A quiet koyo season at the University of Tokyo

The most characteristic color of November is the crimson red of Momiji (Maple) leaves. The second most characteristic is the yellow of Iccho (Ginkgo) leaves. In all honesty, the vivid golden color of lush branches around this time of the years, is more impressionable in contrast to the remaining greenery or the blue sky. Oh yes, the sky is not grey anymore, as late autumn is the season with the lowest precipitation in Japan.

The most famous location to observe Ginkgo trees preparing for winter is none other than Hongo Campus of the University of Tokyo. This prestigious university was founded after the merging of various research institutes, among which the “Institute of Barbaric Books”, in the sense of western books, that well, were considered as such at that time. The ginkgo tree is so deeply associated with the university, that it became its official logo.

Yasuda auditorium

Hongo Campus is built on the former estate of Maeda clan and the daimyo (feudal lord) of Kaga domain, modern day Ishikawa prefecture. The university acquired part of the property from the 16th head of the family, in exchange for land in Komaba area. This kinds of transactions happened during Meiji restoration, an area characterized by rapid development and westernization of Japan. The estate was famous around Edo and later Tokyo for having the most beautiful garden in the city, Ikutokuen. The highlight of the garden is Shinji-ike, a pond constructed in 1638.

Entrance to Sanshiro’s pond

It is designed in a traditional style, with an artificial island in the middle, an artificial waterfall and a lot of beautiful stone arrangements. Oh yes, rock appreciation is one of the oriental hobbies that I will never understand. The pond is surrounded by a couple of Momiji trees, some of which where only starting to get red. Nevertheless. The color gradient of autumn was in full display in the middle of November.

My personal preference dictates that autumn koyo is prettier than spring hanami. First of all, koyo lasts longer; at least a month compared to the quickly vanishing cherry blossoms that will be lucky to survive beyond the third week. In addition, the available color options, the lushness of the foliage, the welcoming dry cold after a wet summer, makes it all the more enjoyable.

Now, it’s time to forget the name of the garden and the pond and start using the name that is now applied to it, how it is going to be remembered in history from here on. It is now called Sanshiro’s pond, because it is here where the protagonist of the homonymous novel from Natsume Soseki first laid eyes on a beautiful woman, with white skin like lightly toasted rice, the kind skin that a woman should have. The book quickly reached great heights of popularity in pre-war Japan and Soseki is celebrated as one of Japan’s most prolific writers.

Well, the difference this year compared to the previous years is that there are restrictions for entering the campus. As a result, almost no one comes to enjoy a stroll among the trees. In order to prevent people from gathering to enjoy the yellow leaves, workers are trying their best to collect every leaf from the ground. Under normal circumstances, there would be a thick yellow blanket, covering every road and path on campus. Now everything is sadly clean.

Archery practice hall
Faculty of Law and Letters

Most of the buildings in the campus are of the distinct western-Gothic style of Yoshikazu Uchida, a few are modern cement constructions and some Japanese style buildings are present, such as the kyudo archery practice hall. The building of the faculty of Law and Letters is decorated with Greek-style pillars, containing the most impressive corridors on campus. Another landmark of the university is the big red gate Akamon, built from the Maeda lord to commemorate one of the Tokugawa shogun’s daughters, who became his wife.

At walking distance from the campus, there is a small shrine with the funny name Ushitenjin, as in ‘Cow heavenly god’, Kitanojinja. Although small, it appears that this small shrine is highly revered.

Ushitenjin Kitanojinja

At this time of the year, there was an exhibition of chrysanthemum flowers. Some where in pots, some where grown as petite bonsai.

Chrysanthemum bonzai

People left rice and tofu as offerings to the shrine gods in exchange for their protection. I wonder if the monks eat/drink the offerings, because the spirits certainly don’t. There is also a board with a hole cut in the shape of a cow, in order to hang bad fortunes, if you buy any from the shrine’s omikuji.

Lastly, there is a holy stone, although I am not sure why it is holy. It is decorated with the typical thunder-shaped paper talismans. The same stone appears in the wooden boards used for writing wishes to the gods.

Lastly, I have to express my disappointment, as the vivid red leaves that caught my attention at the temple facade, were plastic. At least, there was big black cat playfully enjoying the afternoon sun next to a pot of chrysanthema. It was enough to brighten my mood.

As an extra, I will leave here some pictures from the backside of the Diet building (basically the parliament) and from Hibiya park in downtown Tokyo.

The national Diet building
The fountain in Hibiya park

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