Okayama Prefecture Okayama Korakuen

Inheriting and preserving a lord’s taste and design

Entering the garden as it opens at half past seven in the morning, I find the remaining traces of the bamboo-twig brooms on the winding pathway, newly swept and purified, wonderfully refreshing. Okayama’s Koraku-en, Mito’s Kairaku-en and Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en are known as the Three Great Gardens of Japan, all of them large-scale gardens created by daimyo (feudal lords) during the Edo period (1603-1868) and designed in the chisen kaiyu style, featuring a path around a central pond and spring. The life of the garden lies in its cleaning and maintenance. As I was born and raised in the castle town of Yumino-cho, close to Koraku-en, I’d grown accustomed to the garden, but when I see it for the first time in many years, after having been away from home, it seems fresh to me, and fills me with pride.

The initial stage of Koraku-en was completed in 1700. It was created by Tsuda Nagatada, a vassal of lord Ikeda Tsunamasa proficient in flood control and public works. While the assignment given to Tsuda, who played the role of what we call a civil engineer today, was rather straightforward, involving enclosing former paddies with bamboo thickets and constructing a plain but elegant house, Enyo-tei, it’s said that Tsunamasa loved a rustic, rural landscape overlooking the countryside. Although Koraku-en is a kaiyu style garden with circulating walking paths provided for enjoying views of the garden, the viewpoint that serves as the heart of the garden is said to be located in the living room of Enyo-tei.

Speaking of Japanese gardens, although the karesansui (dry landscape) gardens commonly found in zen temples gain popularity due to their utter abstraction, I’d sincerely like you to enjoy the experience of any of the kaiyu-style gardens created during the Edo period, when landscaping techniques like stone processing and transportation and the creation of ponds and tsukiyama (artificial hills) were developing. It’s fun to appreciate the landscape while taking a walk or a break. The Okayama clan of those days boasted excellent masonry skills. The gigantic stone known as Odateishi, laid in Nishikigaoka, the western part of the garden, is said to have been cut into ninety-some pieces, transported, then reconstructed in the garden. The exquisite nature of the shaping of this stone is an important highlight of this Japanese garden.

Up to and including its minute details, the meticulous and elegant arrangement of this garden may reflect the characteristic sincerity and honesty of the Okayamans; all of the fences and signs are made of wood or bamboo, impressive in their display of ingenuity, skill and care. The lawn area of today was once covered with fields of rice, daikon radishes, tea, tobacco, rapeseed flowers and so forth, but when the clan experienced financial difficulties, apparently this area was turned into a lawn. To protect the grass, arc-shaped fences made of slivered bamboo at its edges create a unique tender rhythm in the landscape of Koraku-en.

You can enjoy the rustic beauty in a refined manner from the azumaya (small arbor) known as Ryuten. While narrow pillars support the upper floor, on the first floor, there are only the pillars and the wooden floor; there are no walls, and the river’s flow is brought indoors, as if splitting the floor in two, front to back. I have heard the speculation that this setting was based on the idea for holding Kyokusui no utage (winding stream parties), in which one person wrote the first half of a 31-syllable tanka poem and a second had to finish it before a cup of sake floating down the river reached him; the second poet was expected to drink its contents, either as a celebration of the poem’s completion, or as a forfeit if he had not composed a suitable latter half of the verse. But I think this stream flows too fast for that. It is more natural to see this as an arrangement for bringing the wild stream in through the arbor, and I genuinely sense the elegant aestheticism the lord must have savored.