The Japanese garden is, therefore at once a picture and a poem; perhaps even more a poem than a picture.
(Lafcadio Hearn, In a Japanese Garden Atlantic Monthly, July 1892)
One of the alternative merits of being unable to fly to a foreign destination due to the ravaging pandemic is keeping close to your confines and discovering exquisite spots you had neglected to explore before. Perhaps, this was one painful lesson we had to learn—to look within instead of searching for. Japan truly boasts innumerable gems from north to south and in all its glittering four seasons. Tucked in mazes of congested alleys and urban noise, traditional gardens abound that always bring back lost souls to oases of calmness.
In northeast Tokyo near Kanda River in Bunkyo ward, a marvelous historical garden residence has been alluring visitors since the Edo period. During that time, Higo Hosokawa Garden was a residential estate of the Shogunate. The Shimizu family was one of the three counts of the Tokugawa family that established their suburban residence here. Later, the residence was transferred to the Hitotsubashi family, and then to the Hosokawa family, the feudal lord of Higo Kumamoto. Around 1887, the wooden Shouseikaku building was constructed as a study area for the Hosokawa family. In 1961, Tokyo metropolitan government took over the premises as a public park. Then, in 1975, the jurisdiction over the park was transferred to Bunkyo ward.
The elegant Shouseikaku is positioned to the west of the spectacular central pond, filled with natural spring water. It offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the garden. Though it has undergone continuous remodeling work throughout the years, it has retained much of its interiors’ delicate decorations, such as the rooms of Camellia, Chrysanthemum, and Morning Glory, and the stairs next to them. The six rooms represent the six flowers of Higo known as the Higo Rokka, unique to Kumamoto, Kyushu: Higo chrysanthemum, Higo camellia, Higo sasanqua, Higo iris, Higo morning glory, and Higo peony. Shigekata, the eighth head of the Hosokawa family, was known to have bred flowers as a samurai accomplishment. The building tried to preserve the existing logs as much as possible. It also employed clapboarding for the exterior wall of the first floor. The current building reopened in 2016, and today, visitors are able to enjoy at least four of the six flowers around the premises.
While strolling around the enchanting garden, one can catch contrasts of seasonal blooms—pink and white plums and cherry blossoms in spring, Higo iris in summer, radiant maples and Japanese wax in autumn, and snow-covered pine trees in winter. These trees are supported by a canopy of traditional Yukitsuri ropes, which protect them from the snow. The cone-like structures emanate stunning reflections on the water. The garden is designed in a circular shape that traces worm-like paths through the multi-dimensional landscape, made possible by leveraging the landform of the plateau as a mountain.
From an elevated position, the scenery is absolutely enthralling. Stone lanterns and pagodas complete the picture-perfect Japanese setting. The garden was said to reminisce a painting by Sugitani Sessho, court painter of the Hosokawa clan. Spring water rushes into the pond by using the yarimizu method, which leads a narrow and winding stream into the garden. This technique is particularly used for the Shinden-zukuri architectural style of court nobles' houses during the Heian period.
Indeed, a breath of art and poetry filters through the trees and from under the grass, easily reminding us of life’s purest pleasures.