Photo/IllutrationHappoen garden is decorated with many bonsai. Visitors can temporarily escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and enjoy the peaceful ambience. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Happoen in Shirokane used to be my old stomping ground.

I spent many romantic afternoons and evenings strolling the garden, where I would always feel a profound sense of “mono-no-aware,” or the beauty that comes from a sensitivity to the impermanence of all living things.

The garden was the epitome of “wabi-sabi” with its slightly overgrown and unkempt greenery. Some would say that it needed attention, but it is precisely that state of “yugen,” something subtle and unseen, that made the time spent and shared at Happoen precious beyond words.

It is believed that a mansion belonging to Okubo Hikozaemon (1560-1639), a loyal vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), stood here some 400 years ago.

Who owned the place after that is a bit murky, but records show that the Shimazu clan came to have resided there in 1846, and then Shibusawa Kisaku (cousin of the entrepreneur and industrialist Shibusawa Eiichi) in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The location, just off Route 1 (Kokudo Ichigou-sen), which follows the historical Tokaido road from Nihonbashi to Osaka, became a bit too busy and lively for Shibusawa’s tastes, so he let it go.

In the 20th century, Fusanosuke Kuhara, the founder of Hitachi, bought the estate and created Happoen, which means a garden with exquisite views from every angle: north, south, east, west and from all directions in between.

Kuhara’s garden philosophy was that people ought to simply help with the harmonious placement of elements and structures in the garden. He tenderly nurtured the garden by letting things be and interfering only when necessary.

After a hiatus of several years, I recently found myself in the Shirokane area, so I decided to go down memory lane and pay a visit.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

There was no trace of that Happoen. In its place is a spanking-clean, five-star hotel-like building with a well-manicured garden that is immaculate and gorgeous. Wow.

It is breathtakingly elegant. An international conference was being held, and many foreign guests were enjoying themselves in the garden. Everything is perfect.

I wish I hadn’t known its previous incarnation. That at-first-glance-neglected garden with its greenery growing freely is no more. I felt “mujo,” a bittersweetness in the transience of all things. Indeed, nothing remains constant except change itself.

If you’ve never been to Happoen, pay it a visit. And if you have and remember the place as I do, I encourage you to go as well and walk the garden contemplating life and all there is.

* * *

This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the June 3 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.