Photo/IllutrationSigns around Tokyo's Mount Hakone in Shinjuku Ward provide information about the history of the area. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The Owari Tokugawa family, one of the top three branches of the feudal Tokugawa clan, once boasted an enormous garden in what is Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward today. Called Toyama-so, it was 10 times the size of Tokyo Dome.

Ienari Tokugawa (1773-1841), the 11th Tokugawa shogun, admired it greatly and called it the nation's premier garden.

No expense was spared for its construction. A pond was dug, with a bridge spanning it, and frogs and fireflies were released. The soil excavated to create the pond was used to build a spherical mound, which was named "Gyokuenho" (Mount Gyokuen)

The park-like garden's most outstanding feature was a section that was a mockup of Odawarajuku, a post town of the Tokugawa era that consisted of more than 30 businesses, including rice and liquor stores and tea houses. Whenever the shogun of the time visited the garden, the stores were fully staffed and palanquin bearers were brought in.

According to "Owari-han Edo Shimoyashiki no Nazo" (Mystery of the Owari clan's Edo suburban residence) by Takehisa Kodera, only select members of the samurai class were allowed in the garden. And there, the normally staid and appearance-conscious elite let their hair down. It was essentially a theme park for their exclusive use.

I walked around the site the other day, but not a trace remains of the original features such as the park's cornerstone, pond and fountain.

Toyama-so fell into ruin from earthquakes and fires in the waning years of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The Meiji government (1868-1912) turned it into an army property. After World War II, a portion was turned into a metropolitan park.

The name "Gyokuenho" is all forgotten now, but the mountain remains intact. "We've always called it Mount Hakone because of the make-believe Odawarajuku," said Hirotake Kuwajima, 78, president of the local community association.

Sentimentally attached to this "mountain," Kuwajima gave a community event, which started eight years ago, the name of "Hakoneyama Ekiden" (Mount Hakone relay race). This year's event will be held March 4.

This particular Mount Hakone has an elevation of only 44 meters. There are panels touting it facetiously as "the highest peak within Tokyo's 23 wards" and warning visitors to "please descend safely."

I tried to pretend I was the lord of this realm, but I simply could not see any signs of its past glory.

This is the 151st spring since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 3

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.