Japan: The Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu
The city of Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture (Shikoku) is home to one of the jewels of Daimyo-style garden art: the Ritsurin Garden. Its history, landscape character, and unique vegetation make it one of the most spectacular parks and a site designated as a Cultural Heritage of Japan.
Having photographed and filmed it on several occasions, Ritsurin Garden (or Ritsurin-koen) is resplendent in every season. However, like many gardens and parks, it reveals its major assets in the spring.
The vast estate is famous for its lush vegetation and trees. Indeed, it features no fewer than 1,000 remarkably pruned, centuries-old pines, landscaped ponds, canals, and traditional tea houses. All these elements are skillfully arranged, punctuating the walk of the visitor who is amazed at such mastery of nature.
The clusters of pruned azaleas present throughout the park, but especially near and on the islands of the Nanko pond (see below), are one of the main features. To see these azaleas in bloom, you should visit in the months of April or May.
On the other hand, if you wish to enjoy a visit in the shade of the Momiji maples, the month of June is more appropriate. If you are fortunate enough to visit on a day of light rain, you can then take advantage of the endless palette of greens from the Momiji maples and mosses.
Starting in May, you can also admire the blooming lotus flowers that cover a vast area of one of the ponds, or the huge carpets of moss that oscillate between light yellow and deep green. Ritsurin Garden is also famous for its collection of irises that bloom starting in June.
Brief History of Ritsurin Garden
The garden was constructed over a period of more than 100 years, between the early 17th century and the mid-18th century. Most of the construction work took place during the Edo period (1603-1868). Its composition evolved over time. The magnificent pond located to the south of the estate facing Mount Shiunzan is the work of Ikoma Takaoshi (Lord of Sanuki), who completed this body of water in 1625.
The garden was initiated under the governance of the Matsudaira clan, who were the daimyos (feudal lords) of the region at the time and for whom the estate served as a private retreat. Subsequently, the 5th lord of Takamatsu Prefecture, Matsudaira Yorikata, completed the construction of the entire complex as it exists today.
In my Bookcase: The Cambridge History of Japan
Ritsurin Garden was used as the main residence for 11 generations of lords until the so-called "Meiji Restoration" period.
In 1875, Ritsurin Garden became a prefectural park and was opened to the public.
In 1953, during the Showa period, it was designated as an "Exceptional Landscape" under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.
The estate also contains elements of the art of the tea ceremony and traditional tea houses, adding a layer of cultural complexity to its design.
What to Photograph in Ritsurin Garden
The estate covers an area of 75 hectares, of which 16 hectares are covered by gardens. They are organized around 13 artificial hills. A complete visit requires several hours. Entry is from the center of the estate, thus dividing the garden into two parts: the southern sector and the northern sector. Plan for at least one hour of walking per sector just to get around. Everyone will find inspiration depending on the weather conditions and the season.
In my Bookcase: The Gardens of Japan
Here are the 7 spots in Ritsurin Garden that I consider most interesting for photography.
1. The Clusters of Centuries-Old Pines
The name Ritsurin means "Chestnut Grove" in Japanese. However, this garden has always been conceived as a pine garden. Present everywhere and in abundance, the 1,000 carefully pruned pines structure the park and the main pathways. These pines, called Hakomatsu or Byobumatsu depending on whether they are placed in the south or the north, have been sculpted for over 300 years by the estate's gardeners. True works of art, these trees provide endless subjects for photography.
2. The Shoko Shoreikan Buildings
Located at the entrance of Ritsurin Garden, these recently renovated historical buildings welcome visitors by presenting a video on the history of the estate's creation. This is a step not to be missed. It will help you better understand the different aspects of the garden and the philosophy with which it was conceived. You will also find a museum dedicated to Sanuki culture (the former name of Takamatsu Prefecture), the "Sanuki Folk Art Museum".
My equipment: URTH. High-quality graduated filters for landscape photography.
3. The Nanko Pond (South Pond)
Certainly the most spectacular point of the entire garden, the Nanko Pond is a major success characteristic of Japanese landscape art. It is also the largest pond in the estate, with an area of 7,900 square meters. Its lines, viewpoints, islands, and vegetation form a perfect balance. The whole offers perspectives that are either accelerated or slowed down depending on the angle of observation.
The Nanko Pond can be contemplated from a promontory where you can gauge its expanse and photograph it with a backdrop of mountains (Shiunzan) and forests, or photograph it from the shores where multiple viewpoints offer very different framings depending on the light of the day. The pond has several islands, the most characteristic of which are Fu-sho, Tennyoto, and Tokensho islands.
4. Navigating the Nanko Pond and Its Canals
The significant size of the pond allows for navigation on small barges called Wasen, traditionally used by the lords of the time. Water is omnipresent in the garden, either in the form of ponds, canals, or rivers that make up a continuous whole.
Piloted by the estate's guides, these Wasen rides are an opportunity to learn more about Ritsurin as the guide tells you the history of the place while you contemplate the landscape from different viewpoints. These barges carry a maximum of about ten people and navigate very slowly.
You can also reserve them for yourself and your family, fully enjoying this aquatic ride. This activity naturally comes with a fee (610¥).
5. The Kikugetsu-tei Pavilion
During your walk around the Nanko Pond, you can take a moment to stop at the Kikugetsu-tei Pavilion. Built in 1898, this thatched-roof tea house features remarkable traditional architecture. From the inside, you will have a perfectly framed view through the ideal proportions of the large sliding doors of the pavilion.
The geometric shapes imposed by these openings highlight the balance between the lush vegetation of the shores, the contrast of the dry gardens, called Roji, surrounding the pavilion, and the expanse of water.
Entry is subject to a fee (700¥). You can enjoy Matcha tea there (included in the entrance fee) while contemplating the park, seated on tatami mats.
Tripods are allowed in the pavilion as well as throughout the garden, a fact worth noting given its rarity.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3. The ultimate carbon tripod, offering durability, stability, and lightness.
In the spring, the large windows and doors of the pavilion are fully opened to the park, offering a stunning 180° view that never gets old. You can take all the time you need to photograph it. I highly recommend stopping here to enjoy a moment of calm, whether in the shade or sheltered, depending on the weather conditions.
6. The Higurashi-tei Pavilion
Located a bit away from the busy areas of the garden, the Higurashi-tei pavilion, built in 1700, offers a charming setting facing a small shaded garden. This building, in the Soan style (Daimyo tea pavilion), is characteristic of the early Edo period. You can also have tea here, away from the crowds and enjoying the welcome shade of the surrounding pines.
Admission is charged; 500¥ including Matcha tea. It is open on weekends and public holidays only.
In my Bookcase: The Book of Tea
7. The Fuyosho and Gun’ochi Ponds
Located at the opposite end of the garden, these ponds house the lotus collections. A shaded peripheral path allows for close-up photography of these compositions. The perspectives offered by different viewpoints from this walkway, with the immense blooming lotus in the Fuyosho pond, are spectacular.
As for the Gun’ochi pond, it is the largest in the park. Used in the past for duck hunting, it now houses one of the most spectacular collections of irises in Japan.
How to get to Ritsurin Garden
The Ritsurin Garden is located in the heart of the city of Takamatsu. It is therefore easy to walk there from any hotel. If you are not staying in Takamatsu, you can get there by train from any city in Shikoku. The garden is a 30-minute walk from the train station.
If you are not planning to visit Shikoku Island during your trip, getting to Ritsurin Garden may take a considerable amount of time. However, it is possible to drive there from the cities of Kobe via the spectacular Akashi Bridge, transiting through Awaji Island.
Plan for approximately 2 hours by car (150 km). You can also take a ferry to Takamatsu from many cities in Honshu. The journey takes longer, but it offers an opportunity to discover the spectacular landscapes of the Seto Inland Sea.
In my Bookcase: The Gardens of Japan
If you are coming from Okayama, you can cross the Seto Inland Sea by taking a series of bridges that cross the sea from island to island. You will then arrive at Marugame, which is located 40 km from Takamatsu. Plan for approximately 1 hour by car (60 km) from Okayama.
If you are coming from Hiroshima, you can cross the Seto Inland Sea by taking another series of bridges that also cross the sea from island to island. You will then arrive at Imabari (Ehime Prefecture), which is located 140 km from Takamatsu. Plan for approximately 4 hours by car (290 km).
The Ritsurin Garden is open year-round.
Free entry on January 1 and March 16 (garden anniversary dates).
December-January: 7 a.m. - 5 p.m.
February: 7 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
March: 6:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.
April, May, September: 5:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
June, July, August: 5:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.
October: 6 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
November: 6:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.