Next time you find yourself in Okayama Prefecture, down by the beautiful Seto Inland Sea in western Honshu, you could do worse than allow some time to visit Shuraku-en Park, a well-known historical garden in the Sanyo district of Tsuyama.
Constructed in 1657 at the order of Mori Nakatsugu, the second daimyo of Tsuyama-han (domain) in what is now the central part of the prefecture, in 1698 the garden came into the charge of Matsudaira Nobutomi, whose family held power in the domain until the Meji Restoration in 1868.
History records that Mori employed the skills of a gardener from Kyoto to design Shuraku-en, but that person's name has been lost in the mists of time. Aligned on a north-south axis, however, what he (or she) created is clearly based on Sento-Gosho, one of Kyoto's two imperial gardens. Here in Shuraku-en, as in Sento-Gosho, the central element of the garden is a pond, and all other features are carefully designed to harmonize with that. Both these gardens are kaiyu-shiki-teien (stroll gardens), a style that was popular among those of status during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when they were esteemed for their different landscapes, vistas and features created to please the eye and soothe the soul.
In the pond, for example, is a horai island that's meant to represent a mythical land in Taoist mythology where everyone lives in perfect harmony. As well, the pond has three other islands -- a kiri-shima (mist island), a naka-jima (central island) and a momiji-jima (maple island). All but the horai-jima are connected to the "mainland" by arched wooden bridges surfaced with earth. Behind the kiri-shima there is a small, winding stream where it is recorded that in 1870 the local nobility held a kyokusui-no-en (party by a winding stream), following a delightful custom dating back to the Nara Period in the eighth century.
At the widest part of the garden, a few beautiful buildings, including a geihin-kan (guesthouse) add to the pleasant atmosphere of the place. There is, however, a noticeable lack of toro (stone lanterns) here, because the garden was designed to look as "natural" as possible.
Nowadays, visitors to the garden view it from the pathways, but long ago invited guests were able to see it from pleasure boats as well. Even those restricted to terra firma, though, will still behold a great show of blooming hitsuji-gusa (pygmy water lilies; Nymphaea tetragona) from now until September. These beautiful white 5-cm wide flowers with golden-yellow anthers in the center float on the surface and close up at night. Hardy aquatic herbaceous perennials -- whose generic botanical name means "water nymph" in ancient Greek -- this lily grows in ponds throughout Japan, and its native range extends to northeast Europe and North America. Confusingly, local people refer to it as hasu, which strictly speaking is the name of a much larger aquatic plant.
Close to maple island and behind the guesthouse are some very fine specimens of daio-sho (longleaf pine; Pinus palustris). Also known as southern or pitch pines, seeds of these trees were introduced to Japan in 1883, by which time this garden had come under the control of Okayama Prefecture. Bearing large cones up to 20 cm long, this tree's needlelike leaves grow in groups of three and reach up to 45 cm in length at maturity -- by which time the tree may top 25 meters in height and have a trunk 1.5 meters across.
Native to the southeast United States, the wood from this pine is very heavy, exceedingly hard, strong and durable. Coarse-grained, it is light-red to orange in color, and the resinous timber is used whenever strength and durability are required, as for roof beams, bridges, masts or the interior finishing of buildings. In the days of wooden ships a large part of the world's navies were made of it.
Close by the daiou-shou are also two tall momi (momi firs; Abies firma), a species that grows only in Japan, though not in Hokkaido, on hills close to the coast and on mountains above the beech line at 1,000-1,800 meters. The leaves of momi are short with a tiny indentation at the tip that helps to identify it.
In the center of the garden by the kiosk, be sure not to miss a splendid multi-stemmed mokkoku (Ternstroemia gymnanthera). A coastal evergreen that will tolerate dry conditions, this tree has smooth gray bark and thick, textured ovate leaves whose glossy upper surfaces help it survive in dry places and to withstand salt-laden air. In Okinawa, mokkoku timber is prized for building construction and the bark yields tannins.
Now, if time permits, I highly recommend a visit to Nakayama Shrine about 3 km north of Shuraku-en. Built in 707 at the end of the Asuka Period (593-710), this shrine is dedicated to the god of cattle and horses.
In its precincts there is also a monkey shrine that is mentioned in the collection of 11th-century "once-upon-a-time" tales titled "Konjaku Monogatari." Attached to this old shrine is a lovely preserved mixed woodland covering almost 7 hectares, whose trees, insects and birds have all been carefully cataloged by the shrine office.
In front of the 11-meter stone torii erected in 1791 at the entrance to the shrine there is a sacred keyaki (Zelkova serrata) that is reckoned to be 800 years old. This hollow-centered tree (also known as a shinboku) is only 10 meters tall, but at one time it must have been much higher judging by its trunk, which is 20 meters in diameter.
Suzume-bachi (yellow hornets; Vespa mandarinia) -- some with bodies up to 45 mm long -- can be seen sucking the sap that oozes from the tree. However, if one of these insects should tire of that and bite you instead, be sure to seek immediate medical attention.
Adjacent to the torii there is a 500-year-old muku-no-ki (Aphananthe aspera), a deciduous tree which, like the keyaki, belongs to the elm family (Ulmaceae).
Finally, in this veritable arboretum just in front of the main shrine building, you will also come across a fine specimen of akagashi (red oak or Japanese evergreen oak; Quercus acuta). This species has leathery, oblong-ovate leaves that are 7-15 cm long with glossy upper surfaces and no teeth on the margin. This oak yields fine hard-grained timber whose reddish color has given the tree its Japanese name.