Koishikawa Korakuen

Unexpected fall scene in traditional Japanese garden


Tokyo palm trees with ginko leaves are not most foreigners’ image of the typical Japanese fall landscape.

I love this juxtaposition of Tokyo’s most common, self-seeding palm tree named Shuro (シュロ, or Trachycarpus fortunei) and fallen yellow ginko leaves. Most people think of fall as defined by maple leaves turning red, or winter as pine trees. This unexpected combination of ginko and palm is an alternative juxtaposition of deciduous and evergreen.

This photo is from “Shuro hill” at Tokyo’s oldest Japanese garden, Koishikawa Korakuen (小石川小楽園), created in the early Edo period by the second Tokugawa ruler. This area is also called “Kiso yama,”with the mountain, path, and stream designed to evoke the Kyoto highway. This is but one of many garden scenes that miniaturize famous places in Japan and China. My appreciation of this garden is indebted to the passion and knowledge shared by my professor Suzuki Makoto who gives the most extraordinary tour.

This last image shows the juxtaposition between this nearly 400 year old garden and modern Tokyo. In the background are Tokyo Dome (right) and the Bunkyo ward office (left). Many of the garden structures were destroyed during the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, and the garden reduced in size by post-war development.

Despite its abbreviated size, the garden is large enough that only later did I realize I forgot to see the rice paddy on the north side. The loud bird cries indicate that this garden is a critical nature sanctuary in a crowded city.

A tour of Koishikawa Korakuen with Suzuki Sensei

Professor Suzuki Makoto at Koishikawa Korakuen

I had the great pleasure to view Koishikawa Korakuen with Professor Suzuki Makoto of the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Along with Hama Rikyu in Tokyo, and Rokuonji Temple (Golden Pavilion), Jishoji Temple (Silver Pavilion), and Daigoji in Kyoto, this garden is one of five gardens in Japan that have been designated as both special historical site and special scenic spot under the Cultural Assets Preservation Act in 1952.

Koishikawa Korakuen Lone Pine

Professor Suzuki was leading a class of foreign students in Environment and Landscape in Japan, and I was very impressed by his deep knowledge and careful attention for his students. Exhorting his students to “use their imagination” and “listen to the birds,” Suzuki sensei organized the walking tour from Inner Garden to Outer Garden, and pointed out where the daimiyo’s house and three quarters of the original estate had been replaced by the massive sports and entertainment complex called Tokyo Dome.

Suzuki Sensei’s tour highlighted three key aspects of the Japanese Garden: 

1. A plethora of historic and literary allusions. Begun in 1629, Koishikawa Korakuen was completed by the second lord Mitsukuni of the Mito Tokugawa family with the guidance of Shu Shunsui, a Confucian scholar and refugee from China. The name Koraku, “meaning “delight afterwards,” comes from a Chinese text in Hanchuen’s “Gakuyoro-ki.” Specific sections in the garden evoke the Chinese Rozan mountain and Lake Saiko, and the Oikawa River in Kyoto.

2. Miniaturizations and variety.  The garden’s twisting paths and changes in elevation allow the visitor to experience miniaturizations of built and natural environments including a castle moat, Confucian full moon bridge, Kyoto’s Togetsukyo bridge and Kiyomizu Temple, a shrine, and an Edo-era drinking house. In roughly 70,000 square meters, one also experiences forest, mountain, river, lake, rice field, and plum orchard. Large stones in the path, which Suzuki Sensei called “articulation stones,” signal the shift from one landscape to another.

3. All of Japan in one compact space. Suzuki sensei displayed his own illustration of how Koishikawa Korakuen embodies the archetype of Japan’s island landscape, which goes from ocean to pine forest to hills and mountains. 

I feel very fortunate that Suzuki Sensei has agreed to be the host for my Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi fellowship.

Professor Suzuki Makoto at Koishikawa Korakuen

Pruning and care

Pine at Koishikawa Korakuen

Care for cultivated plants ranges from professional pruning to amateur attention. This pine tree is from the entrance to Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Japan’s five most treasured historical  gardens. 

From formal gardens to native plants, different urban plants and settings require different levels of care. The pruning of a formal garden sets the highest standard. However, I am also impressed how Tokyo municipal trees are pruned by groups of trained arborists. This is in contrast to the US, where it seems that municipal governments offer the briefest training and chain saws to low-salaried workers.

The standards set by highly refined garden pruning, plus professional public tree pruning, have an impact on ordinary gardens. Perhaps it is a combination of expert technique, aesthetic style, and also on-going care for plant life, form and beauty.