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The Koraku-en: Tranquility, culture, and beauty in Japan
When visiting Japan, there are many interesting places to go. There are, of course, many different temples and landmarks and Mount Fuji with many popular cities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. However, if you’re looking for a place to unwind from all the hustle and bustle of Tokyo or the lights, noise, and shopping in Osaka, the Kōraku-en gardens in Okayama may be just the place to relax and enjoy some of the more peaceful, beautiful aspects of Japan and Japanese culture.
Okayama is a growing city that you can easily access from the Shinkansen (train line) just a half hour or so from Hiroshima or Kobe, so it is easy to plan half a day trip to divide between locales. It is also fairly easy to navigate and reaching the Koraku-en is easily done by bus or the Higashiyama Line on the local tram.
Ranked as One of the Three Best Gardens in Japan
The Koraku-en is open to the public and is ranked the third best garden in Japan. In the spring, its sakura (cherry tree) orchards cover the grounds in bright pink, fluffy petals, and in the fall, the Japanese maples turn a stunning red-orange.
The Koraku-en was created in 1687 by Ikeda Tsunamasa, lord of Okayama, who used it for relaxation, entertainment, and as a spa. It was modernized in 1868, and since then, the grounds are virtually unchanged after rebuilding, including intricate waterways and waterfalls, rice fields, orchards of cherry and plum trees, and sprawling lawns.
A replica of the local castle, Ujo or “Crow Castle” overlooks the entire estate. The original Crow Castle was bombed in World War 2, but the replica is very accurately rebuilt due to the original blueprints being maintained. As the name implies, it is a black castle, which is a little odd compared to most other castles in Japan.
Large ponds filled with glossy, shimmering koi fish center the grounds. Visitors may purchase food to lure the friendly, massive koi (some of which are decades old) to the surface for a closer look (or even pat, they are so trusting), as well as view the crane aviary kept on the premises.
The entire park and castle rambles across a spacious acreage that goes up hills and into pine forests. Time taken to enjoy the park depends on how long a visitor plans to enjoy it, but budget at least a few hours to soak up the relaxation and marvel at the beauty of the gardens.
Luckily, Okayama hosts a fairly dry and mild climate compared to most of Japan, so being rained out is unlikely. More than likely, the visitors to the Koraku-en will be blessed with sunshine and clear visibility.
I spent two weeks touring Japan. We, of course, visited Tokyo and went to the Tokyo Tower. In Kyoto, we dressed up as geishas and had our photographs taken (and I thought that paint was never going to come off). And we went shopping in the glittery world of Osaka, with the giant animated crab and the Las Vegas-y feel. We even went to a small sea village named Shimane, where we partook in a traditional sakura festival, complete with traditional sea weed tea.
All of these experiences were amazing and brilliant displays of Japanese culture, but I would have to say that Koraku-en was my favorite place to visit. Aside from being beautiful in a natural way, it was easy to see how the garden had been cultivated with meticulous care and skill to appear so perfect.
It was nice to just spend half a day relaxing after rushing to catch trains and pushing through large crowds.
Unfortunately, the sakura trees were not yet in bloom (they started blooming about a week later), but the ume (plum) trees had pretty blossoms and the bamboo forest and pine tree forest boarding the gardens were very nice as well.
I especially enjoyed the large koi, as they were quite large and beautiful (and greedy).
Koraku-en Hours and Admission
to 18:00 (8:00 to 17:00 from October to March)
Admission ends 15 minutes before closing time.
Admission: 350 yen
Tips for Japan in General
#1 Invest in a Japan Railway Pass. This will save you huge amounts of time and money. With the rail pass, you do not have to purchase individual tickets at every station. You simply flip the pass to security and cruise through. It's good for a specific amount of time, so no matter how far you travel, you have paid one set fee. You can learn about JR Passes here.
#2 Consider staying in a hostel. They are actually very clean, safe, and very well run in Japan. You can use this site to search for addresses and phone numbers. Or, if you have a little bit of money, do a Ryokan (Japanese Inn), which has traditional rooms and facilities. I highly recommend the latter option as it was very interesting and the staff knew all of the local transportation and temples and other sites of interest.
- Koraku-en Pamphlet
A pamphlet with pictures, hours, and basic information about the gardens.
- Japan Guide
Japan Guide's page on Okayama attractions complete with map, addresses, phone numbers, and hours.
- Okayama City Sightseeing Map
Okayama city sightseeing guide and map. Covers the Korakuen, Okayama Castle, Art Museums in Okayama.