As the cold sets in and leaves turn to autumn colors, the Japanese enjoy “Momiji-gari”, an expression translated as “Japanese maple hunting”. Just as we enjoy “Hanami”, which is a Japanese tradition of appreciating the blooming of cherry blossoms and celebrating the coming of spring, we set out to enjoy the autumn foliage. While “Hanami” is more about picnics and partying with family, friends and colleagues under the cherry blossom trees, “Momiji-gari” is celebrated in a more composed way. Maybe because it’s already too cold to sit outside for hours!
Rikugien, located in northern Tokyo is a perfect place to enjoy the autumn colors. Alongside Koishikawa Korakuen, it is considered Tokyo’s most beautiful Japanese garden and is a typical example of the Edo Period gardens where the garden features a large central pond surrounded by manmade hills and forested areas, all connected by a network of trails.
The garden was created in 1702 by the lord of Kawagoe domain, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu on land donated by shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. As the land was flat, it took Yanagisawa 7 years to build the garden, digging ponds, drawing water from the Senkawa river, and making small hills. According to old documents, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi visited the garden 58 times, which clearly shows his passion for the garden. However, almost two centuries later, Rikugien fell into disrepair. Iwasaki Yataro, the founder of the Mitsubishi group purchased the garden and restored it. It was hardly damaged from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and was endowed to the city of Tokyo and opened to the public in 1938. Rikugien has also been designated as a national scenic beauty since 1953.
Rikugien literally means “six poems garden”, and the garden is all about poetry. It reproduces in miniature 88 scenes from famous classical Chinese and Japanese poems. The garden is designed to be strolled around, following the winding paths and admiring each specially created scene. Strolling through the garden, you will encounter stone lanterns, footbridges and several teahouses where visitors can stop and enjoy a quiet cup of Japanese tea and wagashi(Japanese confectionery), overlooking the scenery.
I visited Rikugien on a Sunday in late November, right before noon and it was quite crowded, so you may want to visit on a weekday or in the morning. Having said that, the light up in the evening is a magical experience, celestial even. The trees are lit up from below, and the contrast between the red leaves and dark blue sky is breathtaking.
Lastly, while Rikugien is known for the amazing autumn colors, it also has around 40 cherry blossom trees scattered about in the garden. The large weeping cherry tree that is just inside the garden’s entrance, and measures around 15 meters high and 20 meters wide is a trademark of Rikugien, and is recommended if you are visiting Tokyo in the spring time. An average of 200,000 people visit the garden each year to celebrate the cherry blossoms! The weeping cherry tree blooms slightly ahead of the Somei Yoshino cherry trees, so if you are in Tokyo in the middle of March, and are a bit too early for the Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms, it would be a good idea to visit the garden to see this epic weeping cherry tree. The evening light up also takes place at this time of year, so you may want to check that out as well (in 2016, it took place from March 17th to April 3rd) .
The garden is also famous for its azaleas, and from this, the city of Komagome is often referred to as “the town of azaleas”. So no matter what the season, Rikugien is highly recommended and worth a visit. Once entering the garden, you will forget that you are in the middle of Tokyo. The exceptional scenery may bring you back in time as well.
When buying tickets, there can be a cue at the Someimon Gate that is right across from Komagome Station , so I recommend you to use the Main Gate which is less crowded.