Last month, I took a photography trip to Japan led by the incomparable Sam Abell. Our itinerary was unusual since most of the cities we visited were off the beaten track for most tourists, and I didn’t expect it to include any memorable gardens, especially since we weren’t headed to Kyoto, known for its stunning public and private gardens.
To my delight, I quickly discovered how wrong I was. In almost every city we visited, there was at least one breathtaking garden, often associated with a local temple, whether small or large. And in Kanazawa (located on the Sea of Japan in north central Honshu island), we spent most of a day exploring Kenrokuen, which is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens.
In 1985, Kenrokuen was designated as a National Site of Special Scenic Beauty by the government (having been merely a “place of scenic beauty” for several decades prior to that). Its construction began in the late 1600’s as part of the feudal lord Maeda Tsunanori’s creation of a garden adjacent to Kanzawa Castle. “Kenrokuen” means “having six factors,” and refers to six attributes considered by the Chinese and Japanese to create a perfect landscape: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water sources, and a magnificent panoramic view. This garden, which extends over 25 acres in size, has them all.
Although we encountered rain off and on during our visit (not surprising given Kanazawa’s reputation as a “distinctly wet” city with over 190 days of rain a year), we enjoyed taking in the peak fall color of the leaves and watching the gardening staff taking part in yukitsuri. Yukitsuri, which literally means “snow hanging,” is the name for the annual process in which garden staff erect ropes in a conical shape over garden trees and shrubs in order to create structure to keep their branches from breaking in the wet, heavy snow the region gets every year. The resulting structures are not only practically useful but aesthetically appealing – a ‘win-win’ situation for garden visitors. The pine trees, in particular, are carefully taken care of; there is one that is over 200 years old and has many of its lower branches supported by sturdy wooden ‘props.’
Kenrokuen is visited year-round by many people, especially now that bullet train service is available from Tokyo. In the winter, the landscape must be breathtaking in snow. Spring brings cherry trees, azaleas and irises in bloom, and in summer the landscape views are all green and lush. In fall, when we visited, the trees are ablaze with golds, reds and yellows of countless varieties of Japanese maples. And year-round there are ponds to visit, paths to stroll, and teahouses placed for their views and to offer sustenance and contemplation for the visitor. By the time I left, at the end of the day, I had resolved to return in another season, and I hope you will be intrigued by these images to consider a similar resolve.
Kenrokuen Garden is located in Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan. It is open year-round from 7 am to 6 pm during March to mid-October, and from 8 am to 5 pm from October 16th to the end of February. Admission fees vary (free for senior citizens with ID). More information can be found on its website.