Japan loves to devise top three lists, and Okayama City’s Korakuen is held to be one of the country’s three best gardens. Anyone who’s visited will tell you that it’s indeed beautiful, but Korakuen isn’t the city’s only garden, or even its oldest.
Okayama is also where you’ll find Tokoen, a garden with a history that stretches back to the early days of Japan’s feudal Edo era. Tranquil and easily accessed by public transportation, Tokoen would make an ideal spot for history buffs and nature lovers looking for a less crowded, quieter urban oasis than Korakuen.
Sadly, though, after roughly four centuries, Tokoen has closed down, and is soon likely to be demolished and replaced with a condominium complex.
Although the exact year Tokoen was completed is unclear, historians do know that it was initially the private retreat of Ikeda Tadakatsu, the lord whose domain included present-day Okayama City.
Ikeda’s short life lasted from 1602 to 1632, making Tokoen one of the oldest gardens in Okayama Prefecture, and also several decades older than Korakuen, which was built in 1700.
The garden’s layout is thought to be the work of noted landscaper Kobori Enshu, who designed Tokoen in the kaiyu style, in which visitors are led on a course that winds around the grounds and past a spring-fed pond and tea house. As with many Japanese gardens, it was created with sight lines that ”borrow” aspects from the surrounding scenery, which in Tokoen’s case means affording visitors views of nearby Mt. Misaoyama.
After the death of Ikeda, ownership of the garden was transferred to the Niwa samurai family, and Tokoen has remained in private hands since. Although Okayama was bombed in the closing days of World War II, the garden escaped damage, and several of its features, such as the pond and seven-layer granite tower (which itself was constructed during the Kamakura period which lasted from the 12th to 14th centuries), have been left as they were when Tokoen was first opened centuries ago.
Despite remaining in private ownership, for many years the roughly 700-square meter garden was open to the public for a modest 400 yen admission fee.
Tragedy struck, though, in 2012, when the then-owner of Tokoen passed away. The heirs to the property said they were no longer able to continue operating the garden in its previous capacity, and in May of 2013, entrance to Tokoen became limited to those making advance reservations.
Apparently even this austerity measure was not enough, and on December 3 of the same year, Tokoen closed its gates for good.
Tokoen was never registered as an official cultural property, and as such does not seem to be eligible for any sort of special protection from the local government. With its former owners incapable of serving as caretakers, the land has been sold off to property developers. According to an article published by the local Sanyo Shimbun newspaper, a multi-floor condominium complex will be built on the site.
A quick look at the cramped dimensions of the average Japanese home is enough to make almost anyone long for more modern, spacious, and comfortable housing. Still, the loss of what should have been considered a cultural treasure is a high price to pay for such amenities, especially when it seems like more could have been done to prevent the garden’s loss.
Tokoen is not located in a remote, outlying corner of Okayama City. The city streetcar’s Kadotayashiki Teiryujo stop is right in front of the garden, sitting just 2.7 kilometers from Okayama Station and the city center. Nonetheless, little if anything was done to promote Tokoen as a destination for travelers. Most tourism literature makes no mention of it, and even Okayama City’s official website seems to have given no more than a single page to Tokoen, lacking even such basic information as directions for visitors.
We were alerted to this sad tale by a resident of the neighborhood where Tokoen is located. Our source informed us that towards the end of its days, the garden was indeed struggling to draw visitors, who primarily consisted of elderly couples and small groups of amateur photographers and artists.
With buildable land always scarce, it’s an unfortunate fact of life in Japan that in order to put up something new, something old often has to be swept away. The area surrounding Tokoen isn’t immune to such changes, as our source reports. “A little over a year ago we got a new grocery store and the nearby school is expanding. Parking lots are being turned into houses and houses are renovating.”
Still, the sale of Tokoen came as a complete surprise. “A few old homes may have been torn down, but nothing like this.” What makes the situation particularly frustrating is the lack of an earnest attempt to engage the community in finding a way to save the garden. “Had they come forward…people could have helped,” the resident laments. “There have been no signs posted or anything, and the city has said nothing.”
With the sale completed, it’s likely too late for historical conservationists to do anything to halt the construction project now. An outpouring of support could, possibly, encourage developers to preserve at least a portion of the garden, or at the very least plant the seed of such an idea in the heads of those in charge of future projects.
If nothing more, hopefully all this will serve as a reminder of the dangers of taking things for granted. Almost every town in Japan has its own Tokoen, someplace that’s been part of the local cultural heritage for so long it’s slowly becoming forgotten, even as its need for support grows more and more critical. So whether you’re a resident or a visitor to Japan, next time you’re at what seems like just another shrine, temple, or garden, consider putting a few yen into the collection box or the hand of a local vendor. Otherwise, you just might find a condo there the next time you stop by.
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