Fall is a most beautiful time of the year to visit Japan. As the seasons change, the heat and humidity of summer gives way to the cool ambiance of autumn. This transition paves the way for the changing color of the leaves which in turn, creates vibrant and dazzling masterpieces across the country. Japan has numerous locations to observe nature’s fall wonders but given tight schedules and jam-packed itineraries it can be hard to squeeze in a moment for the trees. Luckily, Tokyo has you covered. One of the country’s oldest gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen, is located right in the middle of the city. Koishikawa Korakuen is certainly charming no matter what time of year you visit yet the grounds are especially breathtaking during autumn. All-in-all, Koishikawa Korakuen remains a necessary and natural escape.
Koishikawa Korakuen was originally built in the very early Edo period (1600–1868) by Tokugawa Yorifusa, one of the founders of the Mito branch family of the famous Tokugawa family. Following the functional completion of the complex in 1629, the gardens were initially designated as the residence of the Mito’s. Due to the location’s ties with the main Tokugawa family, the gardens were always under the protective eye of the shogunate until the end of their reign in 1867.
In keeping with the traditions of all Japanese gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen seeks to recreate famous landscapes depicting the country’s wonderful scenery. The gardens take their namesake from the legendary Korakuen in Okayama Prefecture which is known to be one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. Like its namesake, Koishikawa Korakuen was inspired by a poem that encouraged rulers to only enjoy themselves after first achieving happiness for the common people.
Koishikawa Korakuen is designed in a Kaiyu-shiki promenade style and incorporates design motifs from the famous Nakasendo trade route that linked medieval Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka (pictured above). Unlike its coastal Tokaido counterpart (which the present-day shinkansen follows), the Nakasendo winds through the mountainous core of Japan’s main island. The garden symbolically represents this journey with a number of scenic views from the legendary route.
How to Get There
Getting to Koishikawa Korakuen is actually SO simple that it is difficult to describe in words. Due to its proximity to Tokyo Dome the gardens are essentially triangulated by several stations. As such, the best way depends heavily on where you’re coming from. JR Pass holders looking to save on subway fees should make their way via Suidobashi Station. Here’s a full list of nearby stations. Check Hyperdia against each of these to determine the fastest route from wherever you’re coming from.
Also here’s an overhead map of the area. Regardless of what station you ultimately use, it’s about a five minute walk.
Entering Koishikawa Korakuen
Koishikawa Korakuen is a treat no matter when you visit but the fall colors are particularly to die for. Throughout the grounds there are many majestic maple trees whose leaves turn a vibrant red and orange. There is also a small gathering of ginko trees towards the southeast corner that turn a spectacular golden yellow. Regardless of the time of year, visiting Koishikawa Korakuen costs a mere JPY 300 yen and the price of admission is very much worth it. The entrance can be found to the Northwest and is closest to Iidabashi Station.
Though the proper viewing order is designed to mirror the sights of the Nakasendo trade route, I highly encourage anyone visiting to just meander lazily throughout the grounds. While strolling, keep in mind this type of garden was designed for samurai lords to amble about and relieve their stress and woes via the beautiful scenery. As with any traditional Japanese garden, the vegetation is meticulously well maintained while also appearing to be completely natural in design. Proponents of Japanese aesthetics assert that the contents of these type of gardens are ordered to bring out how things SHOULD look in nature.
As noted, I suggest visitors chart their own course through Koishikawa Korakuen. The proper course begins at the former site of the Karamon gate in the southern corner of the gardens. Regardless of how you opt to enjoy the space, there are several special viewpoints that you absolutely must check out while in the garden. Upon entering the grounds, you’ll be given a pamphlet detailing each viewing area like the one below.
With that said, what would this article be if I didn’t introduce my absolute favorites? The following is a list of what I consider “MUST SEE” views at Koishikawa Korakuen.
Wander Around the Daisensui
The Nakasendo trade route famously snakes its way through the mountains of central Honshu and then opens up by Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. The path exits through a small gap in the hills, just north of where Hikone Castle sits. Built atop a small ridge, the fortress has a clear view of the choke point where the Nakasendo emerges from the mountains. In response, the ruling Tokugawa family installed one of their most loyal retainer clans, the Ii family, into Hikone Castle in the early 1600’s.
The Koishikawa Korakuen symbolically represents the Nakasendo route and accordingly must showcase Lake Biwa. The large pond in the middle of the gardens called Daisen-sui is Koishikawa Korakuen’s portrayal of Japan’s greatest lake. Over the years, the curators of the grounds have gone so far as to create a representation of Chikubushima, an important island in the middle of Lake Biwa. This island houses Hogon-ji, a temple that is dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten. Along with Enoshima Shrine and Itsukushima Shrine, the Shingon establishment ranks as one of Japan’s Three Great Benzaiten Shrines.
Chikubushima is identified as Horaijima on the map, a term used to refer to inaccessible islands within Japanese gardens. The word is often translated as “Treasure Island” and supposedly comes from Horai, a Chinese island important in Japanese mythology.
The "Full Moon" Bridge
Engetsu-kyo is a half-crescent bridge that is said to have been created by the famous Confucian scholar Shushunsui of the Ming dynasty. The reflection of the bridge on the pond produces a full circle which is said to mirror the appearance of the full moon. This bridge admirably holds quite a bit of history; along with the nearby Tokujin-don, these two Koishikawa Korakuen attractions managed to survive the Edo period in their original forms.
Enjoy Some Seasonal Beauty
The northeastern corner of the Koishikawa Korakuen gardens is dominated by vegetation representing Japan’s famous four seasons. In this pocket of seasonal beauty you’ll regard stunning plum blossoms in winter, hanging wisteria in spring, regal irises in summer, and of course, the dazzling autumn leaves in fall. Additionally, the caretakers maintain an evergreen pine grove as well as rice fields for your viewing. These natural delicacies are said to represent the seasonal foliage that one would see were they to travel the Nakasendo trade route during the Edo period.
Catch a Quick Glimpse of Kyoto
A spectacular vermilion bridge called Tsuten-kyo is located in the northern corner of the gardens. This is one of a number of representations in this area of important scenes from Kyoto, the end of the Nakasendo. Tsuten-kyo, in particular, recreates a view quite similar to that of Kyoto’s Tofuku-ji, a spot also well known for being extremely famous for viewing the autumn foliage.
Nearby, you’ll also find the remains of Kiyomizu Kannon-do which is the garden’s portrayal of the original Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Unfortunately, the years along with a World War, have not been kind. Presently, only the original base of the structure remains; nevertheless, it is worth taking a look if only to experience the intended conclusion of the Nakasendo motif.
Other Nearby Attractions
Koishikawa Korakuen closes earlier in the day at 5:30 PM; last call for entries are sounded around 5:00 PM. Those in the mood for continued adventures are encouraged to check out an entirely different sort of attraction, the nearby Tokyo Dome City. This shopping mall sans amusement park encircles the Tokyo Dome stadium and has a lot of cool attractions on offer.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, be sure to check out roller coaster or “Wonder Drop” splash dive. The former especially will get your blood pumping as it snakes in and out of the nearby shopping complexes. For those who are a little more reserved, there are all sorts of more relaxing attractions such as a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. Tokyo Dome City even comes fully equipped with an impressive arcade as well as a haunted house.
Lastly for the famished, worry not. Tokyo Dome City has a smorgasbord of restaurants to choose from. For something different, be sure to check out Smart Sushi. This self-serve conveyor belt sushi restaurant provides a unique twist. Customers can place their orders via a tablet built into every table and minutes later, a bullet train model loaded with sushi will pull up to your seats. For the parent readers out there, this is a great way to keep the kids entertained throughout the whole meal!
Until next time travelers…