Ode to a Tokyo Garden

The firefly scenic spot
The garden “Hotaru-Sawa” stream: so named as it is believed to be the fantastic area where to experience the enchanting sight of fireflies at some stage in the summer season.

Dream or reality? 
Is reality nothing but a dream? 
A pure product of our imagination? 
An illusion? 
The line between the two is often blurred.

On the eastern edge of the Musashino plains, where much of western Tokyo lies, is the Sekiguchi Plateau, a scenic spot famous for its wild Camellias, since the fourteenth century. During the Edo period (1603 -1868), many daymio and samurai families had villas in the area and haiku poet Matsuo Basho lived nearby for a few years.

In 1878, statesman Aritomo Yamagata envisioned creating a beautiful garden and villa there after he bought a piece of land in the area known as: “Tsubaki-yama” (Camellia’s Hills).  He christened his estate “Chinzan-so,” or ‘Mansion on Camellia’s Hills.” Little did he know then that his dream would not only outlive him, but that it would stand the test of time! It has flourished to become the magnificent garden that we still enjoy and admire today.

“Tsubaki-Yama” Camelias are evergreen shrubs or small trees with flora of five to nine petals whose shade fluctuates from pink to red.

To make sure, however, Mr. Yamagata hired the best of garden designers to assist him in his endeavor and chose a kaiyuu-style garden that was not only pleasant to look at, but also enjoyable to stroll around. Kaiyuu-style gardens usually have vast green meadows, a pond, a tsakiyama (ground molded to look like a small mountain) and winding rivers. By reproducing familiar landscapes on these grounds, with the assistance of Iwatomo Katsugoro, Mr. Yamagata developed a garden that will always remind him of his birthplace in Hagi. 

Later the property was passed on to Baron Heitaro Fujita and, while still respecting Mr. Yamagata’s wishes, he decorated the grounds with historical monuments coming from all over Japan, especially Kyoto and Toba. One monument is a one-thousand-year-old pagoda, which was transferred here from the Hiroshima Mountains. Chikurin-ji Temple monks remarkably built this three-story pagoda without the use of a single nail! There was also the Shiratama Inari Shrine, in the center of the garden, but it was removed from the grounds of Shimogamo in Kyoto, in 1924. Other cultural treasures scattered throughout the site include carved Taoist and Buddhist images and over thirty stone lanterns. A large pond, waterfall, and natural spring are also part of the garden, plus a 500-year-old sacred tree that measures 4.5 meters around its base. 

The history of Japan reveals itself on a stroll through the garden, and every season offers its own delights. In March and April, you’ll see cherry blossoms and azalea, and in May come the irises. June is the start of the hydrangea season and at night you’ll see fireflies. There are migrating birds in the autumn months and the foliage is breathtaking. In December, Camellia Sasanqua, a species native to Japan starts to bloom. Then January ushers in the plum blossoms. From February to March, you’ll see the Camellias Chinzan-so is famous for.

The hilly garden still extends today, over nearly seven hectares, with camellias continuing to grow at the foot of stone lanterns and statues. This spectacular garden is all lit up in the evenings with beautiful lights designed to layer over each other, creating a perfect color gradation. The garden’s famous “unkai” (sea of clouds) hover among the trees, and the installed special nature sounds make for an immersive experience. The garden is stunning with walking trails and ponds with koi carps, all surrounded by lush greenery. It can easily take an hour or more, to visit the entire garden.

The garden has many Japanese traditional features, among them a red bridge (Benkei bridge), a feature that was very popular during the Edo period. The Chinzan-so monument, inscribed with writings by Yamagata, is evidence of his great fondness for the place. Dabbling as he did in composing waka poems, Yamagata had a cultural side evidenced by the passion he devoted to create gardens. Though the garden was destroyed during World War II, reconstruction soon began in 1948, under the direction of Ogawa Eiichi, whose vision of “building a green oasis in Tokyo” included the transportation of more than ten thousand trees. A festive party on November 11th, 1952, marked the grand opening of the Chinzan-so as a garden restaurant. It proudly celebrates its 70th anniversary, this year. 

Like most Japanese gardens, the Chinzan-so garden can be enjoyed in every season, but the most spectacular times to visit are in spring for the cherry blossoms and in fall, for the autumn leaves. The settings of this garden, with the quaint pond, stunning pagoda, waterfall, lanterns and images of Taoism and Buddhism, all add to the exquisite beauty of this lovely garden. It is clear that Old Japan survives in this garden that is in modern Tokyo, for as you enter it you are transported back into a completely different world.  It is a world that stays true to its former name and original creator with its large variety of camellias from throughout Japan. The recent addition, at certain times of the day, of the astonishing release of artificial fog creates a mystical, magical, and mysterious feel to the place, a perfect illusion, giving it a dreamy look that is absolute poetry in the making!

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