Spend a Day Enjoying Japanese Literature, Historical Architecture, and Folk Crafts Around Komaba Park in Tokyo!
Tokyo, Japan’s capital of literature and design, is home to a wealth of cultural and artistic facilities. In this installment of “Where I Go On My Day Off! (Tokyo Edition),” we decided to visit the Komaba Park area of Meguro, Tokyo. If you adore historical buildings, Japanese literature, and folk art, Komaba is the perfect spot for a day-trip that dives deep into this profound world. We’ll explore the gorgeous facilities in and around the park, enjoy a leisurely city forest stroll, relish tea in a literature-themed café, and more!
Sep 22 2022
My Tokyo Travel Wishlist
I’m certain that many readers have a list of cafes to check out, or, like me, a map full of future travel plans on your phone. As a long-time Tokyo resident originally from Taiwan, my Google Maps is practically covered with markers.
While planning this article, I casually opened Google Maps and pondered where I wanted to go. What caught my eye was a marker placed on a cafe in Komaba Park called “Bundan Coffee & Beer,” which I must have seen in a long-forgotten magazine or TV program. Upon inspection, I found that the park is also home to the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature and the Former Marquis Maeda Mansion, along with the Japan Folk Crafts Museum nearby. While not my usual cup of tea, I figured I might learn a thing or two about Tokyo and Japanese culture, so I invited a friend to join me on an art and literature adventure!
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The Komaba Area of Meguro, Tokyo
Part of the first Japanese character in “Komaba” contains a symbol meaning “horse.” It’s said that this comes from the fact that, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the shoguns set up a falconry camp in “Komabano,” which means “horse pasture field,” where they would tie up their horses when they went hunting. In modern Tokyo, of course, there are no horses left in sight, yet the name has remained.
We imagined Komaba would be a mixture of the refined Okushibu* and the indie Shimokitazawa, but when we actually got off the Inokashira Line at Komaba-todaimae Station, what greeted us instead was the quiet entrance of the University of Tokyo Komaba Campus, with only a McDonald’s and a scattering of small stores next to it. With the sound of trains and the chirping of cicadas the only distinguishable noises, it was worlds apart from a typical rowdy university town.
*Okushibu: Oku-Shibuya, also known as Ura (Hidden) Shibuya. It refers to the area between the Shibuya Tokyu Main Store and Yoyogi Hachiman Station. In recent years, it has become popular for its simple yet sophisticated cafes and variety stores.
Komaba Park: An Oasis of Greenery in Residential Tokyo
Following the map and signs, we arrived at Komaba Park, nestled inconspicuously amongst a quiet residential neighborhood. If you take the Inokashira Line, you can enter through the south gate via a narrow road (that looks like a secret path), or walk along Komaba Street (Komaba-dori) and enter the park through the east gate consisting of bamboo fences and trees. If you’re walking from Yoyogi Uehara Station, the main gate is likely the most convenient option. This gate and accompanying guard house are designated as National Important Cultural Properties, and exude a refined atmosphere.
Upon entering the park, we were met with a lush, refreshing greenery, making it hard to believe we were still in the heart of Tokyo. Looking around, I spotted a family searching for stag beetles, a man leisurely reading under a tree, high school students donning summer uniforms cutting through the park, and other delightful scenes of Japanese summer.
The Former Marquis Maeda Mansion: A Glimpse Into the Life of Early Showa Aristocracy
At the center of Komaba Park stands an exotic building that looks like something you’d find on the other side of the “Anywhere Door,” the portal device from sci-fi comedy anime “Doraemon.” This is the residence of Marquis Toshinari Maeda, the 16th head of the Maeda family, who were once the feudal lords of the Kaga Domain (modern-day Ishikawa Prefecture).
Marquis Maeda traveled extensively through Europe, and had already decided on the design of his new residence in Komaba upon his return to Japan in 1927 after serving as a military officer attached to the UK Japanese Embassy. In addition to the family’s living space, the mansion’s “Western-Style House” was also used for entertaining foreign dignitaries, while the “Japanese-Style House” introduced them to Japanese culture.
The Western-Style House was influenced by the designs of English country estates, best seen in the porte-cochere central entrance (an outside passage large enough for cars to pass through) with a pyramidal, castle-like spire rising on the right side. On the south side is a terrace with an arcade of three interlocking arches, along with a balcony on the second floor. The porte-cochere, entrance, and corridor all feature a flat, arched form, often found in Tudor-style architecture. Up close, the brown scratch tiles covering the walls are the same type used in the Former Imperial Hotel and other historical buildings in Taiwan. One of the pleasures of viewing such buildings is realizing their connections to other structures, allowing a sense of past trends.
Upon entering the mansion, we found chandeliers of various designs, luxurious guest rooms big and small, and a grand dining room with a white marble fireplace. There were also several incredible amenities and flourishes, like a button to call the butler and other servants. Wherever we looked, we saw style, elegance, and ingenuity.
Outside the dining room, however, the house becomes much simpler. This is because it served as internal space for staff, kept humble yet functional.
Connecting to the second floor, the grand central staircase features intricate pillar carvings and acanthus patterns popular in Europe at the time. Also impressive is the use of space under the staircase. While such spaces are now often used for storage or lavatories, this one has been converted into an “inglenook” (a “warm and cozy” space), with a fireplace and sofa in the same flat arch shape as the exterior of the building.
On the second floor, we toured the study, bedrooms, and children's rooms. We were in awe of the incredible effort poured into the restoration, preservation, and reproduction of these cultural assets. Owing to layouts preserved on black-and-white photos and scraps of wallpaper and carpet left behind, it was possible to recreate the mansion rooms as closely as possible to how they originally looked. The books in the study were provided by descendants of the Maeda family, and were displayed how they would have been when the mansion was still in use.
In order to fully express the charm of the original building, it was also necessary to make adjustments, install digital exhibits, and more. What used to be the family’s third son’s room is now a library, which includes travel magazines about Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, an area deeply associated with the Maeda family. The protrusion on the right side of the building is part of a remodel equipping the mansion with an elevator, ensuring an accessible environment without ruining the character.
There are also many pictures in the exhibition room contrasting the past and present. You can see how the Maeda family once enjoyed skiing and horseback riding in the square, drawings of bedroom fixtures purchased from a high-end English furniture manufacturer, along with “munafuda” building tags praying for the structure’s successful completion. The former conference room also screens educational videos to further enlighten visitors on the history of the building.
During the tour, the knowledgeable curator also shared with us the details of their next restoration plan. Listening to their explanation, I felt deeply impressed by the Japanese people's strong desire to preserve their history. Despite being such an invaluable historical building, admission is free, visitors can take photos as they like, and there are even free guided tours conducted by volunteers. The adjacent Japanese-Style House is also available for public bookings and hosts various events like tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, and haiku recitals. From this, it’s easy to see the high level of cultural awareness and the unwavering respect for architecture of the Japanese people. After visiting, you’ll no doubt want to uncover more of Tokyo's historical structures - which is exactly how we felt!
The Museum of Modern Japanese Literature: Ponder the Masterpieces of Japan's Literary Giants
In Japanese history, the so-called “early modern” era spans from the Meiji Restoration (1868) to the end of World War II (1945). Although it may seem like eons ago, the appeal of the literature written during this era is timeless. Famous early modern Japanese writers include Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Osamu Dazai, whose works have been translated and published in many languages, and are still widely read today. Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” was also included in the language textbooks of high schools in Taiwan, where I’m from.
For those who love Japanese books (and know the language), the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature, located right next to the Maeda Main Residence and Japanese-Style House, is a place to get familiar with its heart.
First up, we checked out the postcards available by the counter near the first-floor entrance. They feature first edition covers of famous Japanese works, along with pictures of manuscripts, and other related photographs. I went looking for postcards featuring novels that I’d read, including “The Sound of the Mountain,” “The Dancing Girl of Izu,” and “The Setting Sun.”
There’s also a reading room to the right of the counter, where you can actually borrow books from the collection to read at your leisure. Please note, though, that the museum charges a fee to access the room. You’ll likewise need to buy a ticket at the counter to access the special and temporary exhibitions on the second floor, which are held regularly.
The theme of this year’s exhibition was “Literature in Textbooks, Literature Outside the Classroom IV: Natsume Soseki’s ‘Kokoro’ and His Times.” Those who know a lot about Japan may associate Natsume Soseki with “Botchan,” which is set in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture. However, his work “Kokoro” is also very well known and frequently appears in Japanese textbooks. Having read Kokoro before and keen to learn more about it, plus being curious about what a literary exhibition might actually look like, we bought a ticket and ventured upstairs.
Through intimate presentations of handwritten manuscripts, the exhibition allowed us to see how Kokoro progressed as it was finetuned and adjusted, providing deep insight into the creative process. Also on display were descriptions of the routes taken by the characters in the novel, alongside photographs of the scenery they would have passed at the time, and even a 3D map. The exhibit also included reactions of same-day literary figures to the “martyrdom of Maresuke Nogi,” an important historical event mentioned in the novel.
In addition to exhibitions, the museum also offers a wide variety of regular courses and lectures, including the “Voice Library” event where literary figures read from their own works. Attendees can enjoy the soothing melody of the spoken Japanese language, a pleasure lost in silent reading.
If you’re interested in Japanese storytelling, we highly recommend leaving plenty of time for the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature. After visiting, you’ll doubtlessly agree on the need for more places like this to help preserve such invaluable cultural treasures.
Bundan Coffee & Beer: A Heavenly Mix of Coffee and Books
After reveling in the literature exhibits, we took a short break at Bundan Coffee & Beer, tucked away in a corner of the museum’s first floor. The store was lit with a soft, warm glow and filled with wooden, antique furniture, giving off retro coffee shop vibes. However, what instantly grabbed our attention was the massive bookshelf, which apparently contained around 20,000 volumes! Customers are free to pick out any book to enjoy together with breakfast or afternoon tea.
For many, the most appealing facet of Bundan is its delightful literary-themed menu. Text-heavy, it flaunts clever reproductions of dishes from famous novels, along with drinks named after authors and their works. There are also detailed explanations of the origins behind each dish's name, as well as excerpts from related books.
For example, the “Ango Sakaguchi Grilled Salmon Sandwich” was inspired by Ango Sakaguchi, a native of Niigata Prefecture and one of the leading authors of the “Buraiha” or “Decadent School” of literature. Sakaguchi wrote “Waga Kufuseru Ojiya” (My Ingenious Rice Gruel) at 44, where he describes in detail how he improved his hometown dish, the grilled salmon sandwich. Bundan has slightly tweaked the recipe, adding onions and bell peppers to complement the soy sauce-marinated salmon. We got a real boost of energy from this hearty breakfast dish!
In addition to food, Bundan is also popular for its desserts. The sundae, based on the novel “Lemon,” a masterpiece by Japanese writer Kajii Motojiro, is refreshingly sweet. The scones named after the great William Shakespeare, topped with a special salted caramel sauce, are equally irresistible. Even if you don't speak Japanese, you can immerse yourself in the world of local literature through scrumptious food!
Japan Folk Crafts Museum: Discover the Allure of Authentic Craftsmanship
Leaving Komaba Park behind, we arrived at our final destination for the day: The Japan Folk Crafts Museum.
Those familiar with Japanese tableware and product design will likely know the name Sori Yanagi. Household wares created by Yanagi are highly coveted due to their modern, smooth curves and ease-of-use, all adhering to the “fit-in-your-hand” concept. Yanagi’s creative philosophy can be traced back to his father Muneyoshi Yanagi, famed as the "father of the folk craft movement.”
“Folk crafts” refer to crafts made by common people. In 1926, Muneyoshi Yanagi published “Nihon Mingei Bijutsu-kan Setsuritsu Shuisho (Prospectus for the Establishment of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum). He spearheaded a unique movement in Japan striving to encourage appreciation for the beauty of everyday utensils. With the support of those who shared this philosophy, he eventually established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1936 to spread these concepts. Muneyoshi Yanagi served as the first director of the museum, handed down to his son Sori Yanagi as the third person to be awarded the title.
After establishing the museum, Muneyoshi devoted himself to traveling throughout Japan to research and collect folk crafts while simultaneously promoting the crafting cultures of Korea, the Ainu, and Taiwan's ethnic minorities. He was instrumental in introducing the public to ceramics, paintings, dyed textiles, lacquerware, woodwork, and other crafts made by unknown artists, which had not been given due recognition in the context of art history and modern Western art perspectives at the time.
The current collection at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum includes over 17,000 old and new crafts from all over Japan and abroad. In addition to collecting, storing, and conducting research on folk art, the museum also organizes various exhibits to further promote the founding philosophy of Muneyoshi Yanagi.
Upon stepping into the museum, we immediately noticed its high ceilings and wooden staircases leading off to the left and right, weaving together a tremendously refined atmosphere. Unlike most museums, there is no predetermined route for you to follow, and visitors can decide the order for themselves by looking at the museum map. The artwork’s explanatory notes likewise include only the name, technique, and date of creation, allowing visitors direct enjoyment without being filtered through outside information.
The second floor houses the Grand Exhibition Hall, part of renovations commemorating the 80th anniversary of the museum's founding in 2021. Hosting special displays, the natural light from the ceiling reflects off the floor against a backdrop of lush greenery from Komaba Park, creating a relaxing atmosphere. On the first floor is a store selling publications exclusive to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, as well as those about Muneyoshi Yanagi and folk art itself. Of course, there are also loads of wonderful works of folk art available for purchase.
While the photos used in this article, taken with permission from the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, don’t have any visitors in the shot, the facility was actually quite crowded, and there was a hefty line at the register. It was hard to believe that it was just a weekday afternoon, and we were moved by the display of interest by the locals in the beauty of folk art. We look forward to visiting the West Wing (the former residence of Muneyoshi Yanagi), located across the street, next time!
A Literary Experience You’ll Repeat Again and Again
Initially, I was simply planning to visit a cafe I had randomly marked on my phone, but once we arrived, the remarkable collection of facilities tempted me on a fulfilling literary journey. From now, I’m sure I’ll be a regular at the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, stopping by whenever they hold new exhibitions. I would also love to visit the wall fountain and the corridor leading to the Japanese-Style House at the Former Marquis Maeda Mansion, which we weren’t able to do this time. From what I’ve heard, this route is only open to the public on special occasions.
Through this experience, I felt as if I had gained the keys to a brand-new world. I now long to visit more historical sites and buildings in Tokyo, read more Japanese literature, and put hand-crafted tableware on my table. I am sure that there are many more wonderful literary-based spots in Tokyo I’ve yet to discover, and my journey to uncover a deeper side of the city is far from over!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.