What Makes the Stunning Kenrokuen One of the ’3 Great Gardens’ of Japan?

  • SPOT
  • With the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line in March 2015, Kanazawa has become a new tourism hotspot as it is more accessible now to domestic and foreign tourists coming from the Kanto region. How about checking out Kenrokuen which is one of the icons in Kanazawa?

    The 3 Great Gardens of Japan

    There are three Japanese-style gardens which are known collectively as the 3 great gardens of Japan which are: Kenrokuen in Kanazawa City (Ishikawa Prefecture), Kairakuen in Mito City (Ibaraki Prefecture) and Kourakuen in Okayama City (Okayama Prefecture). Although it is not known how and when exactly these gardens came to be known as such, historical records indicate that the term of “the 3 great gardens of Japan” first appeared in a photography book targeted at foreigners which was published in 1904 during the Meiji era. At present, it is generally accepted that Kenrokuen, Kairakuen, and Kourakuen represent the snow, moon and flowers respectively which are elements of beauty from the four seasons as described in a poem by Chinese poet Bai Juyi. One key similarity among the three gardens is that they were all built during the Edo era in the Chisenkaiyushiki style (池泉回遊式) i.e. a path going around a central pond.

    Introduction to Kenrokuen

    Kenrokuen (兼六園) is located in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, and was developed as the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle by the Maeda clan who ruled the Kaga Domain. Construction first began in 1676 when the 5th lord Maeda Tsunanori moved to the castle but it was destroyed by fire once in 1759. Restoration began in 1774 by the 11th lord Harunaga until the 13th lord Nariyasu completed it before the garden was opened to the public on 7 May 1874. The name “Kenroku” refers to the six attributes which make up a perfect garden as described in the “Luoyang Mingyuanji” (洛陽名園記) written by Chinese poet Li Gefei (李格非). The attributes are grandness (宏大), seclusion (幽邃), artificiality (人力), antiquity (蒼古), waterways (水泉) and lookout views (眺望).

    While you are here, do keep a lookout for these special features and buildings:

    Kotojitourou (徽軫灯籠; Kotoji Lanterns)

    These lanterns were modified from the Yukimi lanterns which were used to light up the water surface and have two legs instead of the usual one. Although the legs used to be of the same length, one of the legs was broken for some reason thus the shorter leg rests above a stone now in order for the lantern to maintain its balance. The shape in between the legs resembles that of the bridge of a koto thus earning its name. Along with the lantern, there is always a rainbow bridge in front of the lantern and a maple tree beside it.

    Kasumigaike (霞ヶ池; Kasumigaike Pond)


    This is the largest pond at the center of the garden and many of the garden’s highlights such as the Kotoji Lanterns are located around it. The Hourajima (蓬莱島) rising from the middle of the pond represents longevity and immortality due to its resemblance to a turtle and is also known as Kikkoujima (亀甲島; island of the turtle’s shell). The pond used to be much smaller until the 13th lord Nariyasu expanded it to its current size.

    Shiguretei (時雨亭; The Shigure Pavilion)

    This was built when construction on the garden first began and was the villa for Tsunanori in Kenrokuen. However, when the Kaga Domain was abolished at the beginning of the Meiji era, it was pulled down. In 2000, the pavilion was rebuilt and can be accessed for free by the public if you just want to look around. However, if you want to enjoy a cup of freshly-made tea with the signature wagashi from Shiguretei, you would have to pay 720 yen for the matcha set and 310 yen for the sencha set. The pavilion’s spaces are also available for rental to those who wish to conduct cultural events there. One important thing to note is that Shiguretei is closed between 29 December and 3 January, unlike Kenrokuen which is open every day.

    Hisagoike (瓢池; The Gourd Pond)

    This is the oldest pond in the garden which is shaped like a gourd. Within it lies the immortality and god islands of different sizes and there is a six-tier pagoda on an islet in the pond. It was said that the pagoda used to be part of a 13-tier pagoda located at a garden inside Kanazawa Castle but was moved out to Kenrokuen at the order of the 3rd lord Toshitsune.

    Karasakimatsu (唐崎松; The Karasaki Pine trees)

    The trees’ seeds were brought in by the 13th lord Nariyasu from the vicinity of Lake Biwa and planted in the garden. As Kanazawa experiences heavy snowfall during winter, the trees are covered by wooden structures put up in the shape of a cone before winter so that they don’t buckle from the weight of the snow. This unique structure thus creates a unique view in the garden especially when lit up at night.

    Neagarimatsu (根上松; The rising roots pine)

    The height of this Japanese black pine tree planted by the 13th lord Nariyasu is about 15m which makes it one of the tallest trees in Kenrokuen. What makes this special are its more than 40 roots of varying sizes rising above the ground with some as high as 2m thus creating a unique sight to behold.

    Sekireijima (鶺鴒島; The wagtail island)

    At this place, there are three structures representing birth, marriage and death – the Yin and Yang stone, the twin pines and a five-tiered pagoda. In addition, there is a torii with the words sanja (三社; three shrines) written on the front.

    Yamazakiyama (山崎山; Mount Yamazaki)

    This is an artificially-made hill where one side is filled with green moss and is also known as Momijiyama for the beautiful maple and Japanese horse chestnut trees’ leaves which would turn red and yellow during autumn. There is a 5-tiered pagoda made of Shirakawa granite and a pavilion on one side while the water that flows among the rocks at the foot of the mountain feeds into the Kasumigaike. Visitors can climb up to the top of the hill to get a bird’s-eye view of Kenrokuen.

    Midoritaki (翠滝; The Midori Waterfall)

    The waterfall runs from the Kasumigaike into the Hisagoike and is the tallest waterfall within Kenrokuen at the height of 6.6m and is 1.6m wide. Due to its size, the amount of water that flows through is quite substantial thus the water sound can be distinctly heard as you get closer to the waterfall.

    The Oldest Fountain in Japan

    The fountain here which was built in 1861, is said to be the oldest in Japan and makes use of the water from Kasumigaike as its source. As the pond is located at a higher point compared to the fountain, it creates natural water pressure which causes the water to be sprayed upwards to a height of 3.5m usually but it will vary according to differences in Kasumigaike’s water level. Considering that the fountain was built in the Edo era, the high level of technology displayed in the design of this fountain is truly astounding.

    Things to take note of when visiting Kenrokuen

    Like many other gardens in Japan, you have to pay an admission fee of 310 yen (100 yen for children between the ages of 6 and 18) to visit Kenrokuen. Visitors can pay by cash or credit card. There are exemptions for some people including the elderly who are 65 and above but you would need to provide your identification for such purposes. Pets are not allowed in the garden and smoking is restricted to designated spots only.

    To enjoy free admission, you can take advantage of the early admission scheme but the catch is that you have to be there very early in the morning (from 5 am in the month of March, 4am between April and August, 5am in the months of September and October and 6am between November and February). In addition, you have to leave 15 minutes before the start of the paid admission hours. Note that entry is only via the Renchimon and Zuishinzakaguchi exits. Last but not least, Kenrokuen is open every day of the year even during the Japanese New Year but you would have to be prepared to jostle with the large crowds during public holidays.

    If you would like to join a guided tour, Kenrokuen offers that in Japanese and English. Depending on the day of your visit, there may be guides speaking in Mandarin or Korean too. As these guides operate on a volunteer basis, they may not be at the garden every day. Generally, the guided tours are free-of-charge but you will need to check on the availability of the tours at the rest stop located at the Ishikawamon exit and no prior reservations are allowed.

    After reading so much about Kenrokuen, are you keen to find out for yourself how it has earned its reputation as one of the 3 great gardens of Japan? Have fun basking in the tranquility and beauty of this elegant garden!

    Related Articles:
    Kenrokuen Garden, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan
    5 Reasons to Visit Kanazawa – Japan’s Historical Town