Koishikawa Kōrakuen and Rikugien Gardens.

Koishikawa Kōrakuen 小石川後楽園

We arrived at Koishikawa Kōrakuen fifteen minutes before opening. When we eventually entered, it seemed we were also too early for the bright autumn colours this garden is famous for. The maples, though beginning to turn, with smatterings of fiery colour, remained mostly verdant. Ah, well. Shouganai – can’t be helped. We were here, and the garden was still ridiculously beautiful.

Arriving so early also meant we had the garden mostly to ourselves. Other than a handful of sweet elderly Japanese couples up for an early morning sanpo (stroll), the garden was mainly inhabited by the khaki-clad, wellington-wearing gardeners, who began their early morning duties clearing the pond in front of the Tsuten-kyo bridge. This wooden bridge, coloured bright orange, is one of the scenic highlights of the garden. It stands in stark contrast to the lush greenery, until the peak of autumn when the leaves turn to match its tone. I wished I could have seen it during peak autumn colour.

Originally built in 1629, the early stages of the Edo period, it employs Kaiyu-style (circuit style), with ponds, stones, and manmade hills, along a network of walking routes to established viewpoints centring on the large central pond. It also employs elements of Japanese and Chinese tastes, examples of the latter being the name ‘Kōrakuen’, derived from the Chinese text ‘Gakuyo-ki’ by Fan Zhongyan, and features such as the Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge), a semi-circular bridge that appears whole when reflected in the water.

Despite being close to the Tokyo Dome, and surrounded by skyscrapers peeking over the canopy, Kōrakuen retains the sense of being a place of peace. It’s an oasis of well-tended nature within a sprawling urban jungle, and I’m always impressed, and a little envious, of how the Japanese manage to fit these islands of nature and tradition into an ever developing metropolis. Kōrakuen made it easy to ignore the outside world.

We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the grounds, and as we wend our way, the clouds cleared, and the morning sunshine turned what had been a slightly grey and chilly day into one of warmth and colour. In the central island, a heron sat stock-still on a rock, sunning itself. We walked past a group of elderly photographers in fold-out chairs, long lenses aimed at the lone bird, patiently waiting for a shot. Other than a few tourist, most visitors were elderly Japanese enjoying their retirement years. Most everyone else at this time would be holed up at work.

Rikugien 六義園

We visited Rikugien on same day as Koishikawa Kōrakuen and, here too, we were too early for the best of the autumn colours. Still, the leaves in Rikugien were a little further along, with a gentle smattering of warm orange amidst the foliage.

It was just past midday, and we found the garden well-populated with visitors; the warmth of the afternoon, and the season, luring people in. On the benches near the entrance, elderly couples sat nibbling on sandwiches and onigiri from their packed-lunch, taking a break from a lovely morning sanpo.

Rikugien is another typical example of an Edo period strolling garden, with a large central pond and a network of paths leading around the landscape, up to viewing points on man-made hills. Stepping onto its grounds is a step back in time. Rikugien is regarded as one of Tokyo’s most representative gardens. Largely unchanged from days it was founded, it has survived disasters such as the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, escaped World War II unscathed. It stands in the centre of bustling Tokyo as a serene time capsule of traditional beauty.

Photo by @jsevilla

Our tour of the garden took us an hour and a half, including little breaks at viewing points or sit downs in wooden huts. It was a perfectly peaceful afternoon; I felt I could have happily fallen asleep had I sat in the shade of a tree, despite the considerable number of visitors – though, that may have just been jet lag. We hit all the major viewing spots: Fukiage Chaya, where we saw friendly female staff members encouraging camera-wielding tourists in for a drink, Togetsukyo Bridge, an elegant bridge constructed with long stone slabs, and up Fujishiro-toge hill, where you get the premier view of the garden. Afterwards, we retreated to the tea house close to the entrance for matcha tea and a pleasant sit in the shade, amongst the oji-san and oba-san, who were also resting their legs.

I saw more young people out and about than I had at Korakuen earlier in the morning, the midday sunlight bringing out students with free time, and tourists. Many were young couples, enjoying each others’ company in the sunny autumn tranquility. Japanese gardens are definitely romantic places; relaxed and idyllic, ideal for dates, and as we sat, we picked out pairs of lovers and observed them as they strolled along in a world of their own. One couple seemed shy and ill-at-ease, probably newly acquainted, barely getting close with awkward smiles on their faces. Meanwhile, a Chinese couple walked in front of us wearing matching camo-coloured coats, chatting loudly and comfortably, with their arms firmly around each others’ waists.

We, too, were a young couple. Though, after a night of little sleep and a whole mornings’ walking, we felt the elderly Japanese we were surrounded by had more get-up-and-go than us. Jen passed me the cup of matcha and asked me to finish it, then we took our leave.

Photo by @jsevilla

I greatly enjoyed visiting Koishikawa Kōrakuen and Rikugien, which are both stunningly beautiful, but I do regret that we visited them on the same day. Looking back, after a number of months have passed, it takes me a little while to mentally separate images and musings from each garden and place them correctly. While they each have their own unique, captivating landmarks, there are also numerous similarities. Both are Edo period gardens of similar size and design. Even their tourist leaflets have identical designs, due to them both being among the group of nine gardens overseen by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association. II’d happily visit these gardens again, but it would definitely be on different days, and later in November, for the best of the koyo (autumn colour).

Thankfully, the autumn leaves for the rest of the trip did not disappoint.

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