Six Days in Shikoku: Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu

This picture shows a white sky above, a set of green trees, and a wooden bridge over green pond water where the planks are set up to go forward, to the right, forward, right, forward, right, until it reaches the green bank on the far side

I took a train from Okayama (Honshu) to Takamatsu (Shikoku), which is the largest city in Kagawa Prefecture (Sanuki). The Okayama / Takamatsu line, which is officially called the ‘Seto-Ōhashi Line’ (Great Seto Bridge Line) is the only rail connection between Shikoku and the rest of Japan.

This map shows that Takamatsu is on the northern tip on the eastern side of Shikoku island

To quote the travel diary I wrote while I was in Japan…

It was an experience to go across the Seto Inland sea by train, with the long bridges and the green/granite islands in the water. It gave me a taste of what biking the what-you-call-it-kaido would be like.

The ‘what-you-call-it-kaido’ is the Shimanami Kaido bicycle road which connects Onomichi (Honshu, Hiroshima Prefecture) to Imabari (Shikoku, Ehime Prefecture) and lets people island-hop through the Seto Inland Sea by bicycle. I did not try this while I was in Japan, but there are no shortage of English-language travel bloggers who have.

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Technically, I had been to Kagawa Prefecture before – I had visited Naoshima during my first visit to Japan – but since Naoshima is physically closer to Honshu than Shikoku, I don’t think it counts as visiting Shikoku. Thus, Takamatsu was the first place I ever went to on the island of Shikoku itself.

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The most important tourist attraction in Takamatsu, of course, is Ritsurin Garden, and all of the photos in this post (save the sattelite map) were taken there.

A view of a pond in Risturin garden from above, with an orange bridge visible in the distance on the right side of the photo, and a green, tree-covered slope in the background.  There is a slight reflection of the white sky on the lower edge of the pond

Ritsurin Garden was built to serve as a place of leisure and relaxation for the local daimyo (feudal lord) and took over 100 years to complete. Now, the garden is open to the public for a modest admission fee.

The photo shows a statue of a puppy sitting upright on its hind legs carved in stone, in a room with other sculptures with glass cases and stonework on the walls and floors

Inside the garden is the Sanuki Folk Museum, which displays traditional artwork and tools from Sanuki (the old name of what is now Kagawa Prefecture).

The photo shows a long, wooden table made by traditional Sanuki craftspeople, and in the background a traditional Japanese rock garden is visible

There are many notable trees within the garden, such as trees planted by emperors/crown princes, an oak tree which took root inside a (dead) pine tree, and a famous pine tree known as the ‘crane’.

The photo shows a set of cycad trees, with a walkway and a pond on the left side, and a bit of the forested hill visible in the background

Since one of my favorite parts of travel is making connections between different places I have visited, the plants which seemed particularly notable to me is this set of cycad trees. They were grown from cuttings which the Shimazu clan, who controlled the Satsuma region in southern Kyushu, had given to the daimyo of Sanuki. The cycads originally came from … the Amami islands? (I don’t remember for sure) which were controlled by Satsuma. I had visited one of the Amami islands (Yoron island), and I had visited Kagoshima, the seat of power of the Shimazu clan, so I found it very satisfying to see this physical connection to another part of Japan I had visited.

On the left side of the walkway there is a set of pines which have been pruned so that their canopies look like boxes

There is a set of ‘box pines’ which have been pruned for centuries so that their canopies would have that distinctive shape.

In the background there is a set of pine trees, with a grassy field below.  In the foreground is a whitish rock with an unusual shape, with a stream right below it, and on the upper right is a pine tree branch.

There are a set of unusual rocks with names like ‘lion looking back’ (that’s the name of the rock in the photo above). There was a famine, so the daimyo had a program where he would reward commoners with rice if they brought to him rocks with unique shapes. The daimyo then put these rocks in this garden.

Standing on an orange bridge (barely visible in the photo) the camera sees a group of white-and-orange fish in the black stream water, which extends to a pond reflecting the whiteness of the sky in the upper-left part of the photo, and there is a bonsai pine tree on the bank of the stream just above where the fish are gathered.

One of the caretakers of this garden had just fed the fish at the time of this photo

There seem to be a number of nonhuman animals which enjoy being in the garden as well.

Above there is a series of bonsai pine trees on a little grassy island with decorative whitish rocks in the middle of a green pond.  On the bottom right side of the photo is a grey-white egret standing on a rock at the pond's edge.

Just as the fish eat the fish food, I suspect this egret thinks that the fish *are* the food.

A turtle's head emerges from the surface of the water which reflects the shadow of a tree and the white sky above

It’s a turtle!

And in addition to the flora and fauna, the fungi seem to appreciate this moist garden too.

A bunch of brown mushrooms shaped like upside-down fan umbrellas rise from a mossy patch of ground.

Anyone who visits the garden should get a guide in a language they understand – a lot of symbolism has been put into the garden’s design.

On the bottom of the photo is a bunch of water-plants covering the suface of the pond.  Beyond, the surface of the pond is exposed, and above is a cliff of red stone, with some trees seen just above it.

For example, the part of the garden shown above is supposed to represent the ‘Red Cliff’ from the famous battle scene in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. You know how I love it when different places I travel to are connected to each other. Well, about two months later, I would see a pansori performance in South Korea based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms which climaxed with the Battle of the Red Cliff. While I was listening to the performance of that scene, I thought back to Ritsurin garden.

There is a cliff right above a pond.  On the right side is a delicate little waterfall descending the cliffe.  Just above the exposed section of the cliff is a thick blanket of lushly green trees

I wasn’t there at the right time of year to see the lotus blossoms, but I bet they look gorgeous when they are in bloom.

Above are the wide, circular leaves of lotus plants.  Below is a pond, with its surface reflecting the white sky interrupted by a few mossy rocks.  At the bottom of the photo is the beginning of the stream which serves as the pond's outlet

The lotus pond

The largest pond in the garden is the north pond, which doesn’t seem to be as carefully designed/controlled as the other ponds. It doesn’t seem as special, but I think it’s good that the garden has a space which is a little less controlled.

Above are pine branches against the white sky.  Below is a pond reflecting the white sky and the green trees.  On the far side is a bank with many trees and a little Japanese-style pavillion.  At the bottom of the photo is a green little bush on the left side.

A view over the North Pond

Among a bunch of bonsai pine trees, there is a small fenced off square, with gravel inside and a small eight-level pagoda made of clay

I forget what the significance of this stupa is.

But really, the most beautiful part of the garden is in the south.

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Towards the south end of the garden, near the old water source, is a little souvenir and snack shop. The famous local dish of Takamatsu, of course, is Sanuki Udon, which is supposedly the best udon in Japan. As a vegan, going to noodles shops was pretty frustrating, since I would explain that I don’t eat anything with fish extract or fish stock, and request that they use kelp stock or just plain hot water, and the people at the noodle shop would say ‘no’. Apparently, most of them could not budge from using fish stock because ‘it won’t taste good without it’ even if it means losing a customer.

These underwater plants are growing in water flowing from the original water source of the garden.

These underwater plants are growing in water flowing from the original water source of the garden.

However, the lady in this little shop in the south side of the garden was able to prepare some cold Sanuki udon noodles for a vegan like me. They put the udon noodles with ice, fresh lime (which I squeezed myself), onion, toasted sesame, and a soy sauce which they assured me did not have any bonito extract/stock or any other kind of fish/seafood in it. I’m no udon connoisseur, but I did think it was pretty tasty.

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There are a number of bridges in the garden.

There is a simple wooden bridge crossing a brown stream with lush trees and other green plants on the other side.

However, the most famous bridge in the garden is the one in the photo below…

Above is a white sky.  In the background there is a hill covered with trees.  In the foreground is a gracefully curving wooden bridge, which is reflected on the surface of the pond.  Behind it, an island covered with circular little green shrubs is visible.

And from the highest point in the garden, you can look down and see this view…

At the bottom of the picture are the tops of little bonsai pine trees.  Above, further away, we see the curved wooden over the pond, with the whity sky reflected in the surface of the pond before it, and a little island covered with circular green bushes behind it.  Far in the background (yet at the top of the picture) we see a slope covered with lush trees.

A view from the highest point of the garden

I’ve been to quite a few traditional Japanese gardens – including some of the famous gardens of Kyoto, Kenroku-en in Kanezawa, Koraku-en in Okayama, and that garden next to the castle in Hikone. I would say that the best is this one, Ritsurin-en in Takamatsu. It is more beautiful, its fairly big and varied, there’s a lot to process if you get really into the commentary, and it’s not nearly as flooded with visitors as, say, Ginkakuji in Kyoto (okay, maybe that’s because I went on a slightly rainy day – but considering how good my impressions were on a slightly rainy day, imagine what I’d be saying if I visited Ritsurin Garden on a good-weather day).

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Ritsurin Garden is an obvious ‘must-visit’ for anybody who goes to Shikoku.

But I actually left out one of the best parts of this garden in this post because I am saving it for the next post. So the next post in this series will be ‘The Teahouses of Ritsurin’.

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2 thoughts on “Six Days in Shikoku: Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu

  1. Pingback: Six Days in Shikoku: The Teahouses of Ritsurin Garden | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: Six Days in Shikoku: The Great Shrines of Konpira-san | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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