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Ritsurin Koen, a Japanese Garden

by Victor Dove

The Japanese garden idealizes forms of nature. Contrived out of earth, rocks and water and mantled by carefully chosen growths, the garden expresses an ideal universe within a defined area. Man’s design is evident, but his handiwork remains unobtrusive: the thoughtful arrangements of ponds and rocks, forests of miniature pines, clumps of bamboos and various ornamental trees and shrubs. All appear to have found their locations by natural processes. Where man’s work is obvious, in small pavilions, tea houses, pathways and bridges, the forms subtly harmonize with nature and appear almost as organic extensions of the environment.

In the Japanese garden the shapes of natural mountains, rivers and lakes and the wildernesses of forests are simulated and expressed in a heightened poetic way. It is this refined poetic character that impinges itself on the sensibility of the visitor to the garden. The Japanese garden is a tangible realization of the aesthetics of Shinto nature worship and the ideals of Buddhist philosophy, the twin spiritual foundations of Japanese culture.

The Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku island, is a fine realization of the ideas of Japanese garden aesthetics. Developed during the Edo period (1615-1868) as a private reserve for the ruling Matsudaira family, the Ritsurin was laid out as a large kaiyu or promenade style garden. It is among the most renowned traditional gardens of Japan. Divided into a North and a South Park, the Ritsurin occupies an area of approximately 780,000 square meters below the west side of the thickly foliated slope of Mount Shiun.

The initial steps towards the creation of the garden were made in 1587 by Ikoma Chikamasa, Daimyo of Sanuki. Lord Ikoma constructed a house and garden and called the place Ritsurin Villa. In 1642 the daimyate of Sanuki passed from the Ikoma family to the Matsudaira. In due course the new daimyo, Matsudaira Yorishige, set about the enlargement of his estate. In 1673 he expanded the South Pond and is said to have decided then to devote his remaining years to cultivating the garden. The development of the Ritsurin Koen occupied five generations of the Matsudairas for almost one hundred years.

The garden achieved its present form and dimensions in 1741 under the aegis of Matsudaira Yoriyasu. Ritsurin Koen remained the private domain of the Matsudaira family until the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. It was then proclaimed as the Municipal Park of Takamatsu City in 1875.


Ritsurin Koen has been landscaped around six ponds and thirteen artificial hills. The design was developed around the two main ponds: the South Pond and the North Pond. Entry is made via the East Gate. The recommended course follows a meandering trail around the South park to be completed by a circuit of the North Park.

Low forests of dwarf pines called byobu matsu, or pine tree screens, mantle the hills and islets and fringe the shores of ponds. The growth of these trees has been fashioned so that their branches leap and coil, suggesting the undulating, animated play of dragons. Winding pathways bordered by clustered growth of low bamboos, camellias and various shrubs and stones lead to vantaged viewing points.

An exquisite refinement of the landscape garden art is exhibited in the design of the South Park, focused on its large pond and the summer villa Kikugetsu-tei. From a hill just inside the east wall, one may view a fine panorama of the South Park encompassing the pond and the distant Kikugetsu-tei villa nestling at the foot of Mount Shiun.

In the South Pond there are three islets: Kaede-jima (Maple Isle), Tennyo-jima (Angel Isle), and Token-jima (Cuckoo Isle). Of these islets, Kaede-jima is at its finest in autumn when the maples are aglow with seasonal hues. Tennyo-jima features small shrubs trimmed in the shape of boxes, an Edo period style known as hakozukuri or box-making. This severe style may be regarded as a departure from the norms of Japanese gardening that usually seeks to simulate or heighten natural forms. A rock composition and a stone pagoda add further embellishments to this islet. Token-jima suffered the removal of its original trees and stones during the early years of the Meiji era; although trees have been replanted its former beauty is left to one’s imagination.

During the days of the Matsudairas the summer villa, Kikugetsu-tei, was the venue for aesthetic recreations such as the Tea Ceremony, moon viewing, and poetry composition by members of the cultured samurai class. Sited in the southwest corner of the lake the house is embraced by a sand and rock garden containing byobu matsu pines and palm trees. The sand garden is combed in wave-like patterns and crossed by stepping-stone paths. In recent times the Kikugetsu-tei was closed for over two years while it was being renovated in strict accordance with the original plan; the villa opened in late 1980.

The front room of the villa faces east on to the lake. It is said that moon viewing parties were held there inspired by an old Chinese poem that referred to “the moon in the hand.” One could touch the reflection of the moon in the pond, which gave rise to the name of the villa, Moon Scooping Summer House.

Another recreation of the samurai in the South Park concerned a poetry and drinking game. On a shore near the southeast corner of the pond, where two promontories are linked by an arched wooden bridge called Engetsu-kyo bashi or the Crescent Moon Bridge, people would gather and drink sake. The emptied cup would then be floated on the pond and the owner would attempt to compose a waka, a poem of thirty-one syllables, before his cup sank from striking a reed or ripple of the water.

The North Park offers pleasant paths for strolling and some charming scenic viewing points, the best of which look back towards the South Park. Unfortunately this area suffered from neglect and damage during the early years of the Meiji era, from 1868, when it passed into private ownership. Restoration work was carried out from 1911 to 1913 but in general the character of this part is at variance with the refinement expressed in the South Park.

Near the East Gate there is the Sanuki Mingei-kan (folkcraft) house. The museum there exhibits pottery, domestic utensils, craftware and furniture from the days of the Matsudairas. Noteworthy are the displays of Takamatsu style textile and kite designs, some antique iron-plated wooden chests and examples of the distinctive orange and black patterned lacquerware of the region. The adjoining Government Exhibition Hall contains a souvenir shop offering contemporary folkcraft products.

A visit to the Ritsurin Koen is a journey into a small, enchanted universe that is a masterpiece of the Japanese art of the landscaped garden.