Ritsurin-koen, Shikoku 栗林公園

Mark Brazil

Japan's best are typically touted in threes, and the top three gardens are repeatedly referred to as: Kenroku-en, Kairaku-en and Koraku-en.

As a regular visitor to the first, in Kanazawa and the third, in Okayama, I can vouch for their scale, scope and reputation.

Only Mito city's offering has escaped me so far, but instead I have visited a range of other gardens each vying for a worldwide reputation. One that is deservedly "up there" amongst the very best, is that known as Ritsurin-koen, in the city of Takamatsu on Japan's fourth main island of Shikoku.

Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
Ritsurin-koen, Takamatsu, Shikoku
Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
Takamatsu's Ritsurin-koen is a jewel, nestling at the foot of forested hills

History of Kenrokuen

Begun in about 1625 by Ikoma Takatoshi, the feudal lord of what was then called Sanuki (now Takamatsu), construction was taken over in 1642 by Matsudaira Yorishige.

However, it was to take more than a century before its final completion, by Lord Matsudaira Yoritaka in 1745. For more than another 100 years it was the private retreat of the Matsudaira family, but following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 it was ultimately designated as a prefectural park and in 1875 it was opened to the public for the first time.

In 1953, Ritsurin-koen was designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty (Nihon no Tokubetsu Meisho), and is well deserving of that title.

Not only is this 16 ha strolling garden on a grand scale but it is also contiguous with a range of low, forested hills conveying the impression that the garden is endless. This incorporation of the view of Mt Shiun beyond the garden to the west, is a device often used in Japanese gardens, even those on a very much smaller scale, and is known as a "borrowed view".

This technique adds considerably to the success of the placing of the park's many mounds and six ponds. Combined with the plantings of Black Pines and flowering plants, the 13 carefully placed artificial hills guarantee that at each turn, almost at each step, the scenery changes and is reflected in the still waters of the equally carefully located ponds.

It is when the early Edo era (c1640) teahouse known as Kikugetsu-tei comes into view beside one of the ponds that the scene becomes one of exquisite elegance. This is surely one of the most beautiful classical gardens of Japan. The paths encourage strolling and the many corners and unfolding scenes invite contemplation, but the teahouse was located particularly for enjoying the full moon in autumn.

Ritsurin-koen, Takamatsu.
Grand vistas relax the eye at Ritsurin-koen, Takamatsu
Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
Simple, even austere, architecture complements the lavish growth of the forest and the confined tree forms created  by generations of gardeners

While the southern part of the garden is in classical Japanese style, the northern part of the park, has undergone major restoration work, and is now in a Western-style.

Strolling around the garden can be done in one or two hours, but the park is worthy of spending much longer. After all, this is Takamatsu's number one tourist destination and there are many views to admire, including those of and from the various bridges across the ponds, there are folk arts and crafts exhibits to visit, and of course the exquisite teahouse where bitter powdered green tea can be sipped in preparation for a meditative contemplation of the breathtaking scenery.

It is worth saving some time to admire the colourful koi (carp) in the ponds, the carefully trimmed black pines, and to simply sit and soak up the garden's wonderful ambience.

Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
No better place to relax or meditate than the Ritsurin-koen tea house
Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
Multi-coloured carp swarm to be fed in the pond at Ritsurin-koen

Ritsurin-koen Access

To reach Ritsurin-koen (1-20-16 Ritsurin-cho, Takamatsu-shi, Kagawa Prefecture) one can travel by Shinkansen from Tokyo to Okayama (taking in Koraku-en while there perhaps), then by rapid train to Takamatsu.

There are also buses and ferries between Kobe and Takamatsu. The park is an easily walked two kilometers from JR Takamatsu Station, although there are also local buses and trains with stops closer to the park. The park is open daily throughout the year from sunrise to sunset and the entrance fee is a modest 400 yen.

Some recommended hotels in Takamatsu are the 3-star Chisun Inn, the 2-star Toyoko Inn and the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Takamatsu. The Hotel Sanyuso is right at Ritsurin Park.

Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan.
The garden flows effortlessly into the 'borrowed' forest view

Ritsurin-koen Video

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