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Walking with the Samurai: A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo by Sumiko Enbutsu

For those seeking Tokyo’s greener side, A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo: Forty Walks for All Seasons by Sumiko Enbutsu is the perfect place to begin. Whether planning to don your walking shoes or simply looking for a little armchair exploration, Enbutsu will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget. Organized by season and flower, this slim volume reveals a rich combination of plants, place and culture with a dash of good story-telling that make it difficult to put down. As we meet the fifteen different plants (not all are flowers, by the way), we learn not just their growth habits, but the the role they played in the arts, history and tradition, and subsequently why they remain dear to the Japanese to this day.

Enbutsu teaches us about Japanese culture and tradition through leaf, stem, and bloom. While we learn about the pine (matsu), we also learn why Osoji happens at the New Year and why the lotus (hasu) is never given as a gift. We learn that the native lily (yuri) was one of the countries most important exports until early in the twentieth century, and that maple (momiji) leaf viewing rivals cherry blossom viewing (hanabi) as a favorite seasonal pastime. We learn and begin to appreciate for ourselves the Japanese love for all things seasonal and the ephemeral nature of life.

Well-drawn maps and clear directions are the backbone of a good guidebook, and A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo has these in spades; however, it is Enbutsu’s brief yet detailed introduction to each plant that reveals what a treasure this book is. Like Hand Made Tokyo, we begin to see another side of the city’s concrete and neon. We learn who lined streets and waterways with flowering cherries (sakura) and plums (ume) and why, and how setting pot after pot out on the urban doorstep became a tradition in Edo that carries on in Tokyo today. We learn which plants are native and imports, which are edible or medicinal.

And we find out how these plants wove themselves into Japanese lives and traditions to become integral to the warp and weft of culture. We hear legends, poems, and accounts of archeological digs that tell us, for example, that “Pines belong to the traditional Japanese landscape as olives belong to the Mediterranean,” and how this evergreen became part of traditional New Year’s decorations. We discover “flower-loving samurai,” how the chrysanthemum came to be the crest of the Imperial family, how a handful of 2,000 year old lotus seeds came to be found and planted all over the city, and why azaelas still grow at Komagome Station.

Forty different walks scattered over the map of Tokyo give readers an excuse to set foot in parts of the city not often explored by tourists or a chance to see a different facet of a famous site – the iris (hanashoubu) gardens at the Meiji Shrine, for example – or make forays to Kamakura, the Miura Peninsula, and Saitama. First published in 2007, a few things have changed – landmarks come and go in the city’s ever-continuous waves of construction – but the routes remain essentially the same and the flowers themselves certainly stand the test of time. Many of Enbutsu’s carefully chosen sites bloom throughout the year, meaning that a visit at different seasons holds a new pleasure not to be missed. Routes also often include the occasional tidbit about a recommended restaurant or shop for weary walkers to duck into for a hot meal or a bit of interesting shopping. Enticing photographs of the flowers and the listed walking sites combined with classic washi paper patterns at the beginning of each section create a visually pleasing book that further tempts the reader to step outside and explore for themselves.

A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo is an undeniable classic. As an avid gardener and plant lover who regularly wanders Tokyo backstreets admiring gardens of all sizes, I continue to be astounded at what I learn with each reading of Enbutsu’s book. Her expertise as a gardener and an historian combined with her enthusiasm for her subject matter proves infectious with each turn of the page. It’s nearly impossible to resist her call to come outside for a walk. Her objective to bring people together over a shared joy of beautiful plants in beautiful settings is easily within reach. And that is an adventure that just happens to easily fit in a handbag or small backpack.

A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo: 40 Walks for All Seasons

by Sumiko Enbutsu

Kodansha International, 2007

Joan Bailey
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives, eats, writes, and farms in Tokyo. Follow her random adventures getting dirty, eating good food, and visiting farmers markets at Japan Farmers Markets.


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