In Tokyo, there are quite a number of historic gardens that were built by the daimyo during the long Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867). The designers of many of these gardens were greatly influenced by the Chinese style of landscaping, and by the eagerness of the owners to have famous scenic sights from both China and Japan re-created in miniature (shukkei) in their large gardens.
These historical gardens, although in Tokyo, are of national importance. They were built before public parks were even thought of. Many of the original buildings were destroyed or badly damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, or by air raids during the war, but the Tokyo metropolitan government has done an excellent job of restoring and maintaining them.
Koishikawa Korakuen is one such garden, the oldest garden surviving in Tokyo. A strolling garden (kaiyu-shiki sensui teien), it presently has an area of 7 hectares, though at one time it extended to some 28 hectares. Construction was begun in 1629 by Tokugawa Yorifusa (1603-61), who was lord of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family, and completed by his successor, the great patron of learning Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1700). The gardens were designed by Tokudaiji Sahei, assisted by the Confucian scholar Zhu Shunshui (1600-1682), a Chinese refugee from the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who was protected by Mitsukuni.
You cannot fail to notice the white wall topped with a slate (kawara) roof that surrounds the garden. This type of wall, originally made of packed mud, is known as tsuiji-bei. Layers of mud were applied upon wooden reinforcing stakes; when the mud dried, the walls were painted white. When I visited the garden last December, though, the wall was in the process of being replaced by a reinforced-concrete imitation.
Directly inside the wooden main gate is a large pond, known as Daisensui, with an island. This idea of using a pond as a central part of the main design dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185), when the gardens were viewed from boats. Indeed, when Korakuen was first completed, it is said, boats were also used to view parts of it. The island in the center of the pond is known as Horaijima, and is supposed to represent an imaginary heavenly island. The idea of an imaginary heavenly island in the garden was first conceived by the Chinese Emperor Wu Di during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220).
Many Japanese gardens have a miniature Mount Fuji at some strategic point, but Korakuen has a small hill close to the pond that is supposed to represent Mount Lu, which is in Jiangxi Province, China. The slopes of Korakuen’s Mount Lu are covered with bamboo grass (okame-zasa, Shibatae kumasasa), clipped at a height of 1 meter. This species of bamboo is native to western Japan and China, growing well in the shade of trees.
Below Mount Lu is a pond of sacred lotus (hasu, Nelumbo nucifera). There are only two species in the genus Nelumbo, the other being water chinquapin (N. lutea), from eastern North America. The sacred lotus is native to Australia, Asia and Iran; it was introduced to Japan a long time ago, and many cultivars were developed during the Edo Period. Presently there are about 70. Flower colors include purple, pink and white, and August is a good time to see them.
The leaves rise about 1 meter above the water. In Buddhist lore, they symbolize the soul rising, in the words of the 11th-century Zhou Tunyi, “without contamination from the mud, reposing modestly above the clear water, hollow inside and straight without.”
If we follow the path around the north side of the pond, we soon come to Shiraito no Taki. This waterfall is set back from the pathway, partly hidden by the canopy of overhead trees. Stepping stones bridge the stream. Next, one comes to a grove of Japanese red pines (akamatsu, Pinus densiflora), beyond which is a small thatched house known as Kuhachi-ya that was used for drinking sake. There, you’ll find a path that leads to the back of the garden.
On the left, there is a small rice paddy, originally put in by Tokugawa Mitsukuni so the daimyo’s family could learn the hardships of country life. Today, for similar reasons, elementary school children from nearby schools plant and harvest the rice.
Next, is a paddy of Japanese irises (hana shobu, Iris ensata) and rabbit-ear iris (kakitsubata, Iris laevigata). A trellis supports a wisteria (fuji, Wisteria floribunda); the little stream that flows behind it was formerly a tributary of the Kanda River water, but nowadays the stream’s source is a pipe. Over the rabbit-iris marsh runs a zigzag yatsuhashi bridge, and completing this secluded garden within a garden is a group of lovely flowering apricot trees.
The steep, wooded hills above the rice paddy were very skillfully created. Climb all the steps that lead to the highest peak in the park, and you will find the remains of a Hakke-do shrine. Among the trees on these hills at the back of this garden are sudaji (Castanopsis cuspidata var. sieboldii), tabo-no-ki (Machilis thunbergii), Japanese hackberry (Celtis sinensis), shira-kashi (Quercus myrsinefolia) and mochi-no-ki (Ilex integra). Follow the path down through the woods to a lovely Chinese-style stone bridge called Engetsukyo (“round moon bridge”), and note the enormous specimen of a Japanese nutmeg (kaya, Torreya nucifera), an evergreen, on a hill nearby.
The path leads on through a labyrinth of little valleys; just past the small wooden shrine Tokujindo on the main path is a vermilion arched bridge that spans a deep gorge. The bridge is known as Tsuten-bashi and is a replica of the bridge in Kyoto’s Tofukuji Temple, which also spans a deep gorge.
This part of the garden has many references to Kyoto. After coming down from the “mountains” we can see a wide river which is known as Oikawa, after the scenic river in Kyoto’s Arashiyama, then the bridge Togetsukyo, after another Arashiyama sight. Beyond it is an earthen dike running through the center of the river, a miniature reproduction of the dike that runs through Hangzhou Bay in China.
This garden is enjoyable to visit at any time of the year, although I feel one visit is not enough.