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Komaba: A little pocket of history and culture

August 1, 2013 Destination North Asia No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59The Komaba neighborhood just west of Shibuya is best known as the site of the University of Tokyo undergraduate campus.

But if you’re looking for a quiet afternoon of history and culture in the heart of Tokyo, this area offers other pleasures, including the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) and the former residence of Marquis Maeda, located in what is now known as Komaba Park.

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum, a trove of traditional artworks and folkcraft from Japan and elsewhere is just a 7-minute walk from the west Eexit of Komaba Todai-mae Station. Opened in 1936, this museum is a credit to its founder, Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), widely regarded as the founder of the folkcraft movement in Japan. Yanagi’s central view was that art was to be found in “ordinary and utilitarian objects created by nameless and unknown craftsmen.”

It takes only a visit to this museum to become a convert to Yanagi’s notion. The exhibits are so wide-ranging it’s hard to single any of them out for special mention. Every few minutes I found myself saying “No, THIS item is my absolute favorite.” The main exhibitions of the museum are in the Main Hall, a building designed by Yanagi himself and opened in 1936. The two-story building features many Japanese elements of design, but is also a cosmopolitan reminder of the cultural shifts Japan was making in the late Taisho and early Showa periods.

Across the street from the Main Hall is the West Hall, Yanagi’s former residence and a more traditional Japanese structure. Although the Main Hall, like most Tokyo museums, is closed only on Mondays (Tuesdays when the Monday is a public holiday), you have to time your visit more carefully to get to see the West Hall, which is only open on the second Wednesday and Saturday of the month (and also on the third Wednesday and Saturday when the museum is hosting a special exhibition—the current special exhibition closes on Aug 18).  The West Hall is accessible through the elegant black and white long gate, relocated to this site from Tochigi.

After leaving the museum, continue north. Although this is a residential street, behind the houses on the left-hand side is the Komaba II campus of the University of Tokyo. Behind the houses on the right-hand side, you will see the tall trees of Komaba Park, your next destination. To get there, take the first right (about 275 meters north from the Japan Folk Crafts Museum) and continue another 120 or so meters, until you see the entrance on the right. This is the brick gate/gate house of the former residence of Marquis Toshinari Maeda (1885-1942).

The original Tokyo residence of the Maeda clan was located in Hongo on the site of the present University of Tokyo. After that house was badly damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Maeda followed a government policy to disperse residences westward by effecting a land trade with the then-Imperial University in 1926. The university got his land in Hongo and he got land in Komaba, where he proceeded to build a spectacular Western-style house, befitting his noble rank and position as a member of the House of Peers.

The three-story brick house, which was completed in 1929, is now the central feature of the 4-hectare Komaba Park. It is regularly open to the public, and friendly volunteers will happily answer your questions in Japanese (if you’re lucky, you may find a volunteer who can accommodate questions in English). One of the parlors just inside the entrance operates a small coffee shop where you can get refreshments and enjoy a view of the garden. Also on the ground floor are formal receiving rooms and a huge formal dining room. Although the house contains little of its original furnishings, one can almost imagine formal state dinners being hosted here.

Ascending the grand staircase, you reach the family’s private living quarters, including several bedrooms—one each for the Marquis, his wife and his children—and the Marquis’ library.  Visitors are allowed to wander through most rooms at their leisure. At the far end of the house are servants’ quarters, predominately tatami-matted rooms.

Apparently the house and grounds were sold by Maeda’s survivors after his death in World War II, and then requisitioned by the Occupation forces as senior officers’ quarters. It was acquired by the national government in 1958 and is now operated as a public park by Meguro Ward.

Behind the Western-style house, and connected to it by an enclosed walkway (not open to the public), is a Japanese-style house built by the Marquis in 1930 as a guest house. This house is also open to the public, and individual rooms can be rented out for meetings or tea ceremony by prior arrangement. It can be very relaxing to sit in the house on a summer afternoon and enjoy the view of the Japanese garden behind it.

Across from the Japanese-style guest house is the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature, with collections of materials relating to 145 major modern Japanese writers, including such items as correspondence between Natsume Soseki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This is a highly specialized museum which may not be particularly interesting to those without a strong familiarity with modern Japanese literature (but if I didn’t tell you what that building was, you’d wonder, wouldn’t you?).

Most of the grounds of the park lie to the south of the house. The myriad paths provide a leafy green respite from the city, although in summer are anything but quiet, as they are also a haven for cicadas. Exit through the gate at the southeast corner and it’s just a 5-minute walk back to Komaba Todaimae station, your sojourn into the early days of Showa complete.

If you have the time and energy to explore further, wander through the Komaba I campus of the University of Tokyo with its historical buildings and other relics of the past or step further back in time by crossing the train tracks to visit Komabano Park. The entire area was once known as “Komaba Meadows” and was a popular hunting ground for the ruling Tokugawa clan during the latter half of the Edo period.  One can particularly get a feel for that near the ponds in Komabano Park.

More information

Japan Folk Crafts Museum:  http://www.mingeikan.or.jp/english/  (English)
Hours:  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Tuesday through Sunday)
Admission:  1,000 yen
(closed August 19-26)

Komaba Park:  http://www.city.meguro.tokyo.jp/shisetsu/shisetsu/koen/komaba/index.html (Japanese only)
Park Hours:  9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Tuesday through Sunday)
Western House Hours:  9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Wednesday through Sunday and public holidays)
Japanese House Hours:  Generally the same as the Western House except when rooms are closed for meetings.
Museum of Modern Japanese Literature Hours:  9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday; also closed the 4th Thursday of the month)

Edited by : Bill Hurley

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