Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

The first garden we visited in Tokyo was Koishikawa Korakuen.

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It’s a smallish walled garden, located in the Koishikawa district of central Tokyo. This is part of the wall viewed from the outside.

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And here’s the entrance. There’s a fee of 300 yen, about $3.

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The garden was built by an aristocratic family in the 17th Century. “Korakuen” means “enjoying afterward”. We read that this is a reference to a Chinese saying that “a governor should worry before people and enjoy after people”, which I take to mean: “you can relax when the meeting is over.”

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This is a garden built for strolling, with walking paths wandering around ponds, streams, and artificial hills. Some of the ponds were filled with lotus leaves, with a few flowers still in bloom.

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Despite being in the middle of Tokyo, this garden really does feel like a world apart. Occasionally a modern building nearby reminds you of where you are.

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I should mention again that we were in Japan in August. This is not the best time to visit the country, because it is ungodly hot and humid. However, Judy was invited there to do a training for her job, and it seemed crazy not to piggyback a vacation onto her work trip.

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In addition to being hot, August is not a very colorful month in Japan. At other times of year you can enjoy the Azaleas, the plum and cherry blossoms, or the autumn foliage. In August what you get is mainly shades of green. Even so, there is a great deal of beauty.

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This sign piqued our curiosity.

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And then we started noticing what looked like Japanese snapping turtles, on both land and water.

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The ponds contain little islands. On this island a red-painted shrine catches your eye.

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Much of the garden is meant to replicate famous landscapes in miniature. Many of the landscapes are drawn from poetry, and there are signs with poetic verses throughout.

It was cloudy and raining off and on during our visit, you can see raindrops on the water here.

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Not sure what the significance of this thatched building is, but it’s interesting.

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The nobleman who completed the garden included a rice paddy, which glows with a luminous emerald green. A sign instructed us that the paddy was included to remind the nobleman’s wife of the hard lot of the common people. Something tells me that the wife’s unspoken reaction was, “Thanks for the morality lesson, you big phony.”

Anyhow, the rice paddy is maintained by local schoolchildren.

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A small stream meanders through the garden.

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The higher elevations are mostly woodland, crisscrossed by stone paths.

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The different elevations create the feel of a much larger space.

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Ferns line the shaded paths, imparting an aura of mystery.

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At one spot you emerge from a woodland path and find yourself gazing at a “full moon” bridge.

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The sight of these precipitous stone steps put me in mind of a Mayan temple.

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There is something remarkably evocative about this composition: moss, fern, smooth stone lantern, and craggy rock. I wish I could articulate what it was. Maybe the mix of contrast and similarity?

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As I said earlier, the main color you get in a Japanese summer garden is lots of green. However, that single color is far from monotonous.

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Another pond is full of water lilies.

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Here a viewing platform looks out over a slope full of mounding Azaleas.

Koishikawa Korakuen was our introduction to Japanese gardens in Japan (as opposed to Japanese gardens in the USA). The feeling of calm there, of a self-contained world, is remarkable. And it was the first time we noted a powerful sense of place, rooted in centuries, that we would experience again in other gardens.

47 Comments on “Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens”

  1. That is a lovely example of a Japanese garden to begin your trip. The traditional style seems so natural, not at all contrived, unlike some of the Japanese gardens outside of Japan. That feeling of calm is something I would like to capture in my own garden one day. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the tour! I especially like the last paragraph and “The feeling of calm there, of a self-contained world, is remarkable. And it was the first time we noted a powerful sense of place, rooted in centuries, that we would experience again in other gardens.” That is how I have always envisioned Japanese gardens, and it’s nice to know that my imaginings are correct.

  3. I really enjoyed visiting this garden vicariously. To create such a sense of calm in the middle of a city as busy as Tokyo — that’s a huge accomplishment.

    As you know, I’m interested in the use of words and signs in gardens and am curious about your response to the ones here. Assuming they were only in Japanese, how did that make you feel? Did you want to know what they said? If you knew, do you think your experience of the place would be different? How? If you could read the poems, did the words add or subtract from your experience? I’d love to have any comments from you or Judy on the subject generally.

    • I’ll send you some pics of the signs. They were painted onto wooden stakes. I’d guess that for most Japanese, the poetic references are well known. They didn’t do a lot for me as I had no context for understanding them. I also wonder about the quality of the translations (they were mostly in both Japanese and English).

  4. Japanese gardens always inspire in me this sort of meditative quality – they are so elegantly simple and beautiful, and really encapsulate the principle of wabi-sabi that governs traditional Japanese aesthetics. (The sign cracked me up though!) Thank you for all those lovely pictures 🙂

  5. Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is very beautiful, and thank you for taking us on tour with you. I loved the snapping turtle photo. There were many snappers around where I grew up.

    The worst humidity I ever experienced was New Orleans in August. I went down there for a wedding. I felt so sorry for the bride and groom.

  6. This is first chance I’ve had to “tour” your Japanese gardens. I’ve worked backwards from the Emperor’s. You showed us an appetizer with a path from this one when you were in Tokyo in August. I find I like the tranquility and mystery of this garden most, although the clouded trees in #3? were fascinating.

  7. I enjoyed your photos of this wonderful garden. The sign warning about the soft-shelled turtle intrigued me. The same turtle lurks in the lagoons around the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the warnings are apt. These turtles are aggressive and are far more likely to bite than a snapping turtle is. Unless it is disturbed, of course.

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