Oji - Charmed by Foxes and Cherry Blossoms

This time we visit Oji in the north of Tokyo to take in the cherry blossoms at Asukayama Park, a famous flower-viewing spot. We learn how the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune had over 1,200 cherry trees planted there to create a place of leisure for the townspeople. We also learn about a paper mill founded by famed industrialist Shibusawa Eiichi, and a fox-themed event to welcome the New Year that's become popular among international visitors. Join us as we dive into this magical neighborhood.

Transcript

00:03

My name is James Farrer.

00:04

I'm a professor of sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo.

00:09

As part of my fieldwork, I head out into the city

00:12

and explore its diverse neighborhoods.

00:17

This time I'm visiting Oji,

00:19

an area in the north of the city that's famous for its cherry blossoms.

00:25

It's been one of Tokyo's prime "hanami"

00:28

flower viewing spots for about 300 years,

00:30

all thanks to a shogun who ruled Japan in the early 18th century.

00:38

I'll explore a riverside area that was once lined with restaurants,

00:42

and sample some traditional flavors passed down through the generations.

00:50

I'll also learn about a unique event

00:52

that's become a popular draw for international visitors,

00:59

a festival celebrating the fox.

01:04

So how did the fox become a symbol of this area?

01:07

Today I'm diving into the magical neighborhood of Oji.

01:11

"Dive in Tokyo"
Oji - Charmed by Foxes and Cherry Blossoms

01:23

Oji Station is located about 10 kilometers north of Tokyo Station.

01:28

A train line runs up and down the area,

01:30

while a river flows across to the east.

01:33

In the middle is a hilltop area famous for its cherry blossoms,

01:40

Asukayama Park.

01:50

On a morning in late March, I visit the park to see for myself.

01:58

It's pretty cool.

02:00

And it looks like

02:02

it's really in full bloom.

02:05

So it's a really nice time to come here.

02:06

And there's no rain, so it's amazing.

02:09

I feel pretty lucky.

02:17

I'm greeted by an array of cherry blossoms in all their glory.

02:26

The park is home to some 600 cherry trees,

02:30

one of the largest concentrations in all of Tokyo.

02:34

It seems I've picked the best day of the year to visit.

02:39

Wow, this looks great.

02:42

Now this looks like the kind of place when you think of hanami in Tokyo.

02:47

This is what you think about. You've got trees,

02:49

you've got grass, you've got hills.

02:52

If you come here in the middle of the day,

02:54

you're going to... Later this day, you're going to see people

02:57

putting their sheets on the ground, and then they're going to be out here with their

03:00

wine or sake. And this is usually the pattern.

03:03

People will be out here

03:05

and sitting underneath the cherry blossoms and drinking.

03:07

That's what hanami really is in Tokyo.

03:10

It's a bit early right now.

03:12

These guys are saving a spot.

03:15

What time did you get here?

03:17

7 a.m.!

03:19

Flower-viewing is a staple of spring.

03:23

It's simple, really.

03:25

The cherry blossoms bloom, so people gather beneath them.

03:33

This park has been a famous hanami spot for centuries.

03:36

Check out this 180-year-old woodblock print.

03:41

It depicts merrymaking on Asukayama mountain

03:43

under cherry blossoms in peak bloom.

03:49

So how did this place become a flower viewing destination?

03:53

It turns out a certain historical figure

03:56

chose this area to plant cherry trees.

04:05

To learn more about its history,

04:07

I head to Oji Shrine

04:09

which is where the neighborhood gets its name.

04:12

I've arranged to meet with an expert.

04:19

Hello, I'm James. Thank you for your time.

04:24

Kubono Kimiko is a museum curator well-versed in local history.

04:31

I ask her about who's responsible for the cherry trees on Asukayama.

04:36

Asukayama was originally just a wooded hill with many trees.

04:44

That changed in the early 18th century.

04:49

The shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune had 1,270 cherry trees planted there.

04:54

Essentially, he wanted to make it a leisure spot for the townspeople.

05:02

A place for recreation.

05:06

So why did the shogun Yoshimune set his sights on Oji?

05:17

The answer lies with Oji Shrine.

05:23

It's said that a Shinto deity from a famous shrine

05:27

in what is now Wakayama Prefecture

05:29

was invited to inhabit the shrine here.

05:33

As a native of Wakayama,

05:35

Yoshimune formed a particular attachment to Oji Shrine.

05:41

Upon becoming shogun, the finances of the shogunate

05:44

were in dire straits.

05:46

So he implemented reforms emphasizing frugality.

05:51

But recognizing the strain that placed on the townspeople,

05:55

it's said that he ordered the planting of cherry trees in Oji

05:59

to provide them with a flower-viewing spot for spring.

06:05

A monument honoring Yoshimune's achievements

06:08

was erected in Asukayama Park in 1737.

06:15

It can be seen in this old woodblock print depicting another hanami scene.

06:22

What would a typical outing have looked like?

06:46

And here's what hanami looks like today, 300 years later.

06:50

The spirit of celebrating the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms

06:53

is still alive and well.

07:04

Kubono-san says

07:06

there's another historically significant flower-viewing spot nearby,

07:09

so I ask her to lead the way.

07:22

This is Otonashi Water Park

07:25

which sits along a river that runs through Oji.

07:32

You can go for a quiet stroll along the valley

07:35

while observing the river's flow.

07:39

And there's cherry trees galore.

07:41

Kubono-san says this area used to be lined with restaurants.

07:47

In the Edo Period there used to be restaurants all along here.

07:50

Starting from Asukayama.

07:54

Restaurants?

07:57

Yes. At first it was just some tea houses.

08:04

But in the mid-to-late Edo period that changed.

08:08

You started seeing nice restaurants.

08:12

And with the river right there, diners would step outside.

08:18

They'd dip their feet and wade around.

08:22

This was a popular day trip destination.

08:27

They came out from the city center to visit this nature-rich garden town.

08:36

They came to enjoy good food by the river.

08:42

You also see Oji mentioned in the diaries of diplomats and so on.

08:51

Here's a drawing made by a British visitor around 1860

08:55

that clearly shows the restaurants along the river.

08:58

Kubono-san says that one of these still operates as a food stall.

09:05

Intrigued, I ask her to point me in the right direction,

09:08

and I set off to find it.

09:20

When I arrive at the location,

09:22

I'm greeted by a long line of people

09:25

who have come to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

09:29

It seems they're here to buy a popular Japanese dish

09:32

that makes the perfect hanami snack.

09:42

After a 30-minute wait, it's my turn to order.

09:46

- Here you are.
- Looks wonderful! Thank you.

09:53

How long have you been in business?

09:57

Let's see... I believe... about 370 or 380 years.

10:02

That's incredible!

10:04

We were founded in 1648.

10:08

Is that right. I'm glad I came today. Thank you!

10:20

So, I'm looking forward to this. I'm kind of curious.

10:25

This is something that people have done for a long time.

10:33

I open the box to find a large "tamagoyaki,"

10:36

a Japanese-style rolled omelet.

10:40

It's been their signature dish for centuries.

10:43

I can't wait to take a bite.

10:52

It's sweet and savory.

10:56

Yeah, I could see why people would eat this.

10:58

I mean, it's something that... You really feel

10:59

it's sort of a timeless taste, right?

11:04

Just egg

11:05

and savory broth and sugar.

11:13

Good.

11:16

From the serene setting to the tasty food,

11:19

the Oji hanami experience is truly wonderful.

11:26

Next, I pay a visit to another local establishment with a long history.

11:42

Hello. Pardon me. What kind of shop is this?

11:47

We specialize in Japanese confectionery.

11:51

This is the 4th-generation owner, Ishinabe Kazuo.

12:00

I ask for their signature dish.

12:04

This is "kuzumochi," a jelly-like dessert

12:07

made by steaming fermented wheat starch.

12:10

- Can't forget this.
- Ah, brown sugar syrup!

12:16

It's topped with roasted soybean flour and brown sugar syrup.

12:21

Time to dig in.

12:31

Now this is tasty!

12:33

It's got a firm texture.

12:35

And it's got like... The taste of the syrup is a lot like,

12:38

kind of molasses we used to have back in the American south.

12:42

And then the "kinako," it's a soybean powder,

12:46

but almost a kind of peanuty flavor. It's kind of addictive.

12:54

I like to collect woodblock prints of the Oji area.

13:00

Ishinabe-san is a history buff,

13:02

as well as a collector of ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting Oji.

13:07

He says he's got almost 50.

13:10

I ask him to show me a few of his favorites.

13:13

I see some waterfalls.

13:15

There was a gorge and a river fed by smaller streams.

13:24

I believe they formed waterfalls like the ones you see here.

13:32

Do these exist today?

13:34

These ones here are gone.

13:39

Ishinabe-san tells me

13:40

there used to be a dozen waterfalls like this around Oji.

13:47

Today, just one remains at a nearby park.

13:51

I ask him to point me towards it.

13:55

And with that, I'm off.

13:59

Okay, this looks like a park.

14:05

All right.

14:10

So this says "Nanushi no Taki Koen"

14:13

which is the "Waterfall of Nanushi Park."

14:15

So let's take a look.

14:19

Beyond the gate, the grounds are lush with trees.

14:24

Wow, this is a gorgeous place.

14:29

There's a pond here. You can see the...

14:31

We're in the middle of the flower-blooming season.

14:33

You can see the "sakura" over here on the water.

14:37

And it's just a beautiful, natural scene

14:40

right in the middle of the city with all the sounds of a forest.

14:45

Past the flowering blossoms, I venture deeper into the park.

15:00

Well, I can hear a sound. It sounds like something.

15:11

Well, there it is.

15:13

I can finally see it. That's the waterfall.

15:24

Well, that's an impressive sight.

15:29

I can imagine in the summertime when it's hot,

15:32

this is like a perfect place to be.

15:34

It's a... Cool air is coming off this water.

15:37

And it would probably be nice to get in here,

15:39

but it says "Don't get in the water" so I'm not going to do it.

15:42

The Oji captured in these old block prints of local waterfalls

15:47

can still be found within this patch of forest.

15:56

From the park I return to Oji Station to explore the nearby streets.

16:07

There, I come across a stone monument.

16:13

Okay, so it says "Yoshi Hassho no Hi."

16:19

So, this is a monument to the beginning

16:24

of Western paper making in Japan.

16:30

On the information board is a painting of Oji

16:33

at the time in the late 19th century.

16:38

And this is, obviously, Asukayama

16:40

where I was just doing cherry blossom viewing.

16:43

And this is during the cherry blossom season so this is like a real tourist spot.

16:48

And then they have built, obviously, papermaking factories down here.

16:54

The painting depicts Asukayama Park in full bloom.

16:59

In the foreground is a group of buildings

17:02

with smoke rising from their chimneys.

17:05

This is the Western-style paper mill that opened in 1875.

17:13

It was built by one of Japan's most influential industrialists,

17:17

Shibusawa Eiichi.

17:19

After returning to Japan from a research tour of Europe,

17:23

he decided to establish a paper company and built a mill here in Oji.

17:30

Today, Shibusawa is remembered as one of the architects

17:34

of modern Japanese society.

17:36

In fact, starting 2024,

17:38

he'll be the new face of the 10,000 yen note.

17:44

So why did he decide to build a paper mill in Oji?

17:48

To learn more, I visit the nearby Shibusawa Memorial Museum.

18:03

Hello. Thank you for your time.

18:08

I'm greeted by museum director, Kuwabara Kouichi.

18:12

Is this Shibusawa-san?

18:14

Yes, this is Shibusawa Eiichi.

18:17

Shibusawa was born in 1840, at the end of the Edo period.

18:23

He traveled to France and to other European countries.

18:28

He founded the First National Bank, which was Japan's first modern bank.

18:35

And through that bank he went on to found close to 500 other companies.

18:41

500! That's incredible!

18:48

I ask Kuwabara-san why Shibusawa set his sights on Oji.

18:53

His paper company pioneered the industry in Japan.

18:56

And it had a large-scale, modern factory.

19:00

He wanted it to be in a place where the general public could behold it.

19:07

So he built it by the tourist resort of Asukayama Park.

19:12

- So everyone could see it.
- Exactly!

19:16

And one more thing.

19:18

In Europe he saw how newspapers were mass printed on Western paper.

19:29

He realized that in order to have an educated public,

19:36

you needed to publish newspapers and get information out to people.

19:40

By doing that you could enlighten the public.

19:43

And in turn, empower more people to lead Japan's industry.

19:49

Ah, I see!

19:52

Kuwabara-san tells me there's another nearby spot associated with Shibusawa

19:57

that I should go see, so we decide to go check it out.

20:07

Wow, what an impressive building!

20:10

Yes, this was part of the Shibusawa residence.

20:14

So he lived in there?

20:17

This isn't a residential building.

20:21

It's like a library. Shibusawa's private library.

20:26

He built it to house his books.

20:28

Oh. Wow!

20:30

In 1901, Shibusawa moved into this vast property

20:34

of over 25 thousand square meters.

20:40

What remains today is the building

20:42

that housed Shibusawa's collection of books.

20:47

This room here was used as a parlor for receiving guests.

20:51

One feature immediately catches the eye.

20:55

The custom-made stained-glass windows.

20:57

Shibusawa's family crest was the oak leaf.

21:03

The windows feature an oak leaf design.

21:08

This is also where Shibusawa entertained his foreign guests.

21:14

Here's a photo from 1927 that shows him meeting Chiang Kai-shek.

21:24

He made Oji his base of operations for 30 years, starting in his 60s.

21:33

He passed away in 1931 at age 91,

21:37

but this bronze statue continues to watch over the city of Oji.

21:49

I decide to check out a shrine next to the old residence.

21:55

(Nanasha Shrine)

22:00

Inside, I encounter a cut-out of Shibusawa.

22:08

- I'm James.
- I'm Wada. Pleased to meet you.

22:13

I ask senior priest Wada Takayuki, about the cut-out.

22:18

We want kids to become familiar with Shibusawa.

22:22

Around here they learn about him in grade school.

22:29

We made the cut-out so kids can meet him and take photos.

22:38

This shrine is actually known for an object related to Shibusawa,

22:44

a hanging scroll featuring the names of the enshrined deities,

22:48

handwritten by the man himself.

22:52

Look closely and you can see his name on the bottom left.

22:56

Wada-san tells me many history buffs

22:58

come to the shrine to see this scroll.

23:03

After all, it was written by this great man.

23:06

It might be strange to say they come to see him.

23:11

But many come to pay their respects while holding him in their hearts.

23:20

Perhaps they come to receive strength from his spirit.

23:33

To round out my visit to Oji,

23:35

I head back into town to look for some souvenirs.

23:50

Oh, wow. There's a whole bunch of these fox masks here.

23:55

Intrigued, I head inside.

24:01

Wow, they have a lot of different kinds of fox masks here.

24:05

I mean, different colors and different shapes.

24:09

Hello.

24:11

It's quite a sight, isn't it?

24:12

Yes, there are so many!

24:15

These are all fox masks.

24:19

This is Oi Hideaki, an expert in the local fox lore.

24:25

I ask him about the significance of these masks.

24:29

Oji has long been associated with foxes.

24:33

There's a hackberry tree by the shrine right there.

24:37

It's said the foxes would gather there to pay their respects!

24:44

Oji has a long tradition of fox lore.

24:47

The animals once populated the mountains around the town.

24:51

It's said that on New Year's Eve,

24:53

they'd gather under the hackberry tree where they were joined by foxes

24:58

from throughout old Tokyo and the surrounding areas.

25:06

Together they would make their first shrine visit of the new year.

25:17

Oi san offers to show me their fabled meeting place.

25:26

The foxes would gather here on the 31st - New Year's Eve.

25:30

This is the hackberry tree.

25:38

3, 2, 1!

25:42

In honor of that legend,

25:44

the neighborhood has been holding a fox-themed event

25:47

to welcome the new year since 1993.

25:54

At the stroke of midnight, festivalgoers dressed as foxes

25:58

begin parading through the streets.

26:05

Before the pandemic, about 20,000 people

26:09

from far and wide attended the event every year.

26:13

One of the highlights of the procession is this giant fox mask.

26:20

It's offered to the deity at Oji Inari Shrine,

26:23

the oldest shrine in the neighborhood.

26:31

There, local children take to a sacred stage to dedicate a fox dance.

26:36

It's a New Year's event that truly brings the community together.

26:48

And finally, what better way to wrap up my day in Oji

26:52

than with one last visit to see the glorious blossoms at Asukayama Park?

27:05

Okay, so this is the top of the mountain.

27:08

And it's all 25.4-meters high.

27:11

So it's not exactly a Mount Everest here.

27:14

But this is a mountain.

27:17

And it's really one of the amazing things about this little mountain is that

27:20

even in the 18th century, people would come here as tourists.

27:24

We always think of tourism, it's something that's kind of modern,

27:26

but a lot of foreign tourists would come to this mountain

27:30

and there were many, many things to see.

27:32

And they could go to cherry blossom viewing,

27:34

they could buy a mask, they could participate in the parade.

27:37

So this is a place where, even if you're not from here

27:40

and you don't know that much about the history,

27:42

you're actually part of the history in this little town.

27:44

So it's a good place to visit.