One of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan” and one of only two designated “Special Places of Scenic Beauty,” Kenroku-en is Kanazawa’s number one sight to see. Sprawling over 25 acres (100,000 square meters), the entire garden can take several hours to enjoy in its entirety, and that’s only during a single visit.
The Garden of Six Elements
In the Eastern tradition of garden landscaping, there are six possible elements, or aspects, that one can draw from when designing a garden. Paired off, they make three sets of oppositions:
- spaciousness and seclusion
- artificiality and natural antiquity
- panoramic views and abundant water.
Kenroku-en is a rarity for being the only garden to combine all six.
The Garden in Four Seasons
Kenroku-en depicts a changing face with each new season, and often several times in a given season.
Her springs are never strictly green, with early-blooming plum blossoms in purple and white, the latter the symbol of the ruling daimyo. As cherry-blossom season begins, the plums fade and the pale pink yoshino cherry bloom, raining down as the later-blooming and darker sakura varieties take over.
Purple irises stand out against the the darkening greens of summer. As fall chills the air, brilliant orange maple leaves set the forested areas of the garden on fire, ginko trees rain gold on the ground below. Old needles on sleeping conifers hang on branches like suspended rain.
The ropes that tie the pines go up before the first snows rest on their branches. In winter, light bounces up from winter’s white carpet, making the garden appear to glow.
During select seasonal times, Kenroku-en is lit up after dark and free to enter.
Though the entire garden as a whole is breathtaking, we recommend making special note of these spots.
This stone lantern has become an icon of both the garden and of Kanazawa. Meaning “koto-bridge lantern,” it is so named for the shape of its legs which look like the bridges that suspend the strings on the koto, or Japanese harp. When one of its legs broke, the lantern was never repaired but kept in its state of “beautiful imperfection.”
The patina statue is the figure of Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, a legendary figure of Japanese mythology on par with King Arthur. The figure was erected in honor of lives lost during the Satsuma Rebellion (depicted in the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai). However, it shares some level of fame today as the winner of the Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A Kanazawa University Professor discovered that a particular metal in the statue prevents birds from defiling it.
This fountain has no special name, being the very first fountain in Japan. It runs entirely on the pressure created by the higher level of the nearby Sai River. The fountain’s location is directly across from the garden’s birthplace, where it began as a significantly smaller private garden for the local ruling lords.
“Wagtail Island” is a small landmass along one of the eastern waterways, marked with a torii gate. The island possesses peculiarly shaped stones, intertwined pine trees, and a pagoda, which represent birth, marriage, and death, respectively. The island takes its name from the wagtail bird, who is said to have taught the gods, Izanami and Izanagi, how to conceive. (Shake your tailfeather…)
The ancient wooden “flower-viewing bridge” is one of the most photographed areas of the garden, as is no surprise. Cherry trees frame the gentle slope of light wood, and the meandering creek bears iris leaves and purple flowers along its banks.
This small palace housed the last ruling lord’s mother. Partly constructed from the former Takezawa Palace, it today serves as a museum of local royal history and of architecture. The most notable features include:
- the nightingale floor that sings when stepped upon
- the veranda overlooking the villa’s private garden whose open design is an achievement of Meiji-era architecture
- Dutch glass windows and Bengali-red and lapis lazuli-blue paintwork, luxuries of the wealthy to cope in wintertime
Ryann fell off a bus in Kanazawa half a decade ago and has since fallen in love with this traditional-crafts and ice-cream-consuming capital of Japan. Editor and amateur photographer with a penchant for nature and history. Not actually fifty songbirds in a trench coat.