There is no shortage of gardens in Japan. Although large Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka look more like heartless urban centres surrounded by concrete structures, in such places too one can easily locate charming gardens even in tiny places that might otherwise seem to be choked up by high rise buildings touching the clouds high above. As the concept of gardening in Japan and China varies significantly from our own understanding, in Japan a total absence of any flower can also turn a place into a magnificent garden bound to attract the attention of even those who are not very keen about that particular form of art.
The oldest description of a Japanese garden can be found in the Manyoshu, or a ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Pages,’ a major poetry anthology compiled around 760 containing the works of court poets and commoners. In one of the entries Prince Kusakabe, a son of Emperor Temmu, admires a ‘piece of land with a pond edged with rocks and an island in the middle, surrounded by azalea bushes’. Garden in Japan emerged as an art form later in the early ninth century and was influenced by the Chinese method. Pond and artificial islands still remain essential elements of Japanese garden and the concept has expanded its scope further with the inclusion of artificial hills, bridges connecting the islands, rocks and stone lamps.
The main city of Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture, Kanazawa, is famous for being a castle town. In addition to the majestic Kanazawa Castle, the city has also preserved many of its historical images including some of its Edo period neighborhoods, where visitors can still move around old Samurai houses lining beside narrow winding streets. However, for the city, the center of attraction is the Kenrokuen Garden, the private garden of the lord of Kaga domain. Kenrokuen is one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. The winter landscape of the garden is particularly appealing because of a practice known as yukitsuri, in which the branches of old pine trees are tied with ropes to poles and thus forming a distinct characteristic not seen anywhere else in Japan. The method of tiding pine trees keeps the branches of the trees from breaking off under the weight of heavy winter snow. As Ishikawa is situated along the coast of the Sea of Japan, the region is also well known for heavy snowfall during the winter.
Kobori Enshu, who was a famous master of tea ceremony, warrior, calligrapher, gardener and architect, originally created the Kenrokuen Garden in seventeenth century. It was later expanded and developed over by the Maeda clan, lords of the Kaga area for which Kanazawa served as the castle town. Located art the foot of the castle, Kenrokuen gradually became the castle garden and was expanded further over the period of time.
Kanazawa Castle is located on the height of a rocky spur that served as a natural defensive feature during Japan’s turbulent period of early feudalism. But the downside of that defensive advantage was the difficulty to get water to the castle, especially to fight a fire that was all too common in old Japan. The great fire of 1631, which was fanned by strong winds, destroyed many buildings inside the castle and a solution to the problem became urgent. The 3rd Maeda lord devised a plan to run water all the way down to the castle from the upper reaches of the Sai River. This eventually provided with plentiful supply of water to use in landscaping of the castle garden with reservoirs that gradually formed an extensive system of ponds and streams of the Kenrokuen Garden.
The garden is a strolling landscape with many ponds and hills representing nature. Kenrokuen is laid on a wide scale, offering much open tranquility, expanded vistas of light and deep space, designed to deny the existence of privacy. It contains the “six desirable features” of a garden that ancient Chinese tradition says a garden can aspire. Grouped in complimentary pairs, they are spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, watercourses and panoramas. A combination of all these six sublime qualities can easily turn a garden into a garden of heaven and Kenrokuen definitely belongs to the group of few such rarities.
As the garden has developed over a period of more than three hundred years, many of its features were added in the process of that long journey. But there are still a number of trees dating back to its early period, thick concentration of moss covering the roots of old pine trees add further beauty to the sublimity they represent. One particular feature the garden is also famous for is a garden lantern placed between the shore and the large pond famous for its evaporating mist. Known as Kotoji Lantern, it also carries its own story. The lamp was originally built for its placement in the garden on land area. But on way its transportation to the location, one of its two legs were broken and instead of joining the broken leg, which might have distorted the beauty, the gardeners decided to place the longer leg inside the pond and the shorter one on the shore. The harmony thus created added an extra essence that later became one of the most well known trademarks of Kenrokuen Garden.