Red, red is the sun,
heartlessly indifferent to time,
the wind knows, however,
the promise of early chill.
(Haiku by Basho written in Kanazawa, 1689),

In the light of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that had befallen the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan on the first day of January 2024, we remember the elegant treasures of Kanazawa City, the capital of Ishikawa, that have hopefully retained their timeless beauty amidst the disaster.

Kanazawa is one of the most important historical and charming cities in Japan, dating more than 400 years ago. In the heart of the ancient city lies one of the most enchanting gardens in the country, Kenrokuen. Developed to protect the feudal lords of the Kaga clan during the Edo period, the sprawling garden represents six prominent features, corresponding to its name Kenroku-en, meaning having six factors. These characteristics are spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water-course, and panorama.

Upon entering the 11.4-hectare garden, one is immediately confronted by the vast and open setting, filled with thick, verdant trees and bushes, which peek through not only one or two special outlook sights, but a multitude of them as one roams the property. At the same time, the rich forestation envelops visitors like a canopy, offering equal privacy and intimacy.

A sense of artificiality exists in any delicately sculpted garden. Rocks and stone lanterns are positioned strategically and aesthetically. The overall layout of Kenrokuen depicts the typical kaiyūshiki teien, stroll garden of the Edo period, which integrates a pond garden, tea garden, and dry landscape garden. They are plotted on several locations in the spacious garden for people to promenade along them, particularly while encircling the pond. The artistic terrain, therefore, ensures the air of antiquity, as though one can envision feudal lords leisurely walking along the paths.

The inclusion of water in Japanese gardens is vital. Still water symbolizes the reflection of life, while flowing water captures life’s continuity. Rocks and pebbles settled under the water provide stability to the otherwise, wavering water. The large, artificial Kasumiga-ike pond is said to resemble the ocean, and near its center is Horai Island, also called Turtle Island, which claims to have been built for a legendary wizard exuding perpetual youth and longevity; hence, the lords cast their wishes for long life and eternal prosperity when they conceived of the garden’s design. The other two islands Hojo and Eisyu are found in the Hisago-ike pond. Winding streams also connect these ponds, illustrating unity and oneness. There is also the Midori Waterfall, which flows as a backdrop against hanging maple branches in fall, framing a breathtaking picture. The fountain below Kasumiga-ike Pond is considered one of Japan’s oldest, powered entirely by pressure from the higher level of Sai River.

The element of panorama is ubiquitous throughout the garden. From the high grounds, one can grasp expansive views of the Uchinada sand dune, Noto peninsula, Mt. Utatsu, Mt. Hakusan, and Mt. Io. The early development of Kenrokuen began with the erection of Kanazawa Castle adjacent to it. Maeda Tsunanori, the 5th lord of the Kaga Domain, relocated his office inside the castle so he could build a villa and an enclosed garden. From the villa terrace, therefore, the succeeding lords and their guests enjoyed stunning scenes of the garden’s seasonal changes, including moon viewing during banquets. The villa was reconstructed in 2000.

In addition to the landscaping, the villa, rebuilt by the 6th lord Yoshinori was also referred to as the Shigure-tei teahouse, which directly looks out to the garden. Other teahouses around the vicinity include the Yugao-tei Gourd teahouse, built in 1774, and located at the eastern side of Hisago-ike pond. The Uchihashi-tei teahouse stands at the southwestern edge of Kasumiga-ike pond.

I had the pleasure of savoring delicious Japanese matcha shaved ice or kakigori dessert at the garden’s pleasant restaurant and teahouse Kenrokutei. It has both table seating and tatami mat areas, as well as counter seating with gorgeous views of the garden and the old fountain. Breakfast and lunch meals consisting of soba noodles, rice bowls, seafood, and meat dishes are also served. A variety of drinks and desserts can also be enjoyed during café time.

The winter scenery in Kenrokuen is most impressive when pine trees are attached with yukitsuri or snow hanging, which is a traditional technique of erecting supports made of bamboo poles and rope shaped like cones, to protect the branches against heavy snowfall.

Kenrokuen was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty in 1922, earning the most honorable rank equivalent to a National Treasure.