Finding serenity in a historic Tokyo house and garden
Coming from the high-rise neon madness of Tokyo's Shibuya neighbourhood just one train stop away, simply walking through the neighbourhood of Daikanyama may feel almost like being in a Zen temple.
But stroll past the upscale boutiques and restaurants on narrow hilly streets and you'll find true serenity just a few blocks from the station at the Kyu Asakura House and its garden.
The garden looks and feels different from the classic Japanese-style garden laid out around a pond that you're likely to find elsewhere, for a couple of reasons. It's built on the side of a rather steep natural hill, and walking up and down on the rustic paving stones requires enough attention sometimes to keep other thoughts out of your mind. The winding paths also give different views of the same spots, a way of making the rather small garden seem bigger than it is.
The look of the garden is also different for reasons that become clear when you read some of the informational material (available in both Japanese and English) posted inside the house.
Traditional Japanese gardens require careful and constant pruning of trees, but the signs note that this "garden's main trees are dead and healthy specimens are rampant with massively overgrown trunks". This may sound like a Japanese garden gone wild, but despite the sound of that, you likely won't feel that what you're looking at needs fixing. It's particularly beautiful in its fall colours, which extend into early December.
Entering the house you'll need to take your shoes off to walk on the tatami floors, which is calming in itself. The building is made of natural wood and is unfurnished, with no decorative clutter to distract the mind, although there are some lovely painted screens.
One room, where the informational panels are displayed, has a few soft benches where you can sit to look out at the garden. In another room, which is open to the outdoors, you can sit on the floor and contemplate the view. Around the house, various windows of different shapes and sizes offer different perspectives on the garden. You'll also happen upon an inner courtyard garden that you can see from various angles.
Built in 1919, Kyu Asakura is designated as an "important cultural property" for being one of the rare examples of a Japanese-style mansion remaining in central Tokyo from the period predating the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The design incorporates only one Western-style room, but the house has some Western features elsewhere, like glass instead of paper in its sliding doors.
There's only one thing that slightly mars the serenity here: the rather large number of signs asking you not to touch anything.