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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

Updated: Mar 9

Gardens are undoubtedly among the most touristy places in Japan. They are often also on the long list of spots to photograph for any landscape photographer visiting the country for the first time. And that's quite understandable. However, Momijidani Teien garden is still relatively unknown, although it deserves special attention.


Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

© O. Robert


Japanese gardens are indeed philosophical and miniature representations of imagined or interpreted landscapes, skillfully crafted by the landscape designers who created them. Their sense of composition and the mysterious evocation of distant landscapes captivate visitors.


The meticulous mastery of all natural elements that make up Japanese gardens is unparalleled. Everything appears to be in its rightful place; even the wildest elements seem perfectly tamed. In this modeled universe, photographers delight in compositions that alternately represent the sea, mountains covered in forests, and more. Features like bridges, lanterns, pebble beaches, and pavilions punctuate these landscapes borrowed from nature.


Momijidani Teien is a traditional garden located in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Situated near Wakayama Castle, the garden is renowned for its picturesque scenery, particularly its Japanese maple trees (Momiji), from which it derives its name. "Momijidani" literally means "Maple Valley" in Japanese. The garden is a popular spot in the autumn when the maple leaves change color, offering a striking visual spectacle.


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Designed according to the principles of Japanese gardening, it showcases natural elements like rocks, ponds, and trees to create a serene atmosphere. The garden also features various facilities such as wooden bridges, stone lanterns, and paved paths that allow visitors to stroll and appreciate the natural beauty of the garden.


The garden has been carefully designed to offer an experience of tranquility and meditation, in line with the Japanese aesthetic principles of "wabi-sabi," which values simplicity and an appreciation of nature. Momijidani Teien is not only a tourist attraction but also a representative example of the art of Japanese gardening. All the elements are in place to satisfy the most demanding photographers.


Whether it's the contrasts, perspectives, structure, or color palettes, there is something for every creative mind. While all Japanese gardens are interesting and merit a visit, not all are equally suited for landscape photography.


Among the most notable are Yushi-en Garden in Matsue, Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, the garden of the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi, and Shukkei-en Garden in Hiroshima. Along with Momijidani Teien, these gardens represent five must-visit sites for landscape photography. Read my article about these gardens.


Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

© O. Robert

Brief history of Wakayama Castle and Momijidani Teien Garden

The Wakayama Castle (Wakayama-jō) is situated in the city of Wakayama, in the prefecture of the same name. The original castle was built at the end of the 16th century, specifically in 1585, by Toyotomi Hidenaga, the half-brother of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan's great unifiers. It was constructed on the site of the former Ota fortress, which belonged to the Saiga family, local mercenaries.


Following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the end of the Toyotomi regime, the castle came into the hands of the Tokugawa family after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Asano Yoshinaga became its first daimyo lord under the Tokugawa period. The castle was subsequently governed by various lords until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the dissolution of the feudal system.


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Like many Japanese castles, Wakayama Castle suffered damage during conflicts and wars, particularly during sieges and periods of reconstruction. The castle was severely damaged during World War II but was rebuilt in 1958. The extensive restoration work included the reconstruction of the main keep (Tenshu) in reinforced concrete while preserving as much of its original external appearance as possible.


Momijidani Teien, the garden near the castle, follows in the traditional Japanese gardening aesthetic and serves as a representation of the region's natural landscapes. This garden, too, has been carefully maintained to provide a serene and contemplative environment, harmonious with the historical and cultural significance of Wakayama Castle.


Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

© O. Robert


Today, Wakayama Castle is a popular tourist attraction and also houses a museum that showcases the history and culture of the region. The site offers a panoramic view of the surrounding city and Wakayama Bay, and is also famous for its gardens, including Momijidani Teien.


This garden, in turn, was created by Tokugawa Yorinobu (1602-1671), the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, when he became the lord of the Kishu domain (now Wakayama Prefecture) in 1619. It is an integral part of the architectural complex of the castle and is one of the main gardens of the estate.


Momijidani Teien is primarily a strolling garden typical of the Edo period (1603-1867). This style of gardens is known as Daimyo Gardens, in reference to the Daimyo lords who originated most of these grand gardens on private estates. The title of Daimyo is the second-highest rank of Samurai after the Shogun.


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Photographing Momijidani Teien

The Momijidani Teien Garden is a particularly interesting place for photography due to several defining elements. This garden is famous for its rich variety of plants, especially the Momiji maples, which offer a dazzling spectrum of colors, particularly in autumn. The maples transform into a palette of reds, oranges, and yellows, creating a dreamy and colorful setting ideal for photography.


The interplay of light and shadow in this garden is particularly remarkable. The light filtered through the leaves creates complex patterns and dynamic contrasts, perfect for black and white photography that highlights these subtle nuances.


The garden is also designed to evoke a sense of peace and serenity. This calm, combined with the natural beauty of the place, allows for capturing images that transcend time. The garden consists of a large pond beside which there is a tea pavilion, and a shaded walk that extends over the contours of the pond and garden. The pond also marks the end of the moats surrounding the castle park.


Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

© O. Robert


Each season brings its own set of changes to the garden, offering a variety of subjects and colors throughout the year. In particular, spring with its cherry blossoms and autumn with its colored leaves are periods highly prized by photographers.


As a traditional garden, Momijidani Teien is also a place rich in culture and history. Capturing these elements can add an additional layer of depth and meaning to photographs.


And if you are an enthusiast, do not hesitate to enjoy some excellent matcha tea in the tea room located at the top of the garden. It's a very pleasant moment of relaxation in a traditional setting.


Japan: The Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

© O. Robert


Getting to Momijidani Teien Garden in Wakayama

To get to Momijidani Teien Garden, it's fairly straightforward as the garden is an integral part of Wakayama Castle Park. It is located 30 minutes by foot from the main train station. The city of Wakayama is 95 km away from Osaka Airport (1h20 by car) or 120 km from Kyoto (1h40 by car).


Wakayama Prefecture is one of the richest in terms of discoveries and heritage. Covering an area of more than 600 km², it is divided into five tourist regions, all of which offer excellent subjects for photography. Therefore, I highly recommend staying there for a few days to visit, for example, the following sites that offer excellent photographic subjects:


1. Koyasan (the sacred place of Shinto Buddhism and its administrative center)

2. The City of Wakayama (its castle and various gardens)

3. Arida - Yuasa - Hidaka (ancient villages and the origin places of soy sauce)

4. Kumano (the routes of the famous pilgrimage in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula)

5. Shirahama - Kushimoto (Japan's most beautiful coasts and bays, as well as impressive rock formations such as Engetsuto Island, Sandanbeki cliffs, or the famous Hashigui-iwa rocks).


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