In A Japanese Country Garden

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 in Okayama, Travel Volunteer Journey | 4 Comments
In A Japanese Country Garden

A lifetime ago we were in the city of Kanazawa. It was a hot day, there was a TV crew, and a small crowd of strangers eyeing each other with suspicion poorly disguised as casual politeness. Later that day we were all to endure the tension of the selection process, but at this time, we were supposed to be enjoying a garden… as much as we could through the jetlag, the heat and nervousness.

Still, the splendour of Kenroku-en did manage to pierce all that. Little did we know, but this was the first of Japan’s three great gardens that we would visit in the next couple of months. Looking back, it’s no surprise it’s held in such high regard. It looked precisely like the Japan of our dreams, all neatly trimmed trees, heavily tiled roofs and monstrous carp jawing at the surface of a glassy lake.

Then there were the ancient trees, giant marionettes being held up by wooden stilts to stop them from plunging into the earth, and death. It was, as we remember, a strange and unnatural site: these haggard old things not being allowed to keel as they wanted. For their part, the trees made no complaints, they just leaned on the sticks and looked pretty in the sweltering morning light.

It was so beautiful, in fact, that it probably gave us a slightly false impression of gardens in Japan – we thought they must all be like that. Of course, while repeating the sheer vastness of the Kanazawa garden across Japan would be impossible, we’ve since found out that there are plenty of well-kept gardens and courtyards all over the country. People love it, despite the unholy expense of it all.

Even when we next found something on such a scale – and the second of the Greats – it really wasn’t as impressive as our first experience. Perhaps we were never going to like Kairaku-en, in Mito City, what with everything else that was on our minds. But even if we could have eliminated the knowledge that we were surrounded by natto, I just don’t think Ibaraki’s offering is as good. At least not in mid-autumn when we visited.

Kairaku-en is said to be perhaps the most magical of all the great gardens in spring when the plum trees drown the place in lush pink. Looking at photos, it appears as though Paris Hilton has flown overhead and unleashed the contents of her skull over several acres of the park land. (The results are much better than that sounds.)

Alas, not while we were there, when the trees were bare, the ground dusty and – maybe this was just our brains playing tricks – the sour reek of natto hung on the breeze.

Today in Okayama prefecture, we visited the last of the three gardens, Koraku-en, in the heart of Okayama city. By far the oldest of the three, it was finished in 1700, and has had to endure more travails than the other two combined. Severely damaged by floods in 1934, it was then nearly lost again just 11 years later when the Allied forces brought their own kind of hellish rain. Today, though, it’s in much better shape: over 130,000 square metres of stunning greenery in the middle of the city, topped off beautifully by the Okayama castle in the background. We’d love to show and tell you more, but I was ravaged by a mystery bug, which forced us all into a sharp exit and left me unable to focus on much more than the ground, which seemed to be melting between my feet.

The only solution is to visit them for yourself.


Our time in Okayama prefecture was made possible by:

The Nishie family who have done a fine job of looking after their inter-generational mansion and who kindly showed us the art of bengara dying. It was one of those afternoons when everyone was a little frustrated that we couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t communicate. Also, well-done to them for using Fukushima silk in their products and trying to promote the beleaguered prefecture to visitors.

Both Ms Togawa and Mr Kawai from the Okayama prefectural office for showing us around, picking up the tab for lunch and driving us in the Okayama-mobile. OK it might not have been the Batmobile, but it was a nice treat and a break from riding trains every day.

Miss Shuri Kimura and Mr Yukuo Murata, our guides over the two days, who took the time to explain the merits of this little-visited prefecture. We’re glad they did – it’s got loads of surprises, especially Kurashiki, also known as “Baby Kyoto”. If the real thing is a patch of this lovely, time-travelling little town, we’re in for a treat.

The historic La Foret, a bastion of tradition in the Okayama countryside. The Edo-period building looks over a fellow historic structure, the Fukiya elementary school, the oldest in Japan. It was a bitter, cold night when we were up there, but snuggling into the cosy room made it much more fun.

The ever-reliable Granvia Hotel Okayama, perched as always right next to the station in Okayama. It’s great to be able to check in knowing that a comfortable bed awaits tonight, and a great breakfast will be there tomorrow.
















  1. Natalie Neal
    November 10, 2011

    Every time we visit Japan we search out the gardens—the famous ones, of course, and the simple neighborhood places that provide a welcome refuge from the bustle of city life. We found Kenroku-en to be a very special place.

  2. Mariko
    November 11, 2011

    I think this is what the word “beauty” truly refrects. As Japanese, it’s so odd i have never been to any of the gardens, I know I am soooo missing out a lot and your photos even make me emotional to know there is so much beauty in the country and it has to be preserved for many years to come…

  3. Mini
    December 13, 2011

    Sorry to hear you guys were not impressed by Mito/Ibaraki. As you say, the place is a bit bland for short-stayers. Kairaku-en is different from the other two parks because it’s always been an unassuming ‘people’s park’ and the public can roam freely. My mother told me people used to go there and picked bamboo shoots to eat… It’s less ‘made up’ because it’s overlooking a natural lake, no need to create artificial ones. The best time is the plum and cherry blossom season. I took my Kiwi husband in April and the park and the surrounds were all pink with cherry blossoms, beautiful. We found many other fun things to go/do in Ibaraki, like trying zen meditation at temples, pottery, waterfalls, hot springs, tea & konnyaku making, and a vast seaside botanic garden. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do these interesting things if you don’t speak Japanese…

  4. Violet
    February 5, 2012

    Okayama is my favorite prefecture! So beautiful and so much variety in sights!