Rikugi-en, a Poetic Landscape

Not far from Ueno Park, Rikugi-en was my favorite garden in Tokyo. Completed around 1700, it was created for the mansion of a high-ranking samurai.

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Rikugi-en means Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry. The six principles are associated with a form of classical Japanese poetry called waka, which predates haiku by several centuries. I don’t understand the six principles myself, but if you want to know more you can look here.

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Gardens and nature are integral to Japanese poetry. In fact, there are today 37 Japanese botanical gardens devoted to displaying plants from the Manyoshu (meaning ‘Collection of Myriad Leaves’), which is the most ancient of Japanese poetry anthologies.

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I found this stone carved with incomprehensible (for me) Japanese writing more evocative than the signs that contained lines from Japanese poems with English translations. I had no context for understanding the poetry excerpts, which were always just a single line. Whereas the stone suggests deep mysteries and suggests all kinds of possibilities for what may be written upon it.

In its 21 acres, Rikugi-en contains 81 scenes drawn from classical Japanese and Chinese poems.

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It is similar to Koishikawa Korakuen and other strolling gardens in that it is organized around a small lake,  islands, and hills. For me, though, Rikugi-en’s poetic scenes combined the most satisfying mix of drama, mystery, and tranquility.

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A bridge over peaceful waters.

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This part of the garden is modeled on an actual place called the Bay of Poetry. In fact, it is held that the whole topography of Rikugi-en is a miniaturized version of the landscape in a province then called Kishu, in the southern part of the main island of Japan.

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I thought that the small arch contained in the stone above was very eye-catching.

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Gazing across the water toward cloud-pruned trees evokes a dreamy sort of feeling for me.

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And this scene with the small boathouse was suggestive of deep tranquility. I’d try to get in that boat if I didn’t get seasick so easily.

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A very different sort of landscape is found in this corner of the garden.

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This is some kind of Liriope, I think. The plant, which is native to Japan, is extensively used in parks and gardens here.

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Though small, these flowers and purple berries stood out near the stones and rushing water.

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You come upon this view as you cross a stream on stepping stones.Though everything is of modest size, to my eye it really did suggest a much grander and more dramatic landscape.

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There’s a small waterfall at the far end – here’s a closer look.

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We are not alone.

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Here’s an interesting foliage plant. No idea what it is, but I like the mix of variegated and non-variegated leaves. Is it one plant or two, I wonder.

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A small hut at the top of a rise is a good spot for taking in the surrounding woodland.

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Another bridge. This scene suggests woods inhabited by magical creatures.

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Emerging from those woods you come upon this expansive view.

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We are still not alone. Japanese gardens seem to be very popular with turtles.

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Another bridge, this one of stone.

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This bridge is edged with Liriope on both sides.

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So many lovely ferns.

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I was getting tired (and hot), and I was going to skip climbing up the small hill called Fujishirotoge, from which you can see most of the garden and beyond. However, a very fit-looking Japanese woman about ten years my senior insisted that I go up. So I did, partly because I was afraid she might drag me up there.

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In springtime flowers are plentiful at Rikugi-en, but not in August. I did, however, come across this Lily, no doubt the last of its siblings to flower.

There are plenty of Tokyo gardens I haven’t seen. However, based on my limited experience, Rikugi-en is the place I’d suggest if you could visit only one garden in Tokyo. It is a garden that can take you out of yourself, a poem written in plants, stone, and water.

42 Comments on “Rikugi-en, a Poetic Landscape

    • You’re welcome … but on another front, I think my comments on your blog are still going into the spam folder. It’s happening on other blogs too and it’s driving me crazy.

      • Thanks for mentioning your comments – you were right. I checked the spam folder this morning and found your last three notes. How nice of you to take part and all your good wishes.
        I marked them as “not spam”, but still your comments won’t show up on my blog entries. That is utterly weird.

  1. Very beautiful! I so love how plants and structure work together in a natural setting. Do you think that variegated plant was a type of bamboo?

  2. Beautiful! There are so many elements in Japanese gardens that seem so natural, but were obviously carefully thought out and placed precisely. I especially like the stone bridge, which looks as if it has been there forever. 🙂

  3. I am fascinated by Japanese gardens. This looks like one that one could spend a great deal of time in before unraveling its meaning. I find the careful placement of everything so peaceful. Thank you for the wonderful tour!

    • You’re welcome. It’s strange, but I found that I enjoyed the Japanese gardens in Japan much more than those in the same style that I’ve seen in the United States.

  4. Your description of this garden is phenomenal. The photos are alluring. The large stone with the Japanese characters appears, to this untrained eye, to begin with a character that is a lantern. The lantern pictured in this post is so graceful. One of the most beautiful I have seen.
    I love everything about Japanese gardens. This one has the most extraordinary stones in it. The placement is compelling. I especially like the one that juts out over the water without actually touching the water and a stone under the end like a teardrop. I can imagine the heat. I giggled at the thought of a little Japanese lady cajoling you up the hill. You seemed to be able to stand the heat of summer much better than I when we toured the Japanese garden in IL so it must have been quite hot in Japan. Ha, I get seasick too. I don’t think a small boat on a lake would do it tho. Thanks for the tour.

    • Glad you liked the post. We suffered in the heat, believe me. I was often dripping with sweat. Yes, the stones and their placement are really remarkable.

  5. What an incredible garden! It does have an almost dreamlike quality about it as you mentioned. I love the combination of water, plants, stones and bridges that seem to be features of most Japanese gardens. The attention to detail in Japanese gardens are amazing….I’m just looking out on our summer garden in comparison….chaotic!

  6. Thanks for more pictures of another dreamy-looking garden 🙂 I don’t think many Japanese would be able to read the sign either, given that it’s written in Chinese characters and in an old script. I tried to decipher the stone sign, and the line at the top has the garden’s name and another phrase that hints at its scenery. Given that the rest of the lines contain characters that refer to various forms of majestic scenery, I think they were carved in praise of the garden’s beauty in all seasons. Just my two cents.

    • Thanks so much for adding this information. Obviously I can’t tell Japanese characters from Chinese. Interesting that the characters are an antiquated script – I wonder hold old the stone carvings are.

      • I think these gardens could easily be at least 4 to 5 centuries old, seeing that most of them would have been created for the private estates of samurai. That said, the carvings might have not have been commissioned at the same time, and I think they might be a couple of centuries younger. But this is just speculation on my end.

  7. I just loved this, “A poem written in plants, stone, and water.” How marvelous that poetry can be brought to life! Such a beautiful space, most soothing. So glad you were not dragged up the hill!xxx

  8. Peace perfected! I love Japanese gardens for the quiet attention to detail and the sense of tranquility they project. This one is wonderful! The variegated plant amidst the non-variegated leaves looks like s type of variegated bamboo. Perhaps it is reverting to solid green, as so many variegated plants have a tendency to do? At any rate, it is gorgeous!

  9. I have no desire to live forever, but if I did it would be so I could hang around a garden long enough to see it gain gravitas. I think that age is the missing element in American Japanese gardens. They just need a few more centuries. What a delight to see your beautiful photos here.

    • I think that Japanese and more formal gardens age more easily. I suspect that the most naturalistic gardens are actually harder to maintain without seeing them change fundamental character over the decades.

      • That is certainly true, but for the better surely, if there is a guiding hand. I’ve so enjoyed watching my bare rectangle of mud evolve into a mini wilderness of native trees and shrubs and a sprinkling of sedges. Last year I let a piece of fallen apple lie where it fell, across my rain garden, and am being rewarded with lots of birds this spring. However, there is something about a Japanese garden, serenely sailing through time….

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