Himeji, long famous for its 400-year-old castle, is experiencing a renaissance. The broad boulevard leading from Himeji Station to the castle has been spiffed up with new restaurants, shopping centers, and craft stores housed in traditional-looking buildings. Tom Cruise injected star status to the nearby mountain retreat of Engyoji Temple, where scenes from The Last Samurai were filmed.
But Himeji’s true rising star, in my opinion, is Koko-en Garden, located beside Himeji Castle. Occupying the site of former samurai mansions, it has several distinctive features that set it apart from Japan’s many other gardens. Covering only 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres), it packs a wallop in its diminutive size by featuring nine separate gardens, each centered on a different theme authentic to the Edo Period and enclosed by replica mud walls topped by tiled roofs. Preserving the atmosphere of the old samurai compounds, each garden’s walls are painted a different hue, just as in the days of yore when different tints signified the identity of the samurai who dwelled there.
There’s a garden of deciduous trees, a bamboo garden, a garden of pine trees, and a garden filled with flowers popular during the Edo Period. One garden imitates mountain scenery, while another reminds visitors of the flat countryside and affords picturesque views of Himeji Castle rising in the background. There are traditional Japanese gardens with ponds, waterfalls, and running streams. The tea-ceremony garden offers ceremonial tea and sweets, along with views of a meticulously choreographed landscape that mimics nature on a miniature scale.
Koko-en’s name means love of the old garden. And yet and this is the most astounding aspect of Koko-en for me the garden dates only from 1992, when it was laid out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Himeji’s establishment as a municipality. With every passing year, Koko-en looks more mature and more impressive. Mark my words: Over time, Koko-en will emerge as one of the most popular gardens in Japan.