Any time of the year is ideal to visit Koko-en, next door to Himeji Castle, a World Heritage Site.

The Donjon of Himeji Castle.

I went along to this garden in November 1992, shortly after it opened, and only a few visitors were walking around. Now, eight years later, Koko-en is very popular with tourists from all over the globe. Allow yourself a full day when visiting, so you can explore the garden in depth and visit the castle as well. Luckily, Himeji is an easy day trip from Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto.

Koko-en was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Himeji municipality. The garden is located next to the castle, separated from it by the inner moat. During the Edo Period this area would have been within the original castle compound; it is believed to have been the site of the Nishi-Oya residence and other high-ranking samurai yashiki (residences).

Koko-en has a total area of 3.5 hectares. The garden site is triangular in shape, and is surrounded on two sides by water: to the right, the inner moat, and to the left, the remains of one of the outer moats plus the small Senba River beyond that moat. A busy city thoroughfare forms the base of the triangle.

Koko-en is actually made up of nine different gardens, separated by traditional Japanese white walls known as tsujibei. Appropriately, the first garden, which covers 9,200 sq. meters, is the lord's garden, Oyashiki no Niwa. Past the main gate to this garden is the approach garden, designed to resemble a Japanese woodland, where Kassui-ken, a restaurant, cleverly blends into the landscape.

Adjoining the restaurant is a wooden roofed passageway, to the left of which is a picturesque waterfall. The passageway leads to Cho-on-sai, a house reserved for the lords' guests, which looks out onto the carp-filled pond and waterfall. Take note of the Kanshuji toro, a low stone lantern with an attractively shaped roof.

You must duck your head to pass through the low gate leading to the Edo-style nursery (nae-no-niwa), where young plants are cultivated in raised beds. This garden has an area of 1,680 sq. meters, and in winter new seedlings can be seen. Just inside the gate there is a lovely wabisuke camellia, a variety often used in tea gardens. The flowers are small and trumpet-shaped, in shades of white and pink. This camellia blooms for an extraordinarily long time: The white cultivar (shiro-wabisuke) blooms from mid-November until late March.

On leaving this garden you enter a wide street, known in Japanese as musha-damari, where samurai gathered for parades and reviews. The central donjon (tenshukaku) of Himeji Castle looks spectacular from this angle -- one of many photographers' delights throughout the garden.

Himeji Castle was constructed on a natural rocky outcrop known as Himeyama, 45 meters above sea level. The western and northern sides of Himeyama are steep and are covered with well-preserved broadleaf natural woodland, where entry is forbidden. The large leaves and shiny red berries of the luster-leaf holly (tarayo, Ilex latifolia) can be seen from the moat side.

A view of the Soju-an teahouse in Koko-en's tea garden

The tea garden and Soju-an teahouse, built in the Sukiya style, are next. Visitors can partake of matcha powdered green tea in a simple tea ceremony while enjoying the views of the garden.

Just in front of the entrance to Soju-an there is a rather rare Osmanthus (tsukami-hiiragi, Osmanthus heterophyllus var. undulatifolius). Named by the founder of Japanese botany, Tomitaro Makino, in 1933, it has thornless, oval leaves; its white flowers are small but very fragrant. This plant originated in the Kamakura area.

Leaving this tea garden, you cross over to Nagare no Hira garden, a country-style garden, which connects to a summer garden, and finally to a pine garden (Matsu no Niwa). The pine garden is designed to remind visitors of views of black pines (kuro-matsu Pinus thunbergii) growing along the Seto Inland Sea.

The final wall contains two gardens, Tsukiyama Chisen Garden and the bamboo garden. Tsukiyama Chisen Garden is a pond-and-hill garden, while the bamboo garden contains 15 species and cultivars of bamboo, most noticeably golden bamboo (kinmei-moso, Phyllostachys edulis bicolor).