Rikugien in Tokyo is the last in this series on gardens built in old Edo (modern Tokyo) by daimyo under the Tokugawa military government (bakufu) between 1603 and 1868.
Rikugien is also the most popular garden with visitors. Presently 250,000 people visit the garden each year, and this number is increasing by an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 each year. With an area of 8.7 hectares, Rikugien can be classified as a kaiyoshiki tsukiyama sansui teien, a strolling (kaiyo) garden with an artificial “mountain” (tsukiyama) in the landscape (sansui).
The garden was created by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714), a favorite of the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Yanagisawa, a great litterateur and connoisseur of the arts, was born a simple samurai, but found favor with the artistically inclined shogun and was raised to great heights of power. He is one of the principal characters in this year’s NHK weekly samurai drama, “Genroku Ryoran.”
Among the favors conferred on Yanagisawa by Tsunayoshi was a substantial estate in Edo, which became the Rikugien. Drawing on scenes mentioned in the ancient “Manyoshu” and “Kokin Wa-kashu” poem anthologies,Yanagisawa created 88 individual landscapes within the Rikugien. The plants in the garden, together with elements of water and the “mountain,” form elements of the 88 scenes.
Yanagisawa also used the then-popular theme of re-creating real scenic places in miniature (shukkei). The name Rikugien is derived from the six categories in the “Shi no Rikugi,” a collection of poems written during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 B.C.). The six categories are: fu, ga, sho, fu, hi and kyo (for kanji, see your handy kogo jiten).
Just beyond the garden gate stands the Naitei Daimon (Great Inner Garden Gate), a beautiful wooden structure through which one enters the garden proper. One sees at once a fine specimen of weeping cherry (shidare-zakura, Prunus pendula), whose pretty pale pink flowers open in late March. It is beautiful too in the winter months, when the leaves have all fallen, revealing the rugged shape of the trunk.
Close by the weeping cherry a splendid wisteria (fuji, Wisteria floribunda) spreads over a trellis (fuji-dana), the upper part of which is made of bamboo. It’s always pleasing to see natural materials used in a garden, and I especially like the way bamboo is used in Japan.
A smaller gate leads you to a beautiful lawn area dotted with Japanese black pines (kuro-matsu, Pinus thunbergii) and different species of azalea (tsutsuji, Rhododendron sp.). Some of the black pines have names associated with the garden’s 88 scenes. Close to the water’s edge is Deshio no Minato, where there are splendid views of the lake, with a small, tree-covered island called Naka-no-Shima. The island has “mountains” known as Imo-yama, meant to represent the female, and Seyama, which is supposed to symbolize the male. It also has a large rock known as Garyu-seki, which is said to look like the back of a dragon. To the right of Ga-ryu-seki there is Seikiei (Wagtail Rock), connected to the creator-gods Izanagi and Iza-nami, whose tale is told in the “Kojiki” and “Nihongi.”
Horai-jima, the “Isle of Immortals” as conceived by the Chinese Emperor Wudi in the Han Dynasty (260 B.C..-220 A.D.) takes the form of a small rock in the “lake” with a single Japanese black pine growing out of the top of the rock. Horai-jima is to the left of Naka-no-Shima.
Still in the lawn area, is a well-preserved teahouse, the Gishun-tei. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1555) was mainly responsible for developing the teahouse as we know it in Japan, as part of sado, the Way of Tea. Growing in the lawn in front of this teahouse are two tall trident maples (to-kaede, Acer buergerianum). This maple has nice small leaves, divided into three segments. It is frequently used as a street tree in Japanese cities, because of its ability to withstand pollution and smoke.
Leaving the lawn area, the path leads to Chidori-bashi bridge, one of five bridges in the garden that are covered with soil. Similar bridges are also to be found in Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto. From the bridge you can see a small teahouse hidden among the trees, Takimi no Chaya, located in a very picturesque woodland setting among trees beside the small “mountain waterfall.” (The water that feeds it was originally drawn from the Sengawa River, but nowadays comes from an underground spring.) In front of the teahouse stepping stones are set in the stream and the pathway continues into deep woodland beyond.
The oldest tree in the garden is a Japanese red pine (aka-matsu, Pinus densiflora). This pine tree is estimated to be over 300 years old, so it dates back to when Yanagisawa first built the garden in 1695. The pine tree hangs over the water at Fukiage Hama (Fukiage Beach), in front of another teahouse, Fukiage no Chaya. Last year this pine tree produced a huge quantity of pine cones (matsu-bokkuri).
When a tree is old and suddenly produces so many seeds it is an SOS for gardeners, a signal that the tree may be about to die. In order to save the tree, gardeners climbed the tree and removed every cone by hand. The next step will be to feed the tree with a balanced fertilizer and charcoal (sumi). Holes are dug around the spread of the tree, 60 cm deep and 10 cm wide, and each hole is filled with the fertilizer-charcoal mixture.
Following the woodland pathway around to the back of the garden you eventually come to a teahouse with a very rustic appearance, Tsutsuji Chaya. Its supporting timbers are made from azalea (tsutsuji). The teahouse was built on a small knoll in an open woodland setting. From Tsutsuji teahouse you can see Yama-kake-bashi bridge, a lovely curved wooden bridge that is covered with soil.
Yamakake-bashi bridge links to the largest island in the garden, one of a total of four bridges linking this island to the “mainland.” The others are Kamome-bashi, Fujimami-bashi (both wooden and also covered with soil) and Togetsu-kyo (Crescent Moon Bridge), which is made from two enormous flat stones.
This large island has many interesting features. It is crowned by the highest mountain in the garden, Fujishiro Toge (35 meters), with its beautifully sculptured mountain pass. From here one obtains a spectacular view of the garden and a better understanding why it took seven years to complete the garden.
This “mountain pass” is a good example of shukkei, the reproduction of real scenes on a small scale. Fujishiro Toge is a real mountain pass in Wakayama Prefecture. Beneath Fujishiro Toge, there is a small plum grove (baien); early March is the time to see the flowering plum at its best.
Right alongside the plum trees is a tall evergreen eastern magnolia, a native of eastern North America, only introduced to Japan in 1873. It is not a traditional Japanese garden plant, but is planted in some Japanese gardens, because it has good tree shape, nice large glossy leaves and magnificent white flowers that are between 12-15 cm wide. Also, the trees are easy to prune. These scented blooms open in between May and June. The flowers tend to open high up in the tree, so be careful not to miss them when flowering time comes next year.
After crossing Togetsu-kyo, turn left along the narrow path. This will lead you to the remains of yet another teahouse, Ashibe Chaya. From the site of this teahouse a splendid view of Togetsu-kyo and the lake beyond unfolds. The woodland pathway leads you to the northern gate, Somei-mon, which is open only during the summer months. A straight path returns in the direction of the main gate. In the olden days this path was used for training horses, and is called Senri-jo. A ri is an old unit of measurement, equal to 3.9 km; thus senri, 1,000 ri, would be some 3,900 km! The bridle path is only a few hundred meters long.
When Yanagisawa died in 1714 the gardens were untended and became overgrown. For a long time nothing was done, and through this neglect many of the original features of the garden were lost forever. Around 1878 Yataro Iwasaki, founder of Mitsubishi, purchased the garden with the intention of building a country house (besso). Iwasaki embarked on an ambitious plan to restore the garden to its former glory. (Incidentally, Iwasaki also purchased Kiyosumi Garden, in Koto Ward, around the same time.)
The Iwasaki family presented the gardens to Tokyo in 1938, and soon after it was opened to the public. The garden was designated as a Special Scenic Beauty by the metropolitan government March 31, 1953.