The Hosokawa family is deeply rooted to the history and development of Kumamoto. Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641) was granted the domain of Kumamoto (540,000 koku) by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1632 and started work on the gardens which became Suizenji Jojuen in the same year.

Suizenji’s historic Kokindenju tea room seen from across the pond.

Suizenji was a private garden for the Hosokawa family and close friends. The main residence of the Hosokawa family was Kumamoto Castle, which, though partially destroyed in the Seinan War of 1877, is still a splendid sight and contains a museum of Hosokawa family and Kumamoto history.

Mitsunao, the fifth lord, and Tsunatoshi, the sixth lord, made extensive improvements on the garden. Since Tsunatoshi’s time (1643-1714) the basic shape of the garden has not been altered. When the garden was first made it was surrounded by rice paddies. Now urban expansion has totally engulfed it.

This picturesque strolling garden contains miniature re-creations of some of the 53 stops on the Tokaido Road, the old main highway to Edo (Tokyo) from western Japan. Lord Hosokawa, like all daimyo in the Edo Period, had to journey from his Kyushu domain to his Edo residence every other year. (The latter was located close to Togoshi Park in Shinagawa Ward; in fact, Togoshi Park is now all that remains of the Hosokawa Edo residence.)

The Hosokawa lords reproduced scenery from their long trips up to Edo and back, including this miniature “Mount Fuji,” at Suizenji.

The system of required residence in Edo was known as sankin-kotai. The journey to Edo (Tokyo) took about one month, a distance of some 280 ri (about 1,092 km). On this long journey the traveling lords had ample time to look at the scenery, and their observations are reflected in the garden.

Suizenji is a tsukiyama teien, a garden with man-made hills. The most famous of these hills is “Mount Fuji,” re-created in miniature but almost perfect shape. This Fuji-san is covered with Japanese carpet grass (korai, Zoysia matrella). Korai grass is very commonly used in sunny open parks.

Tadatoshi originally selected this site as a location for a teahouse because it had an ample supply of fresh spring water. The ponds in the garden are still fed from the same springs.

The tea arbor and Kokindenju tearoom are among the main features of the garden. This simple looking building with a thatched roof was reconstructed during the Meiji Era. Visitors can relax here and drink matcha powdered green tea while enjoying the best view of “Mount Fuji” and the carp-filled pond. Note the stone basin in the shape of a kimono sleeve.

The Izumi Shrine at Suizenji

Suizenji’s pond is modeled on Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture, another sight the daimyo passed on their regular journeys, and the small wooden bridge to the left of the pond is a miniature of Tokyo’s Nihonbashi. Immediately to the left of “Nihonbashi” there is a rock formation on the water’s edge that is a good example of a dry waterfall (kare-taki).

I was surprised to see a large Shinto shrine inside the garden, but later learned that the Izumi Shrine is important to the local people. Dedicated to the long line of Hosokawa lords who ruled over Higo (the old name for Kumamoto Prefecture), it enshrines the first three Hosokawa lords and the eighth, Hosokawa Shigetaka, as well as 11 other Hosokawas. The head priest of Izumi Shrine is a member of the Hosokawa family.

The Hosokawas continue to be closely involved in Kumamoto affairs, and a modern descendent, Morihiro Hosokawa, was a highly successful governor of the prefecture before moving to the national stage and becoming prime minister in 1993.

Every year the shrine holds three festivals: April 22-24; the first Saturday in August; and the autumn festival, Oct. 18-20. Tea ceremonies, noh performances and yabusame (mounted archery) are dedicated to the gods. At the back of Suizenji there is a special horse run used for yabusame, which has ancient connections to Shinto. During festivals, skilled horsemen gallop at full speed and, without stopping, shoot their arrows at three targets (mato) ranged along the run.

Suizenji is well known for viewing cherries in spring. This is not really a plant person’s garden, but those who wish to see different styles of Japanese gardens will enjoy the skilled way the “lake” and “mountains” were created. Shrubs around the lake are clipped in hako-zukuri (box) style, a formal style of hedge clipping.

The garden is small, just over 7 hectares, and only 20 minutes are required for a quick visit. Give yourself about an hour, though, to sit and drink tea, visit the shrine and take in the famous sights.

While in Kumamoto, you might also visit the Koizumi Yakumo Museum, the former home of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), or Koizumi Yakumo, as he is known in Japan. Hearn’s writings gave English-speaking audiences their first real glimpse of Japanese culture during the Meiji Era, and are still read today. Hearn taught at Kumamoto University from 1891 until 1894. Two of his works, “Dream of a Summer Day” and “A Note of Memories” are set in Kumamoto. The house was restored in Meiji style in 1994; it is in the heart of the city, close to City Hall.