Rikugien – Garden of Waka

The word “waka” translates into “Japanese poem.” The term dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185) when Japanese culture was being heavily influenced by Chinese traditions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. Poetry and literature were respected art forms during this period. Purists of the time came up with the word waka to describe poetry written in Japanese by Japanese artists. This was to distinguish these 31 syllable texts from the same style verse Japanese poets were writing in the Chinese language.

The Rikugien Garden in Tokyo was constructed during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). This was the time when the Tokugawa shogunate was in power and when the mistrust of outsiders was at its peak. The first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu saw the value of foreign trade and did indeed encourage it. But he did have a fear of foreigners, their customs and religions and set about turning Japan into a closed society.

The fifth shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi gave permission for the construction of Rikugien Garden. Built by Yanagisaw Yoshiyasu, a daimyo, or territorial lord under the shogun, construction began in 1695. The gardens were designed to emulate the original six forms of waka poetry.

The gardens opened in 1702 and originally featured 88 landscaped scenes taken from actual poems. After Yoshiyasu died in 1714, the garden was largely forgotten until 1877 when it was purchased by the founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, Iwasaki Yataro, who revived 18 of those scenes. Today it is the property of the city of Tokyo, Japan.

Visitors pass through the Naitei-Daimon gate and are greeted by a large cherry tree, which in season sports a cascade of pink blossoms. The pathway takes you to the Deshio-no-minato, a spot on the edge of the pond that gives you an overview of the garden including the islands in the middle. The two hills on the main island represent Izanagi and Izanami, man and woman, from the myth of Japan’s ancient origins. Another smaller island, made of strategically placed stones, is called Horaijima. It represents the home of the immortals.

As you follow the pathway around the pond, artfully placed azaleas and tiny bonsai trees seem to appear out of hidden pockets. Nearing the Tsutsuji-no-chaya teahouse, you find yourself standing in a grove of maples. In fall they will be clothed in bright reds, yellows and oranges. Take a walk through the Sasakani-no-michi, a pathway lined with greenery that is so narrow it is named for a spider’s web. Cross the Togetsukyo stone bridge, built in remembrance of a romantic poem about the moon, cranes and a rice paddy.

End your visit with a traditional tea ceremony at Takimi-no-chaya, another teahouse that sits next to a stream with cascading waterfalls, bonsai trees and stone lanterns. From here you can watch the Sleeping Dragon Rock and listen to the gentle flow of the waters.

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