Four hundred years ago, Edo was little more than a fishing village in the large domain of Tokugawa Ieyasu. But then, in 1603, the new shogun made this quiet spot his power base, and over the next two centuries Edo became one of the greatest cities in the world. Remarkably, the Koishikawa Korakuen garden, which dates from 1629, survives to this day from that bygone era.

Nowadays, albeit a quarter of its original size -- and cheek by jowl with Tokyo Dome and the roller coasters of Korakuen Amusement Park -- the garden remains an oasis of calm. Walking beneath fine old shii (or chinkapin) trees, you can occasionally hear laughter from people enjoying the rides, and this is a reminder that the garden was once a kind of "theme park," too. For here, lords of the Tokugawa clan entertained visitors with miniature landscapes, created to recall famous places in poetry and mythology.

Perhaps the first vista is the most impressive: a lush green "mountain" to the left, created to evoke the landscape of Mount Lu Shan in China, with at its base a lotus pond, a bridge and a fine lake with an island. The island represents the Taoist paradise of Horai, a floating isle said to vanish into the mist whenever mortals approach. In spring, a lovely weeping cherry tree also greets the visitor here, while in fall, a rich brocade of leaves scattered from a grove of maple trees decorates the nearby Tatsutagawa River, a waterway created here in homage to the river in present-day Nara Prefecture that has long been a byword for beautiful autumn colors.

From here, winding paths take you on a scenic journey by the lake, up the hillsides, past waterfalls and over gorges.

It was just starting to rain when I visited last weekend, and as the raindrops made the leaves shine, the dark sky made the red higanbana (spider lilies; Lycoris radiata) seem even redder. These unusual flowers with glistening petals are members of the narcissus family of plants. The bulb gathers strength from its long, slender leaves over winter and spring, then only after the leaves have all died away does it send up tall flower stems in autumn. The ancients believed that these flowers bloomed in paradise. In Japan they are called higanbana because they flower just at the time of o-higan, or the autumnal equinox (which was Tuesday), when people traditionally visit their ancestral graves.

Lonesome winter's theme

In the lake beyond the spider lilies, lotus leaves were curling back in the wind with a luscious sound, revealing their pale, blue-green undersides. The summer flowers have now turned into large brown pods, which are bending their heads to drop their seeds in the water. Although the lotus is a sacred flower, symbolizing a pure spirit rising above the mud of earthly troubles, its Japanese name of hasu is rather more down to earth. Hasu is short for hachi-no-su, meaning bees' nest, as the shape of the seed chamber, pierced by holes, looks remarkably like the cells of the ashinaga-bachi (Japanese paper wasp). As autumn turns to winter, the rich-green lotus leaves will turn brown, and the long stems will bend at crazy angles to the water: a favorite wabi, or lonesome winter's theme, for sumi-e artists.

Walking on, we come to a surprisingly rustic scene: a rice field, which just now looks ripe for harvesting. This taste of country life also dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the second owner of the garden, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1638-1700), used the paddy as a lesson in respect. After all, the peacetime wealth of every feudal lord depended on the hard work of rice farmers.


At this point it is worth remembering that the garden's name, Korakuen, means "a place to take pleasure after." This derives from a Chinese poem, which goes: "Be the first to take the world's trouble to heart, and the last to enjoy its pleasures." Today, local schoolchildren plant and harvest the rice -- and this year, at least, they seem to have had fun making scarecrows to guard their treasure from sparrows.

Nearby, a small eight-span bridge zigzags through a marsh. In autumn it looks rather forlorn, but in spring, when the purple irises are flowering, it will recall a famous scene from "The Tales of Ise," when the handsome poet Narihira wept among country irises for the capital he had left behind.

Climbing the hills beyond the rice paddy reveals several vistas of the garden. The fresh smell of the earth, the ferns drinking in moisture, and the lichenlike colors of the keyaki trees (Zelkova serrata) all add to the pleasure of the woodland walk, whether in rain or shine.

The garden's picturesque Oigawa area evokes the famous landscape of Arashiyama, outside Kyoto, and must have suggested many poems to visitors long ago. As I stood on a stepping stone, trying to take a photo with rain dripping down my neck, a pure white egret flew down to the water and started paddling round with its yellow feet, stirring up little fish hiding in the mud. Nowadays, we may not know the old stories so well, but anyone pausing to savor these pleasant scenes can understand the message of this "theme park" dating from the first decades of unified Japan.