Brilliant foliage colours beneath rope and bamboo teepees make for unforgettable images at one of Japan’s most famous gardens.
Words and pictures: Robin Powell
In Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan, it snows almost every day in January and February. The average annual snowfall in the city is more than two and a half metres, enough to break branches from trees and smother shrubs. So on November 1 each year, the city’s most famous garden, Kenrokuen, starts preparing for the onslaught. Trees are shielded by a rope teepee called a yuki-turi, which breaks the snowfall. Smaller shrubs, including azaleas and berberis, are wrapped in corsets of rope to prevent them collapsing under weighty blankets of snow. Delicate herbaceous plants are shielded from the cold with thick doonas of raked leaves or pine needles. In late autumn, the ropes and supports are counterpoints to the brilliance of the leaf colour.
The intricate preparations are typical of the care lavished on Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most famous gardens. It was set out in the 17th century but wasn’t called Kenrokuen until 1822. The name means ‘Garden of the Six Qualities' a reference to the garden ideals described by the 11th century Song dynasty poet Li Gefei: flowing water and scenic views; spaciousness and seclusion; ingenuity and an air of antiquity. Kenrokuen has them all.
Kenrokuen’s classical design was part of a cultural program by the Maeda clan who were the long-time rulers of Kaga, now Ishikawa prefecture. Under close scrutiny from the ruling Tokagawa shogunate in Edo, the Maeda chose to demonstrate power through culture rather than castle fortifications and war-mongering. Famous artists and craftsmen were lured west and lavishly patronised. As a result Kaga developed its own styles of ceramic ware, as well as expertise in gold leaf, lacquer and glass (all of which makes Kanazawa a great place to shop!). Even the thimbles of the court ladies became minutely detailed artworks in a culture that honored craftsmanship. Kenrokuen’s classicism was a way for the Maeda clan, to demonstrate its sophistication to the new powers in Edo, and the old elites in Kyoto.
Water and views
Legend has it that 1200 years ago a peasant stopped to wash his potatoes in a spring. As he bent to the water, gold flakes suddenly bubbled to the surface giving Kanazawa its name, Marsh of Gold (and a good excuse for trying the gold leaf-topped soft serves sold around the city!).The well is now the oldest object in Kenrokuen but not the only source of water.Underground tunnels bring gravity-fed water almost two kilometres from the Saigawa River to fill the streams, a waterfall and two large ponds. From the top pond there is a view of the Sea of Japan and the Noto Peninsula, and of mountains that in spring are fringed with cherry blossom and topped with snow, and in autumn are ringed in colour.
Space and seclusion
The garden is a large stroll garden, with vistas at every turn, but the little details also catch your eye: delicate little water features, beautiful stone lanterns, a pavilion in the shape of a boat, all manner of desirable fences and character-filled rocks, a maple growing horizontally over a pond, like an arm lazily drawing fingers through the water. There are seats cosily snuck in under trees, but even better is enjoying the seclusion of one of the several tea houses in the garden. For a few dollars choose either powdered green tea, matcha, or the roasted tea, called houji-cha, which is the regional specialty, served in a tatami room by a kimono-clad server moving as gracefully as a ripple on a pond.
Ingenuity and antiquity
The oldest fountain in Japan soars 3.5m into the air, entirely fed by gravity, a feature which is both ingenious and antique. Antique too, are the collection of 200 plums of 20 different varieties, and the famous Karasaki Pine, planted from seed collected near Lake Biwa by the 13th Maeda lord in the early 19th century. Ingenuity is everywhere you look. Despite the garden’s size and age, there’ll be ideas - from pruning tips to planting combinations - that you’ll be taking home to try.
Focus changes in the garden with the seasons. In spring the soft pink confetti of the cherry blossom drifts gently into the streams. Later in the season irises bloom along the banks and domes of azalea are vividly bright, then hydrangeas in blue and pink flower under a green canopy. In autumn, the moss is sprinkled with russet pine needles and butter-yellow gingko leaves, and the maples glow red, orange and gold. Girls in rented kimono photograph themselves against a backdrop of brilliant foliage and the soaring maypole forms of the yuki-turi. Winter is coming, but first there is autumn to enjoy.
Come with us
Kenorokuen features in both our spring and autumn Japan itineraries. More info www.rosstours.com/enquiries or call 1300 233 200 for details.