From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Korakuen was broadcast on 20th November 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Japanese gardens usually fall into one of two categories. There is the Zen-type garden with raked gravel and dense moss, often found in temple complexes, in which one is encouraged to sit and contemplate, and there is the strolling garden, designed to be experienced by sauntering through it. There are variations within these categories and of the latter type, the Korakuen garden at Okayama, halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima, is held to be one of the best. Its name is taken from a word that means later, meaning not only that it was built later than the medieval castle that overlooks it but that it was created for pleasure – the pleasure that comes later, after fulfilling one’s duties.
The garden was completed in 1700 as the private domain of a feudal lord but opened to the public in 1884 when feudalism was abolished. It is a remarkable space on many levels. There is a cultural love in Japan for distilling the essence of nature, not only in bonsai trees but also in ikebana flower arrangements. What Korakuen does is distil the essence of the landscape. Bounded by the Asahi river just out of the centre of the city, its 13 hectares is a place of many landscapes, each evoking an aspect of an archetypal Japan. There are, for instance, groves of certain trees, like plum, cherry and maples, which allow the visitor to be immersed in their spring blossom or autumn leaf colour depending on the season. A lake represents the ocean, and there’s a hill from which the whole garden can be viewed, an unusual feature when most Japanese gardens limit how much is revealed in one glance. A further curiosity is the use of open lawns, familiar to us in the West but rare in Japanese gardens. Here they are bounded by meandering waterways, rice paddies and a hillside tea garden, and allow expansive views, often focussed on the picturesque black-and white castle across the river. There are many buildings dotted throughout the landscape, like a shingle-roofed pavilion which straddles a stream to provide cool shelter on a hot day, as well as a theatre for traditional performances. All have been meticulously restored or rebuilt following floods and even bombing in the Second World War, using the original designs stored since 1700.
Korakuen is certainly a beautiful space in which to linger but to the Westerner it might seem somewhat familiar, its grassy spaces and defined zones rather like the best municipal parks of the Victorian era. This is precisely what makes it such a Japanese rarity, and even an influence on those western public gardens. It might be a place to stroll through for relaxation rather than the improvement of the soul, but the two are surely entwined. Like all good gardens it seduces and stimulates the senses, allowing pause for thought and space to breathe. And being so painstakingly achieved, it is Japanese to its core.