For our last full day in Japan, the Fellows ventured to Okayama Kōraku-en, one of the three great gardens of Japan. Originally developed under the direction of Lord Ikeda Tsunamasa, the feudal estate garden took 13 years to construct and was completed in 1700.
Today, the garden is very popular with the strolling public and we were lucky to meet a young couple dressed in kimono who were taking wedding photos along with their family.
There were many unique features at Okayama Kōraku-en that we did not come across at other gardens during our trip. For one, all of the pine trees in the garden [240 in all] are wrapped in straw jackets (konomaki) over winter which attracts insect pests to build nests in the straw fibres. In the spring, all of the jackets are collected and burned as part of an annual garden festival.
Field burning is carried out each February to clear away old grass and stimulate new growth. We were informed by garden staff members Mr. Tomihiko Kurisaka, Ms. Katsume Okuyama and Mr. Iga that many visitors come specifically to witness this event.
The three main trees in collection at Okayama Kōraku-en are Japanese maples (momiji), ornamental cherries (sakura) and pine (matsu). From its inception, the garden was planted with two distinct zones of Japanese maples, one featuring green leaved wild types and the other with red-leaved horticultural varieties. As such, it is recognized as one of the oldest planned garden landscapes in Japan.
The garden is also very popular with the public as a place to view somei-yoshino cherry blossoms, the quintessential cherry tree of Japan. Along with other planted sakura cultivars, the cherry trees at Okayama produce a continuos bloom cycle lasting for 4 months, thereby attracting the bulk of their visitation during the spring and summer seasons. In the fall, the local chrysanthemum (kiku) growers group puts on a festival showcasing certain types of flower displays including the beautiful cascade (kengai) forms.
In the afternoon, we continued on to Okoyama Castle, the grandiose home of the Ikeda clan which was originally constructed in 1597.
Learning about the history of the castle was wonderful, but the highlight was having the chance to don traditional feudal regalia and have our photos taken.
During WWII the castle was destroyed by bombing raids, but a replica made of reinforced concrete was constructed in 1966, which includes traditional roof tiles and gilded statues of shachihoko or fish-shaped gargoyles that are said to cause the rain to fall, thus stopping fire.
All in all, our last full day in Japan was wonderful and we wish to thank the staff of Okoyama Koraku-en for providing us with an informative and very interesting tour. Kampai (cheers)!