Koishikawa Korakuen Garden is a well-seasoned piece of greenery. This nearly 370-year-old heirloom of vegetation is at the top of Tokyo’s historical hierarchy of parks and gardens. Were it wine it would be vintage; were it a soldier, it would be battle-scarred and covered with war decorations.
As noted by Gerard Taaffe in an article on Korakuen that recently ran on this paper’s Living page, the garden’s history is long. Korakuen was the infantile Edo’s virgin garden. Begun in 1629 at the request of Tokugawa Yorifusa, head of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family tree, the garden’s architects borrowed liberally from around the nation and China to make Korakuen worthy of being the burgeoning new capital’s first garden.
The garden is especially indebted to the nation’s historical wellspring of culture: Kyoto. The bright orange Togetsu Bridge is an imitation of a bridge in Arashiyama. The Kiyomizu Kannon-do, a temple that stood at the garden’s highest point before being reduced to rubble during World War II, was inspired by Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple.
Korakuen was to become the model for many daimyo-built gardens. But unlike Kyoto gardens, Korakuen was built more for shogunate shindigs and strolling, and less for introspection.
This tradition is still observed by visitors, who walk circular courses on the garden’s grounds like clock hands. Some even dish out 150 yen to toss food to the rotund carp that lurk in the murk of Daisensui, the pond around which the rest of the garden orbits. Daisensui was originally created with water from the Kanda Josui — a defunct man-made waterway drawn from what is today Tokyo’s Inokashira Park.
And to dispel any doubts that samurai were a pack of teetotalers, the Kuhachiya, a thatched-roof gazebo-like structure used for relaxation and drinking on the North side of the pond, takes its name from an Edo-saying that one should fill up 90 percent on sake in the afternoon, but only 80 percent in the evening.
Slightly the worse for wear, this garden has taken its lumps — especially during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and Allied bombing during World War II. Though only one of the garden’s original structures, Tokujindo Temple, still stands, the garden’s basic layout has endured.
The garden also is a repository of Confucian moral teachings. Korakuen means “pleasure after” and comes from Confucian teachings that exhort rulers to meet the needs of the public before taking time out for themselves. It was a vestige of Zhu Shun Shui, the Ming Era refugee, scholar and adviser to the Mito Tokugawa family who helped design and supervise construction of the garden.
Local elementary school students will continue the tradition of “leisure last” on Monday at 10:00 a.m. They will seed the garden’s rice paddies, the only such fields in any of the nation’s gardens, in a tradition begun centuries ago by Mitsukuni Tokugawa — better known as Mito Komon — to instill respect among his family for the farmer’s toil.