Gyokusenen Niwa (Garden)

Gyokusenen Niwa (Garden)

Kanazawa has a very large and very famous garden called Kenrokuen, which is reputed to be one of the three nicest gardens in Japan. Much smaller but very nice on its own terms is Gyokusenen Niwa. Gyokusenen has a fascinating history: it was started in the early Edo period by Naokata Wakita (family name last), who was originally Korean and brought back from Korea as a child after a military expedition. As you can see from the pictures, the garden is an extraordinary and beautiful place.

Naokata must have had some extraordinary qualities, for he was eventually made a chamberlain of the Kaga clan (lords of the feudal domain that included Kanazawa). In addition to his Korean origin, Wakita was a 'secret Christian', and there are carvings in the garden (not pictured) that contain references to attempts to practice Chrsitianity after it was forbidden by the Shogunate government in 1597. Christianity officially became extinct in Japan around 1638.

Stay on the Stones

In order to preserve the greenery in the garden, guests are requested to stay on the stones marking the walking paths in the garden at all times. We did a good job of following the rule, although not every visitor we saw (from other groups) was quite as careful.

Staying on the stones isn't so hard, since there are paths taking you through the garden. As is true of many Japanese gardens, and enhanced by having you stay on the path, the views you see as you tour the garden are all beautifully composed, and the result of (four centuries of) forethought. Gyokusenen is a peaceful and contemplative place.

Naokata Wakita brought a Korean Pentaphylla pine to the garden and it is still alive today, over 350 years old. The vines winding around it are Trumpet flowers, and in early summer they produce red flowers to decorate the pine tree. It's only one of the fascinating trees growing (or formerly growing) in Gyokusenen; at right is a gnarled stump elsewhere in the garden.

Tree with backlit leaves
Underneath a tree with beautiful backlit leaves.

After a long day of grey skies, the sun came out while we were at Gyokusenen, and we saw some of the ways the planners of the garden used sunlight.

Light and shadow on moss
The sun made patterns of light and shadow cast on the moss that covers much of the garden.

Here are Simon and Leslie appreciating Gyokusenen, each in their own personal way.


Reconstruction of the tearoom from the 1600s
Above: the reconstruction of the tea room, which was first used in the 1600s.

Another source of fame for Gyokusenen is that it has long been a center for the practice Cha no Yu (Tea ceremony). Although the room where we had our tea ceremony is more recent, there is an old teahouse on the grounds where the lord of the Kaga clan came to partake of tea ceremony and entertain guests. Separate entrances were provided for the lords and their guests; guests had to enter through a low door to prevent sudden attempts to attack the lords.

Frances, Pierre, Yasuko, and Leslie check out the tearoom
Frances, Pierre, Yasuko, and Leslie check out the tearoom.
Pierre, Frances, Leslie, Yasuko and Joy
Pierre, Frances (staring), Leslie (mugging for the camera, what a surprise), Yasuko, and Joy.

The Carp Pond

Frances and Yasuko go for the carp nibble
Frances and Yasuko go for the carp nibble.

The ponds at Gyokusensen contain Japanese carp, as is typical of temple or garden ponds. The carp are large, brightly colored, and almost toothless. As such, the tourist thing to do is to kneel down and splash the tip of your finger in the water, trying to get a carp to come up and nibble on it. It takes a little patience, but not much (carp are not renowned for their intelligence).

Matt goes for the carp nibble
Matt's turn.

Jack actually stayed with the Nishidas, the family that has run Gyokusenen since around 1900. He mentioned that the week before, one of the carp had gone missing -- apparently someone had actually entered the garden in the night and stolen a carp. Although this one was minor, crime was very much on the mind of all the Japanese we met. Until a few years ago, crime was unheard of in Japan, and although it's still the safest place on the planet, crime does actually occur (rarely) now.

Freances prepares to push Matt into the pond
Speaking of crimes, Frances has figured out something other than carp to put in the carp pond -- Matt.
Two stone rabbits
Far right: we never did find out what these two rabbits symbolize.

Haiku Post

Our last stop in Gyokusenen was to pass by a small house with this letter box attached. The instructions said to write a haiku on one of the provided pieces of paper, and drop it in the box. Every six months, the box is emptied and the best Haiku chosen. The writer gets a personal letter from the Nishidas informing them of their victory (plus of course Haiku bragging rights).

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