8/6/16. Looking out of the window first thing this one morning we were pleased to see dry roads and high clouds. Hopefully we would get neither wet or too hot. And so it transpired.
It was only a short (20 km) ride into Okayama (a major city of more than 700,000 people which neither of us had heard of before we came to Japan!) as we had another garden visit on the agenda. Again, it was not a journey for the sightseers as the two cities, Kurashiki and Okayama, have coalesced so that the only remotely rural sight between the two was a few paddy fields, surrounded by buildings.
The garden in question is Koraku-en on an island in the river, overlooked by Okayama Castle. It is listed as one of the three best gardens in Japan so our expectations were high. For such a well known attraction, the entrance fee was extremely reasonable at ¥400 (about £2.70) each.
Walking in, it immediately felt different to the other major gardens we have been to in Japan (Ritsurin-koen in Takamatsu and Shukkei-en in Hiroshima) as there were large grass lawns making it much more “open”. We were left feeling as though we had seen most of it in one glance whereas in the others there seemed to be a different view around every corner.
Don’t get us wrong. Koraku-en in undoubtedly beautiful and maintained in a pristine condition (we saw three men “brushing” a stream bed with a net downstream to catch the debris that they dislodged!) The lake in the middle is stunning with a lovely tea house on a small island. There is a “forest” of cycads pruned into fantastic shapes. Groves of cherry trees and acers must look gorgeous when at their most colourful.
However, we were left mildly disappointed. Ritsurin-koen had set the bar so high and the claims that this is one of the three best in the country led us to expect it to better still. And it wasn’t.
Koraku-en is most definitely worth going out of your way for a visit but, if you only have time to catch one garden, we would recommend Ritsurin-koen.
The castle overlooks the garden and is an impressive sight. It is nicknamed the Crow Castle because of the black weatherboards on the upper stories and is unusually shaped – an irregular pentagon.