Ritsurin Koen: a classic garden and the teamLab touch

Ritsurin Koen, a classic “samurai strolling garden”, is a treasure of Takamatsu, a Shikoku castle town facing the Seto Inland Sea.  With 400 years of history it is one of the most beautiful gardens of its type in Japan, with sculpted ponds and waterways, hills dotted with carefully tended pine trees, and landscapes that must be strolled to be truly appreciated. It is said that the scenery of the garden changes with every step one takes.

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Through March 8, 2020, this historic venue is also hosting that most modern of 21st century  techno-art:  teamLab’s Digitized Nature art project has adorned half of the garden with illumination and lit objects to create an after-dark spectacle of interactive art space.

Development of the garden was begun around 1615 by a retainer of the Ikoma lords of Sanuki Province (modern day Kagawa Prefecture).  He took advantage of a small natural pond and the position of Mt. Shiun to the west to create a pretty little refuge.  A decade later, his Ikoma master took over the garden and further developed and expanded the space, as did the Matsudaira lords who came later.  It took more than a century to create the garden’s current structure: 175,000 square meters (185 acres), with 6 ponds connected by small channels.

After its completion, the garden served as the country home of the Matsudaira family for more than 200 years before becoming a public garden in 1875.  A couple of small teahouses from that period still exist.

Perhaps a  more interesting remnant of the garden’s pre-modern history is the “Kamoba”, a kind of duck blind (duck hunting was a popular samurai pastime). Although it looks like an munitions bunker, on the other side is a small channel of water that was apparently attractive to ducks.

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Just east of the duck blind is Gun’o-chi, the largest of Ritsurin Koen’s six ponds.  It remains popular with water birds, especially during the winter months.  In the early summer, Japanese iris are cultivated in the shallowest areas of the pond, giving it a burst of color.

Gun’o-chi pond is also scenic in the winter months when the garden’s plum grove is in bloom.  The garden has two plum groves, totally 170 trees that bloom in white and various shades of pink.  Before cherry blossom viewing was popularized during the Edo Period (1603-1868), hanami (blossom viewing) focused its attention on the tenacious plum blossom, which opens in the coldest part of winter and continues to bloom for several weeks.

Although the name “Ritsurin” means chestnut grove, most of the garden’s trees are pines: more than 1,400 of them in several varieties.  Some of the trees are as much as 300 years old and are carefully tended.

The entire garden requires extensive maintenance; it would be rare to visit and not see gardeners at work somewhere.

The garden is replete with water features, all fed from Fukiage, a spring at the southeast corner of the garden.  Here visitors must walk across stepping stones to continue their exploration of the garden.  There is a popular little refreshment stand near Fukiage and benches where visitors can sit and watch the colored carp greedily feeding on whatever it is they like that tumbles over the weir in that spot.  Although the carp especially like this part of the south pond, they can be seen swimming all over the pond.

Another recreation for visitors is a boat ride around the south pond (JPY610).  Passengers are given a traditional hat to help set the mood and are then poled around the pond to enjoy completely different views of the garden.

There are also plenty of attractive bridges to enjoy.

Near the regular entrance to the garden there is a lovely 1899 exhibition building and a small museum of local folk craft.  Both are worth a quick visit.

That’s the garden during the day–lots to enjoy and even savor.  Until March 8, 2020, teamLab has made the garden a place to be enjoyed at night, too.  (Special admission: JPY1,500; tickets available online).  Based on the concept that technology can turn nature into art without damaging the nature, the artists, engineers, designers, mathematicians and programmers of teamLab have created a completely different after-dark world.

One major concept is resonating light, illuminations that change color sometimes on a schedule or sometimes in reaction to their environment.  The reflections in the south pond double the impact.

Other light displays on the pond feature floating “ovoids” that also change color and even lamps made of Murano glass.

There are also spheres and ovoids on land that visitors can interact with, much like in teamLab’s Borderless exhibit in Tokyo.  These objects especially react to being touched, changing color and even emitting sound.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is the “Forest of Autonomous Resonating Life”, a densely packed gaggle of really big “ovoids” that visitors are invited to push their way through.

Just beyond the “forest”, at the edge of the garden, digital magic has turned a rocky escarpment into “Ever Blossoming Life Rock Wall”.

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The lights on the rock wall were constantly moving, creating an almost eerie sense that it was alive.

Viewed in the daylight, the rock wall, with its man-made waterfall, actually seems a bit drab, compared to the way that teamLab made it come to life.

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Ritsurin Koen has been awarded three stars by the Michelin Green Guide, making it “worth a special journey”.  This is all the more the case while the teamLab exhibit is taking place, although in that case, I recommend visiting twice.  You’ll find the difference to be like night and day.

The garden’s hours vary seasonally but it is always open between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm.  Admission is JPY410 (adults); JPY170 (children).

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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