The magnificent Korakuen Gardens in Okayama, Japan
The Three Great Gardens of Japan
I'm quite partial to a good garden.
Not that I am particularly green-fingered myself - far from it. But there is something about being in a great garden. Whether it is a wild English garden - still mostly left to its own devices like a room just given the briefest of tidy-ups - or the finest of French topiary immaculately groomed, I love spending time in these leafy creations.
I have a feeling that coming from a family of horticulturists, ranging all the way from the professional to those just dabbling, has had something to do with it. And while it might not have quite managed to make a budding gardener out of me, it almost certainly has contributed to my love of the final product.
So as I do when planning all of our holidays, when it came to mapping out our itinerary around Japan I went on a hunt for some noteworthy Japanese gardens.
And in a country like Japan these are myriad. The long and illustrious history of Japanese gardens is well-established and world-renowned. Couple that with the pride and attention to detail that goes hand-in-hand with most any Japanese endeavour, and you have the recipe for greatness.
Amongst this multitude of veritable verdancy, there are though some stand-outs.
And perhaps the most celebrated of these are Japan's so-called Three Great Gardens. Designated Special Places of Scenic Beauty - these 3 gardens are supreme examples of Japanese landscaping skills.
None of them are found in the main Japanese cities frequented by tourists though, and so visiting one of these beautiful gardens means heading a little more off the beaten track.
Possibly the easiest of the 3 gardens for a keen tourist to visit, especially for those planning a stay in Osaka or even Kyoto, is the Korakuen Garden in Okayama.
How to get to Okayama and the Koraku-en Garden
Okayama train station is a mere 45 minutes from Shin-Osaka station on one of the Shinkansen bullet trains, included in the JR Pass. As such, it could easily be done as a day trip from Osaka - maybe even combined with a visit to Himeji or Kobe.
Or for those travellers who like ourselves find themselves travelling further west on their journey - visiting perhaps the avant-garde art galleries of Naoshima Island, or the profoundly moving Hiroshima Peace Memorial and lovely Miyajima island - Okayama makes a perfect pit stop on the way.
Just stash your bags at the lockers provided inside Okayama train station, and wander on over to see the sights. The Okayama Castle and the Korakuen Garden are around a 20 minute walk from the station.
What to see on a day trip to Okayama
Nishigawa Canal Park Walk
Partway along the walk to the Korakuen Garden from the Okayama train station is the Nishigawa Canal.
In what is a slightly slimmed-down version of Kyoto's Philosopher's Path, this is a lovely walk along the canal, beneath cherry blossom trees and by flower gardens in bloom, the small river running alongside.
There are local restaurants along the entire length of the walk for a quick bite, and benches periodically to sit down and take in the peaceful atmosphere. It makes a perfect spot for a quick rest too for those who would like a break en route between the station and the Korakuen gardens.
Situated next to the bridge that leads to the entrance of the Korakuen Garden is also one of Okayama's most famous historical sites - the Okayama Castle.
This gorgeous castle is also sometimes referred to as the Crow Castle, for its black exterior.
The price of entry to the Okayama castle itself is a steal at only YEN320. And in fact, there is a combined ticket available which includes access to the Korakuen Garden, for a total cost of only YEN580, making it great value.
The exhibition leading through the various levels of the castle plays out the history of the building, including its construction, war time destruction and subsequent rebuild. There is also information on the various lords of the castle over the centuries, the wars fought and the daily life of the castle during the various periods.
It all makes for an interesting visit, but the real highlight of Okayama castle is the magnificent views from the top, out over Okayama city, the Asahi river which runs alongside, and into the neighbouring Korakuen Gardens.
Having finished our visit to Okayama Castle we make our way back to the bridge for the highlight of our Okayama trip, crossing the river and over to the entrance of the gardens. The Korakuen entrance fee here is also a very modest YEN410, but since we already have our combined ticket from the castle we're all set.
We enter the Korakuen garden itself, and it is a marvel, in a distinctly Japanese way. Every detail has been perfectly planned and painstakingly executed.
Even the periodic hillocks, the rises and falls in the landscape, can surely not be natural - they're all far too elegantly placed and pleasing to the eye.
We make our way over to one, crossing streams filled with koi fish expertly dodging the Japanese toddlers eagerly reaching for them, and follow the pathway to the top. From here we have a view over much of the magnificent gardens.
Created over 300 years ago by Ikeda Tsunamasa, lord at that time of the Okayama region, and impeccably maintained, not much about the Korakuen gardens has changed in all that time.
There are hills dotted around, surrounded by huge lawns where happy children are running about. Everywhere are ponds, large and small, islands at their center and streams linking them all. There are waterfalls cascading merrily, shrines to discover, pavilions to rest under and tea houses for refreshments.
As we wander around the gardens, crossing bridges both traditional and modern, or hopping along the stepping stones that cross the waterways, it seems every corner of Korakuen has a new discovery. Flower beds are here and there, just beginning their springtime displays. Or a pond rife with lotus flowers, which I imagine would be stunning in summer.
We come across Yushinzan Hill, a popular spot for sitting down to appreciate the views - itself covered in azalea bushes that light up with colour in spring.
Korakuen park has all the required woodlands that anyone could wish for to celebrate the changing of the seasons. There is of course the obligatory cherry blossom orchard, which is in full bloom during our visit - proudly flaunting its ephemeral beauty. Beneath bows thick with blossoms are happy hanami groups celebrating in true Japanese style, marking the precious and fleeting sakura season.
Elsewhere in Korakuen there is also a plum tree orchard, lovely in blossom during the earlier part of spring, as well as a maple tree forest which attracts crowds during the autumn changing of the leaves.
We continue walking around as we come across new sights - first rows of rice fields carefully cultivated, and later some lush tea plantations.
Around the main central pond we join the many other visitors come to enjoy this magnificent park, among them happy Japanese couples decked out in traditional wear taking their pre-wedding photos.
In all we spent perhaps 2 hours at Korakuen, whiling away the time contentedly in the beautifully manicured gardens, before having to set off back to Okayama station, where we collected our bags and continued onward on our journey around Japan.
Our next stop: the innovative art galleries of Naoshima Island...
For us Korakuen was more than just a pit stop en route between 2 destinations though. It was a sight in and of itself - impressive and unique. For anyone who equally loves gardens and appreciates the artistry and affection that goes into creating and maintaining them, we wholeheartedly recommend adding a trip to Okayama's Korakuen Garden to your next Japanese itinerary!
Summer: 7:30am - 6pm
Winter: 8am - 5pm