Talk With Travelers: Gora Koen Comes Alive At Night With Light, Music Extravaganza

TALK WITH TRAVELERS: Gora Koen comes alive at night with light, music extravaganza

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which have been visited by an increasing number of tourists from overseas. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on sceneries and cultural heritages that gave form to these areas.

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Multicolored bands of light flutter in the symmetrical French-style formal garden, while waves of light surge from shrubs surrounding a fountain pond and an infinite number of light particles sparkle on the water.

A new sound and light show called the Spring Night Garden dazzles visitors at the famed Gora Koen park in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The trunk of a Himalayan cedar tree changes in color from champagne gold to green and pink, symbolizing life that awakens in spring.

Inside a greenhouse filled with spring-flowering plants are images of little birds and grasshoppers playing stringed instruments.

With only a few eateries open at night in the Gora district, an increasing number of foreign tourists have been seeking places where they can enjoy the late hours.

Sayaka Takeuchi, art director at the park, came up with an idea.

"I took the Western culture of tea parties and brought it to a secret garden surrounded and protected by the mountains," she said. "I sought ways to make visitors feel the culture that Japanese people incorporated during the nation’s Westernization."

Shin Honjo, 35, who has operated an "onsen" hot spring guest house called Hakone Tent in the Gora district for five years, welcomed the new extravaganza at the park.

"I hope visitors also enjoy their night strolls and feel they want to come back again," he said.

The Gora Koen park opened in 1914 on a slope of a high plateau where villa development projects were under way.

The park is now mainly open during the day. But in the 1960s, dance parties had been held almost every mid-summer night on a stage set up at the fountain pond.

According to Michiya Tashiro, 84, who served as head of the park office between 1957 and 1990, men were clad mainly in "yukata" light summer kimono while women wore Western clothes as they danced to live music performed by a Hawaiian band. Rock ’n’ roll albums were played during breaks.

"In addition to guests, hotel employees who had nowhere else to go for fun danced until late at night," Tashiro said. "I was invited to some of the weddings between the men and women who danced together."

Every year on Aug. 16, visitors can watch the Daimonji-yaki bonfire on Mount Myojogatake. The event started in 1921 after the park decided to give summer visitors something to remember.

Members of a youth group based in the Miyagino district at the base of the mountain cut down thin bamboo trees near the mountaintop to make about 350 bundles.

The 2.5-meter bundles are lined up vertically in the shape of the kanji character for "dai" (great or big). The kanji comprises three strokes, with the largest stroke stretching about 108 meters.

The bundles are set alight at the same time.

The bonfire can also be seen from a teahouse in the park. Taijisai, which means "a quiet room facing the character," was built by Sankei Hara, who also created the Sankeien Garden in Yokohama.

"When you slowly open the 'shoji’ sliding doors after a tea party, you can see the large burning character," Tashiro said.

Standing next to Taijisai is another teahouse called Hakuundo, which was built by Takashi Masuda, a tea master from the Mitsui "zaibatsu" conglomerate who also goes by the name of Donno.

Both teahouses are government-registered tangible cultural properties.

The "dai" character can be seen during the day throughout the year except in stormy weather.

On the afternoon of March 2, Facundo Muscariello, 28, from Argentina, was looking at the kanji.

"Do they control the fire?" he asked, worried about the flames spreading outside the boundaries.

"You make art with nature. It’s not very common to find in other places," he added, taking in the view of the garden and the mountains.

Stephanie Johnson, 51, from the United States, said she enjoyed "matcha" (powdered green tea) at Hakuundo as well as the view of Mount Myojogatake from Taijisai.

"I thought it was beautiful and simple," she said of the teahouse. "I could sit there all day and just look outside. This garden is amazing."

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Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.