Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Visit to Kenrokuen Garden

We spent the last couple of weeks in Japan visiting my wife’s family. While we were there we went to visit one of the 3 most famous gardens in Japan known as Kenrokuen. It is situated in Kanazawa, which is the largest city in Ishikawa prefecture where my wife’s parents live, which is on the west coast of Japan’s main Island of Honshu (north of Osaka).

From what I understand the garden was first established in the 1600’s. It was a private garden belonging to a Japanese Lord and was first opened to the public in 1874. However the garden was only designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty as recently as 1922, and a National Site of Special Scenic Beauty as recently as 1985 which put it in the top 3 in Japan, and deservedly so. 

I’ve been inspired in many ways by the Japanese approach to gardening which I first came to appreciate when I visited Japan for the first time back in 1990. The first thing you notice is that the Japanese are meticulous in their attention to detail and no effort is spared when it comes to maintaining things of beauty, even sweeping moss off the pebbles on the floor of a meandering stream (as pictured below).

I’ve tried to incorporate into my own garden the various ideas I’ve gleaned from my observations in Japan.

These are a few of the fundamental observations I’ve made of Japanese gardens:

1. They pay special attention to detail when trimming hedges and pruning trees. They’re not afraid of severe pruning where necessary. Even towering pine trees do not escape the attention of the meticulous Japanese gardener.
2. They make sure that all the gardens features are clearly defined including trees, shrubs, pathways, and other landscaping features, including water features and garden ornaments.
3. They make good use of a variety of materials including stone, brick, and timber - even bamboo and ceramic tiles.
4. They keep the design of any landscaping elements as simple as possible.
5. They make the best possible use of every last inch of space.

This is the second time I’ve visited the Kenrokuen garden. Last time I visited was springtime 18 years ago so there was a lot more colour and flowers to be seen compared to this Autumn visit. But even without the blooms and the colours there was beauty to be found in the rich tapestry of form, texture and the majestic vistas they produce, even if only in various shades of green.

Last time we came here my daughter was only 5 years old. She doesn’t remember our visit all those years ago so it was a completely new experience for her this time, which she thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve been hoping my love of gardening will rub off on her eventually.


  1. Beautiful gardens. I love Japanese style gardens. I don't think I will bother to de-moss any creek beds though

  2. Something else I saw while on a bus tour in Osaka was a team of 4 or 5 uniformed gardeners all at various heights on a scaffold working on a pine tree, no doubt pruning it to look like a traditional Japanese bonsai (a full size one). Unfortunately I was too slow and couldn't get a picture of it.

    I've got a 90 foot high pine tree at the back of my place and am considering giving it the Japanese treatment – just for fun!

    I'll need to get a longer ladder first though — and maybe some climbing gear.

  3. Japanese gardens have always inspired me when it comes to starting to get back into gardening again. They leave no stone unturned, especially when it comes to their home garden areas inside. They can create bliss out of simplicity and silence, unlike American gardens which are just landscapes.

    -Ken Nicely

  4. You're quite right Ken – thanks for your comment. There's a lot we can learn from the Japanese.

    Of course, space is at a premium in Japan as some 80% of their population (currently at 127 million) is living on only 20% of their land area. Japan is actually a very mountainous country and they seem to favour living mostly in the valleys. As space is so limited it's not surprising that they make the best possible use of the space that's available. I'm not sure if that's how miniature bonsai gardening got started but that would certainly make sense.

    It's amazing how many gardens you find on the rooves of tall buildings.