“Konnichiwa, dozo!” the boatman exclaims cheerily as he hands me a conical-shaped hat made of straw like the one he is wearing — a sugegasa, as it is called in Japanese. Traditionally these hats were worn to shield the wearer from rain and harsh sun. Admittedly, I hesitate, feeling a bit silly.
As the four other passengers enthusiastically don their sugegasa and climb into the wasen (small wooden boat), I shrug. When in Rome! I throw on the hat and climb in. A moment later, our boat pilot pushes off with his long wooden pole, launching us out onto the calm pond water, leaving a trail of tiny ripples behind us. This is a wonderfully novel way of exploring Ritsurin Garden, one of Japan’s premiere historical gardens. Touring the garden by boat gives an entirely new perspective from walking the park’s paths, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the exquisite craftsmanship that has gone into this 400-year-old masterpiece. It’s no surprise that it’s been designated a Special Place of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese government, and received France’s perfect score of three stars in their Michelin Green Guide to Japan.
Once reserved for the societal elite, Ritsurin Garden dates back to the late 16th century. The garden was closed to the public for most of its history and served as a villa for the ruling Matsudaira clan for 228 years. It wasn’t until 1875 that the rest of us plebs were allowed in!
As we float along in the shallow pond, the koi fish dance and dart around us as we make our way down the narrow channel toward the main area. Our guide, standing at the rear of the boat, dips his head as we pass under a low bridge and out into one of the loveliest parts of the garden — an area called Nanko, or South Pond.
The scene is breathtaking. The boatman, who is busily explaining in Japanese the history of the park, pauses, perhaps sensing our collective awe. We pass by a crescent-shaped bridge, and around a small island fringed with perfectly manicured greenery. In the distance, I spot a traditional teahouse that looks out over the pond. Taking in this perfect scene, I felt transported back in time.
Stepping out of the boat and reluctantly handing back my new favorite fashion accessory, I allow myself to wander off and get lost in the massive green space. Ritsurin Garden presents many fork-in-the-road moments, but don’t worry — there’s no wrong answer. At your leisure, you can discover the six ponds, 13 landscaped hills, and many strategically arranged rock formations en route to the centerpiece of the park — the crescent-moon-shaped bridge called Engetsukyo.
This particular scene at Engetsukyo exemplifies the Japanese aesthetic of “borrowed scenery,” known as shakkei, with the tree-covered Mt. Shiun in the background providing the perfect garden backdrop. The mountain is showing its first signs of fall, as its verdant greens begin to make their seasonal change to fiery reds and bold golds.
While Ritsurin Park boasts many maple trees that come to life in the fall, it’s the luscious pine trees that attract visitors year round. With over 1,400 pines, 1,000 of which are carefully manicured by gardeners daily, it’s no wonder Ritsurin Garden is Japan’s foremost pine garden. If you’re lucky, you will happen upon the gardeners in their element, as they sculpt over 300-year-old bonsai trees into living works of art.
The 185 acre garden can be seen comfortably in a few hours, but you could just as easily spend the whole day meandering through it. While I appreciated the suggested route signs in English, the park is perhaps best enjoyed by treading your own self-guided trail. Featured inside the park are various facilities to explore, such as a folk museum, shops, and traditional teahouses where you can take a load off your feet, and enjoy a hot cup of matcha (powdered green tea) while overlooking one of the ponds.
Traversing the network of interconnecting footpaths, I make my way to the best vantage point in the park — a small hill in the south-west corner named Hiraihou. If you are looking for the iconic postcard shot of the crescent bridge, head here. The picture-perfect scene is even more awe-inspiring in person.
On top of all the natural beauty, at this moment the photo gods smile on me. I can’t believe my luck as two young newlyweds in full traditional Japanese marriage regalia saunter onto the bridge and take center stage. The graceful couple in their wedding attire match the surroundings perfectly. At the bottom of the hill near the bridge is a popular rest area. Children playfully throw bread crumbs and laugh with delight as the koi thrash about in a bid to secure the tasty morsels from their giggling benefactors.
Having lost track of how long it’s been since lunch, I head to the Garden Cafe Ritsurin located towards the center of the park, close to the entrance. The wood paneled interior provides a warm and inviting retreat where you can enjoy a substantial meal, or simply a beer or coffee. I opt for one of the most popular dishes — the sanuki takase no cha udon.
If you go with this option, don’t be alarmed by the fact that your noodles are green. They’re made in the distinctive sanuki style, a specialty in the Kagawa area of Shikoku, but with a twist. Their secret ingredient is green tea, which gives the noodles their color and distinct flavor, and pairs well with all the usual udon toppings.
Satiated, I decide to make my way back through the garden towards the exit as the sun begins to dip. Pausing to take just a few more snaps in the last good light of the day, again I can’t believe my luck when a beautiful young woman in a kimono pauses in an alcove off the main path. Another opportunity to capture an “only in Japan” moment. Graciously, she indulges my request for a few photos, seamlessly blending into the classical charm of the garden while simultaneously stealing the spotlight — the perfect end to my day at Ritsurin Garden.
Photographs & Text by Jason Haidar