Sankeien: Great love in a garden almost grows

Yokohama's stunning Sankeien is made for romance — of the 'two's company' type


Miho leans out over the Lotus Pond to get a good photo of one of the bright-red flowers when the camera slips out of her hand. Standing next to her, I instinctively lean forward, stretch out my hand (my reflexes, even if I say so myself, are very good) and pluck the camera out of the air with ease.

Just like a movie, the action is in cliched slow motion. But then it suddenly jerks into fast forward like an old Charlie Chaplin flick as I trip over one of the large stones lining the side of the pond and fall flat into the mire.

Luckily, the pond is only about 20 cm deep, so although I’m partially submerged my outstretched arm is holding the camera aloft out of harm’s way — just like the scene in “Excalibur” when the Lady of the Lake emerges from the water clutching the magic sword. Or actually, perhaps it’s more like a scene when I’m knocked off a bar stool, go sprawling on the floor, but miraculously don’t spill one drop of my drink.

“You’re a hero,” Miho says, as I lay there, momentarily, and I briefly sense the wings of angels fluttering around my head, only to soon realize it’s a overwrought wasp. I hop out of the pond and, armed with my sensu (folding fan), I duel with the insect until it retreats. Then I look into Miho’s eyes, and she says: “But . . . your heroics were unnecessary.” I raise an eyebrow, confused, as she adds: “Because my camera is waterproof.”

When I woke up that morning it was a beautiful sunny day and everything seemed perfect for what I had carefully planned out. I waited at Tokyo Station for Miho to arrive on the shinkansen from her hometown. I was taking her to Sankeien — one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, that’s located in the Honmoku district of Nara Ward in Yokohama.

It’s a perfect place to go with the kids, but mostly it appeals to old folks, who savor its history; nature lovers (plenty of flowers and trees); and dating couples. The romance angle is why I am there with Miho. I decided that Sankeien could be an ideal place to propose marriage. Unfortunately, the big smile warping my face disappeared when, from behind Miho’s shoulder, there appeared another young lady — clad in a heavy-rock T-shirt and big black boots. Miho introduced me to her friend Hiromi. I strangled my disappointment, smiled and bowed graciously, and decided to plow ahead with my plan.

The story of Sankeien starts with Tomitaro Hara, who inherited a vast raw-silk export business at the end of the 19th century and, being disgustingly loaded, plowed cash into developing the garden. In 1906, Hara opened its gates to the common people of Yokohama for free. Picnicking and partying long into the night naturally followed, with Hara even providing firewood for folk to heat their cooking pots and water to dilute their shochu (a Japanese distilled liquor) so they wouldn’t get too drunk and, er, fall into a pond.

Sankeien is actually much more than a garden — at 175,000 sq. meters it’s more like a park, and it consists of three small valleys, numerous ponds, extensive woodlands and a hill on which stands the Three-Storied Pagoda of Old Tomyoji — now the oldest pagoda in the Kanto region, even though it was moved here from the Tomyoji Temple in Kyoto, where it was built in 1457.

The pagoda is just one of many of the 17 old buildings dotted around the garden that have been transplanted from their original homes. These include the Rinshunkaku Villa with its stand-out white paneling (built in 1649 in Wakayama City) and the Gekkaden Guest House (built by warrior chieftain Ieyasu Tokugawa in Fushimi Castle, Kyoto, in 1603). If only I could dismantle my apartment and move it to the seaside in the summer and then back to the warmth of the big city in winter.

But the most impressive thing about the garden is not the architecture to be found there but the beauty of its whole design and the way each feature complements the others. You can’t walk one minute without passing an old building, flowerbed, pond, arch or bridge, and, of course, you’re constantly surrounded by trees and shrubs.

Sankeien is worth a visit at any time of the year. There’s the plum and cherry blossoms in spring; the irises, azaleas and hydrangeas in early summer; and the wild chrysanthemums in October. Autumn is one of the best months to visit as it’s not so hot and you can view the leaves changing color from green to varying hues of yellow, orange and red.

After passing the huge Main Pond with the crimson Kanshinbashi Bridge spanning it, we pass through the Gomon Gate (1708, Kyoto) and enter the Sankei Memorial museum and shop. Ignoring the calligraphy, paintings and old photos of the garden on display, Miho and Hiromi line up to be instructed in the art of the tea ceremony by kimono-clad experts. They grind up the green stuff and then whisk it up in hot water ladled from an iron pot. My first opportunity to propose marriage arises as Hiromi busies herself taking photos of fungi the size of cauliflowers on some stone steps. I literally drag Miho up the hill to the observatory post, which the garden’s literature says commands wonderful views of the bay. Once there, the romantic words perched on the tip of my tongue drain back down my throat and return to my heart. Proposing here would be like getting down on your knees at a highway service station after downing cheap coffee and rancid curry rice. Yes, you can enjoy looking at the sea, if you ignore the multilane highway choc-a-bloc with horn-blaring traffic and an armada of huge rusting cargo ships out in the bay.

I manage to give Hiromi the slip again as we near the Old Yanahara House, a minka (traditional farmhouse) in the gassho-zukuri (hands-clasped) style — so-called because of the steep pitch of the roof and the “mohican” of thatch running along the crest. This Edo Period (1603-1867) house once belonged to a wealthy farmer and was moved here from Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture, which is famous for its many gassho-zukuri-style buildings. It’s the only old building in Sankeien that you are allowed to enter, so I step on to the tatami with Miho and we sit at a low table as the late-afternoon sun filters through the wooden window slats.

The lyrics of love linger on my larynx as I pour two cups of tea from my flask, but then my legs start itching severely. Looking down I see a gang of about half-a-dozen mosquitoes feasting on my flesh, and instead of asking for her hand in marriage I demand the insect repellent.

I douse myself in the liquid, return to the table, and, scratching at my legs, am about to utter the fateful words when a sliding door opens and Hiromi enters stage left. “Hey! I lost you!” she bellows.

The curtain has come down. There is no encore. The minka is the last stop on a leisurely three-hour walk through Sankeien. We leave through the main gate, walk down the street and stop at the Clair bakery to buy one of the huge trays of breads they sell off for ¥500 toward the end of the day. Then I snap up some Nagasaki garlic (much cheaper than Aomori garlic; much tastier than the cheap Chinese stuff) from a big old yellow school bus that has been turned into a fruit-and-veg shop and stands next to the Honmoku bus stop. And then we take a bus to Yamashita Koen, the park facing the waterfront in Yokohama.

There, the three of us sit on a bench, looking out on to the beautiful bay. The three of us. It could be so romantic. It should be so romantic. I may have failed, but there’s no reason you should. Men, take your woman. Women, take your man. And ban friends. Sankeien should be all about romance — and insect repellent. Pity you can’t use it on friends.

To get to Sankeien Garden, go to Negishi Station in Yokohama (¥580 from Tokyo Station) and take the bus to Honmoku. Cross the street and take the road next to the convenience store. It’s a 10-minute walk. The garden is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is ¥500 for adults and ¥200 for children. For more details, check, or call (045) 621-0634/5.