A short distance from the center of Wakayama City, on an inlet very close to the sea, is a flat piece of land called Suiken, where a well-preserved daimyo garden known as Yosui-en stands.
The garden was built as a country retreat by Tokugawa Harutomi, who became the 10th lord of Kishu (the old name for Wakayama Prefecture) at the age of 19. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the main branch of the shogunal Tokugawa family was located in Edo (present-day Tokyo), but there were three important branches of the family, known as the Sanke, which had the right of succession to the shogunate if the main branch should fail: Mito in what is now Ibaraki, Nagoya (the geographical center of the family) and Kishu. Harutomi built a palace, Nishihama Goten, not far from the Yosui-en.
Yosui-en was constructed in 1818. The designer’s name is not mentioned in any literature I have found, but Harutomi himself is said to have designed many of its features. The area is just over 3 hectares, with a central pond of slightly over one hectare. You can easily walk around Yosui-en in 30 minutes or so, but it’s better to take your time, walking and stopping to admire the scenery.
Yosui-en has a superb collection of Japanese black pines (kuromatsu, Pinus thunbergii), estimated to number some 1,100 trees, very skillfully planted in a natural style around the edge of the central pond (or lake, as the design is supposed to suggest). In the center of the lake is a tiny, rocky island, known, reasonably enough, as Nakashima, where a small shrine houses a god who watches over and protects the garden.
Nakashima is linked to the “mainland” by two bridges, and it was the design of these bridges that attracted me to the garden. The design of the “lake” in Yosui-en reproduces on a miniature scale the famous scenery of the Xi Hu (Western Lake) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Provence, a technique known as shukkei. The first bridge is a large, high-arched stone bridge, called a taiko-bashi because of its drumlike shape. On the other side is a long dike with three small arched stone bridges, modeled on the real dike and bridge system in Hangzhou.
The Japanese name for the bridge in Hangzhou is Seiko Tsutsumi, or Saiko no Tsutsumi, and the scenery was widely copied in this country. In Tokyo you can see the Seiko Tsutsumi-style dike and bridge in Koishikawa Korakuen garden and in Kyu-Shiba Rikyu garden. In Hiroshima a Seiko Tsutsumi can be seen in Shukkei-en garden.
The word shakkei (“borrowed scenery”) is often associated with Japanese gardens. In Yosui-en the mountains (Takozuchi-yama and Tenrin-yama) outside the garden were cleverly incorporated into the overall design. Yosui-en can also be classified as a strolling pond garden, kaiyu-shiki sensui teien (sensui means a garden pond or lake).
This is a tidal lagoon, or shioiri no ike; the water in the “lake” is in fact seawater, though the salt concentration is lower. (The only other garden that I know of in Japan with a salt lagoon is Hama Rikyu in Tokyo.) There are two water gates, of which one is still in use. The Tokugawa lords would travel to Yosui-en from their home in Nishihama by boat, and enter the tiny harbor by the sluice gate. Securing their boat to the pier, they would climb the steps on the dike.
On the sunny day when I visited Yosui-en, small gray mullet (bora, Mugil cephalus) were jumping all over the lake. Only a few species of fish can live in the brackish water; you may see the common goby (haze, Gobiidae sp.) and the Japanese eel (unagi, Anguilla japonica).
In one area of the garden, hundreds of black pine trees are dwarfed in the style known as karikomi matsu or clipped pines. Set against the full-sized pines the site makes a singular impression.
In Lord Harutomi’s time this area of the garden was used for cultivating kumquat (marumi kinkan, Fortunella japonica), a type of citrus fruit that was introduced to Japan from south China during the Edo Period. The kumquat, an evergreen, has fragrant white flowers and only attains a height of 1 to 2 meters. The daimyo’s favored courtiers were allowed to pick fruit from these trees. Only one or two marumi kinkan still survive from the old days, though.
A teahouse overlooks the lagoon, where Harutomi would entertain important guests at tea ceremonies (cha-kai) while admiring the garden. The teahouse is built in the graceful Sukiya style, which developed during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (15731603). Sukiya-style teahouses were originally based on the simple wooden houses of poor farmers, and aimed to invoke a feeling of closeness with nature.
Yosui-en today is privately owned by Kiyoshi Fuji. The teahouse is open to the public the second Sunday of each month, and a tea ceremony group, the Asa no Kai, holds classes in it regularly. The tiny tearoom known as Jisai-an inside the teahouse is reckoned to be the oldest in Wakayama, some 300 years old, and was moved here from the Tokugawa palace in Nishihama.
Seasonal flowers at Yosui-en include two types of Japanese iris: ayame (Iris sanguinea) and kakitsubata (I. laevigata). There are a few flowering cherry trees. Then during the June-July rainy season (tsuyu) the hydrangea (ajisai) bloom.
I visited the garden Sept. 1, and found the Japanese tallow or wax trees (haze-no-ki, Rhus succedanea) laden with fruit. These trees were formerly widely cultivated for the natural wax, which is pressed from their seeds and used as a substitute for beeswax in polishes.
The camellia (yabu-tsubaki) too had applelike fruits hanging from the branches.
If you turn left when leaving the garden you can see a tree-covered dike, which runs the whole length of Suiken. This dike, Suiken Teibo, was built by Harutomi to protect the low-lying land from the salt-laden sea winds and to act as a fire barrier. The dike is 1.6 km long and between 5.4 and 10.8 meters high. The Japanese hackberry (e-no-ki, Celtis japonica), black pine and many evergreen shrubs grow on this dike, which, with luck, may remain as healthy as it is now for another couple of hundred years.