpse of Old China — in Downtown Tokyo

Spider, are you crying, or the Autumn wind? ~ Basho

I’ve been in a mental Nowheresville lately. Lou Reed’s passing hit me harder than I can explain or even understand, and of late my day-to-day routine here in south-eastern Korea seems even less meaningful than before. Haven’t felt like blogging or doing anything much at all except listening to old songs, skyping my girlfriend and sighing a lot while I shuffle around. 


Remains of a shrine destroyed in the 1945 air raids

Guess you could say I’m bored out of my mind.


Yesterday I found myself in a shouting match with a rude old man on the bus. Perversely, I found myself enjoying it, though neither of us understood what the other was saying. He was such a nasty old bastard — in hindsight I suspect that, with my beard, he mistook me for one of the numerous foreign laborers they allow in from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or wherever to do the menial work that Koreans won’t touch. Thought he could tap me hard on the shoulder and bellow in my face like I was a dog.

Bad mistake on his part. I am ready to snap on a good day…


One of several Chinese-style nobedan (stone paths)

Less than two months remain for me in Korea, so I’m excited about what comes after that. And it’s Autumn at last — an insanely warm Autumn, but the hills and streets are as pretty as they get. I’m making the most of it on weekends and in the diminishing window of usable daylight when I get out of school.

Once this spate of non-Korean posts is over I’ll splash a bit of that colour over these virtual pages. Right now it’s time to drop back to Tokyo — same day as the Inokashira Park visit from two posts ago — and a bit of pre-Autumn light and shade…

*         *          *          *          *



I was a garden nut when I lived in Tokyo. Even an inner-city suburban walk was a pleasure I seldom experience in Korea, as I’ve always enjoyed looking over people’s fences or through lighted windows (until I hear the police sirens, anyway) while strolling, and there aren’t many front gardens, fences or even houses where I live now.

I was briefly distracted by old friends the tombou (dragonflies)

I was briefly distracted by old friends the tombou (dragonflies)

Several times back then I also paid money to visit famed historic gardens. Koishikawa Korakuen was the first, some time in early 2000. I went back a few times in my first three-year tour of duty, once with my first and last Japanese girlfriend from those days. It’s not huge, but big enough and sufficiently forested, with numerous hills and winding paths, to let you dodge the Tokyo mayhem a while behind its impressive walls.


So this time it was around midday and I was part-way through my first day of extreme sightseeing. This garden is halfway between Iidabashi and Suidobashi stations on the Chuo Line; I got out at the former and strode along in the sunshine next to the canal, swigging from a cold can of Royal Milk Tea for old time’s sake, so sugary and caffeinated my teeth hurt and I was seeing visions.

God damn, it’s good to be free, I thought, singing a little and never sighing once. The garden huddles in the relatively quiet backstreets; I found it without too much trouble. I could have run up a small mountain after that tea, but instead had to make the awkward switch to leisurely contemplation.


Spider lilies & workmen

Well, not too leisurely: places to be…

The garden dates from the early 1600s and was built by Mito Yorifusa and his successor, Mito Mitsukuni, daimyo (feudal lords) in then-Edo (Tokyo). Like a lot of older stately gardens in Japan, it was constructed on a Chinese model, with trees, ponds, streams, boulders and artificial hills used to evoke an idealised landscape with miniaturised versions of real Chinese locales.


I’d seen the place looking better. Spring and Autumn are its best seasons; the light was a little harsh and the only colour was provided by the spider lilies. Also, some of the ponds had dried up, I’d missed the irises, and there was maintenance going on in a few areas.

Even so, I was in there a couple of hours, long enough for my Royal Milk Tea buzz to wear off.


Classical Scarecrows




Balloon flowers are also common in Korea


But I had more sightseeing to cram into this endless Summer’s day: Shinjuku Gyoen, biggest and best park in Tokyo. I headed for the exit…


One of several quite dry ponds

..and was almost out when I saw the sign advertising matcha (green tea) ice-cream.

Since Inokashira Park hadn’t come through in the caffeinated iced-confection department, I doubled back for a nostalgia hit:


Green tea in a cone

It was great, but within seconds my tongue was burning. It continued for at least another hour.

Pretty soon I was dancing down the street to the station and my ride back into the neon wilderness of Shinjuku.


One of several ponds, Shinjuku Gyoen

Now, this leg was a mistake. I didn’t get in the gate till 4:00. The park shuts at 5:00 but at 4:30 a relentless and very Japanese barrage of chimes and announcements begins. I was running all over the wide, soft lawns trying to get my dollar’s worth (surely only in Japan do you pay to enter a park?), when really it would have been heaven to stretch out on said lawns and pen haiku about fluffy clouds and caffeinated ice-cream.

Auld Lang Syne, which the Japanese abuse in every situation when they want you to get the hell out of somewhere, was the final insult. As a westerner, my first impulse was to start slugging champagne and kissing strangers, but instead I joined the orderly throng to the gates, defeated by that wretched Japanese respect for the tyranny of the clock.

Here are a few passable shots I grabbed on the trek back to the gates:


Massive old-growth plane trees


Cherry Limb


Photography class




Japan has the world’s worst sculpture outside the former Soviet Union

And then it was back into the labyrinthine (damn, that’s a nice word) subway system for the long ride out to the ‘burbs, and another night at Andrew’s. A great day, a fabulous day, but tomorrow the real work would begin…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. The goat wrote quite a lengthy post.I loved it,the best part was your argument on the bus with one of the locals without understanding.The things we mortals do is amazing.The photographs are impressive.

    • Thanks, Ranu. I’m getting really good at exploding at random strangers. The language barrier is no real impediment to heartfelt rage!

  2. I understand what you mean about mourning Lou Reed. His death didn’t get me like that, but I can relate to what you say. One can get so bound up in the work of a musician that when they die one is taken by surprise by a devastating loss. When the British composer Michael Tippett died I felt similarly overwhelmed by feelings I’d not felt since my father died. Some may think it sounds foolish -I didn’t know the man personally- but I’m just being honest about what I felt. I had taken Tippett’s music very much to heart for 30 years.

  3. I like those stone paths and have fond memories of green tea ice cream. Hope you can get some good walks in before you leave Korea. I’m remembering your mountaintop experience.

    Thanks again for the links to the last Lou Reed interview and Laurie Anderson’s words on Lou Reed and their relationship Looking forward to listening to what I missed until now. Just found this:

    “We tried to understand and apply things our teacher Mingyur Rinpoche said – especially hard ones like, “You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad.”
    (Laurie Anderson)

    • Thanks, Am! I have indeed been making the most of the beautiful weather and Autumn colour to revisit many of my favourite paths, a little solemn because I realise it could be the last time I walk them, but happy to see them at their best.

      I think I understand what Ms Anderson is saying in that quote…

  4. I understand your loss. When someone provides art, music or another creative outlet that adds to our life’s experiences, that helps and shapes us. When that artist dies, we have to grieve their loss.

  5. I grow balloon flowers in my garden! I didn’t know they were popular in Korea. Mind you, probably they come from there and were brought over here by a Victorian plant hunter. I am sorry to hear that you are in the doldrums, although I suppose it’s to be expected when you are waiting for an imminent change in your life. I don’t think it strange that you might be hard hit by the passing of someone whose work has moved you. Music is so powerful.

    • It’s a lot worse now that it’s dark soon after I finish work. Too dark to walk or take pictures, but I don’t want to rush home to my apartment because sitting on the floor of that small room for two years’ worth of evenings has lost some of its charm! The worst thing is lingering at my desk when the final bell sounds, when ordinarily any sane person would be bounding out the front gate…

      I’m approaching the end of my one-month mourning period for Lou. No doubt he would say something sarcastic if he knew! During this time I have played nothing but Lou or the Velvet Underground. And I play a LOT of music at home: 62 songs per day on average according to Last FM! I have also downloaded almost everything possible that I didn’t have from a quite extensive discography, not counting most bootlegs. I could write a dissertation on him now!

  6. Chab Guthrie says

    A Dissertation on Lou Reed — sounds like the title of a poem to me…. When I was in college, I was – for one semester – a DJ on the college radio station [classical music]. One evening at the station, there came a knock at the window. [The studio was in the basement level.] I opened the window, and two friends climbed in, back from New York City, and bearing the just released first Velvet Underground album [with the peelable banana on the cover]. I cued up the “Heroin” track and played it. It may have been the only airtime for that song in Ohio. I was fairly certain that the FCC would not have approved it in those days. In short, I became a lifelong fan of Lou Reed.

    • Thanks very much for the great comment and for sharing what is surely a fantastic memory for you. Starting that album with ‘Heroin’ was a bold step indeed — and broadcasting it was a stroke of genius!

  7. I think I’m a little dyslexic, as I read that sentence as, “…my first impulse was to start slugging strangers and kissing champagne…”! Probably always an option?!

    You know what? Green tea ice-cream sounds magnificent! Is it as tasty as its natural looking state suggests…?

    • It’s fantastic, except for the mouth-burn! And you’re not caffeine-tolerant, you might want to stick with vanilla etc! It packs a punch!

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