In few countries have the peace and serenity of nature been cultivated into stylized gardens, as Japan. The very term “Japanese garden” conjures up a sense of zen, where the placement of rocks is as important as the selection of flowers. The country has even designated three major gardens as national treasures.
But while most visitors venture out of the capital to the likes of Kyoto, Okayama and Kanazawa to find the most famous gardens, leaving the mega-metropolis of Tokyo behind, few seem aware of one of the most rich gardens of all, right in its heart.
Located between Edogawabashi, Waseda and Mejiro, Chinzan-so has a history dating back centuries, from a time when haiku poet Matsuo Bashō lived in a hut on the site. It would be named Chinzan-so (“House of Camellia”) by Prince Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922) during the Meiji-era, thanks to the abundant wild camellias. Ukiyoe artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) even made wood block prints of the flowers, but the garden really come in to its own when Baron Heitaro Fujita took over the site.
At its center is a pagoda dating from the Muromachi era (1336-1573), moved here from the mountains of Hiroshima and faithfully kept to its original design. Built without any nails by Chikurin-ji temple monks it is the oldest in the city. It’s one of many historical monuments in the garden moved there by Baron Heitaro Fujita. Just down from the hill peak where the pagoda stands is the small Shiratama Inari Shrine, relocated from Shimogano in Kyoto and dating from 1924.
Between the wooden bridges, pond and waterfall, where the gardeners are keen to ensure every element is kept traditional and authentic (even the walkway barriers are made from bamboo), visitors can find hidden treasures throughout, from a watermill and an old Kokosei well, to Hannyaji Ishidoro stone lanterns, and the carved Buddhist and Taoist images on rakan stone statues.
One of Chinzan-so’s most treasured artifacts though is very much of the natural kind – a sacred 500-year-old chinquapin tree that has grown to 4.5 meters in circumference.
Today the garden is the maintained by Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo, which took over management of it in 2013, enhancing it further by serving kaiseki cuisine and soba within traditional Japanese wooden buildings set within the garden itself. Former country houses and a tea ceremony room are hidden within the garden, while the hotel has added two terraces on its roof from which to view the entire premises. With kimono rentals available, and the tea house Zangetsu on-site, Chinzanso may be the only place to feel and experience authentic ancient Japan within its capital city.