Photo: Mount Mifuneyama, courtesy of mifuneyamarakuen.jp
Photo: Mount Mifuneyama, courtesy of mifuneyamarakuen.jp

Visiting the Sculptural Garden Mifuneyama Rakuen

by MC2 Robert S. Price
AFN Sasebo

I believe it is taboo to skip a cherry blossom viewing season while living in Japan. Even though these flowering trees bloom for only two weeks out of the year they have remained a central point of focus in Japanese gardens for hundreds of years. This past year I tried to take my cherry blossom viewing up a notch, so I visited the Mifuneyama Rakuen historical garden located in Takeo, Japan. Only 30-minutes away from the naval base in Sasebo, this journey to Takeo was well worth it for me. I hope our readers have enough time to schedule this trip in their “2-week cherry blossom slot” for the upcoming Spring season!  

This garden park is a registered monument in Japan, alongside only an approximate 100 other locations across the country. Even with notable historical significance and Buddhist spiritual influence, the picturesque landscape found here attracts Eastern Asia tourists all-year around. Then there is the 2,000 cherry blossom trees and the 200,000 azaleas to make a memory for a life time, or atleast a great selfie. The day of my visit there were about 250 visitors of all ages enjoying the grounds, touring the site and having picnics.  ("九州 武雄温泉 御船山楽園").


This is a picture I took of myself with one of the 2,000 cherry blossom trees in bloom and Mt. Mifuneyama in the background.

I was inspired to learn quite a bit about Japanese history and the samurai lord who resided here because of this cultural visit. The Edo Period, spanning from 1615 until 1868, was a time of great significance in Japan.  This was a time when Japan was restless, divided by warring states, and the Tokugawa family ran the country under a 4-class social system enforced by the shogunate. “Below the shogun were the military lords of each province. Both shogun and lords were served by retainers called samurai who acted as soldiers and officials. The samurai followed a code of conduct called Bushido (The Way of the Warrior), which stressed the mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, courage and [honor] unto death” (Museum "Historical Background: The Edo Period" 2013).

According to a Mifuneyama Rakuen tourism pamphlet, samurai lord Shigeyoshi Nabeshima retired from managing the Saga Domain during the Late Edo period. Nabeshima was recognized as a very competent samurai lord, elected as a feudal lord by the young age of 23, and also the first Japanese lord to study Western gunnery, science, and technology to include steamships ("九州 武雄温泉 御船山楽園").

Nabeshima invested in the artistic creation of this great living garden to cover an area greater than 123 acres, and to become not only his Summer home but also a resort for his fellow samurai. Mifuneyama Rakuen took a total of three years to complete with the assistance of an unknown artist from Kyoto’s Kano School, the largest art group in Japan at the time ("九州 武雄温泉 御船山楽園").


An artist depiction of Mifuneyama Rakuen and lord Nabeshima’s summer home on the lake, courtesy of mifuneyamarakuen.jp

 

My first impression upon arriving at the park was one of awe.  The gardens are etched into the foothill of Mount Mifuneyama.  The mountain is picturesque, 680 feet tall, with a drastic cliff face overlooking the city of Takeo. The park includes a wooden Torii gate at the entrance, Nabeshima’s summer home which now invites visitors in for tea and mochi, and the famous Gohyaku cave that holds 1,300-year-old statues, and the entire flower park is a beautifully preserved time-capsule. According to legend, a monk named Gyoki carved approximately 500 of sculptures Buddha’s pupils and hid them within the cave on site. ("九州 武雄温泉 御船山楽園").


Two photos I captured of the Gohyaku cave and the remaining 1,300-year-old status of Buddha’s pupils found within.

I intended to spend most of my time visiting the Spring cherry blossom trees because the 170-year-old gardens boast 2,000 cherry trees and 200,000 azaleas which is one of the largest displays on Kyushu, where I reside. I felt a deep sense of reverence while walking the grounds. The Edo samurai history and the ancient spiritual beliefs captivated me however, almost to the point of being a distraction, and I would catch myself in a deep state of imagination. I could not believe I was walking on the same paths as a samurai lord and his trusted samurai ("九州 武雄温泉 御船山楽園").


A photo I captured that displays cherry trees in full bloom, and hidden garden paths.

 

Of the 250 visitors, most were spending time enjoying the flowers that were purposefully planted to compliment, compare and contrast, their color harmony. This theme of color harmony is one that was intended during the initial planning of the gardens. I found the colors brilliant during the Early Spring visit. The 2,000 light pink cherry trees were in bloom, which typically lasts only two weeks in Japan. The 200,000 azaleas also changed color to vary in warm hues, marking that they were not yet fully matured. Each season has different flowers in bloom, and even the evenings provide light displays to attract tourists for a virtual art experience. (Janson "The Essential Vermeer Glossary of Art-Related Terms: A - C")


These photos show tea and mochi that I purchased while visiting Nabeshima’s Summer home at Mifuneyama Rakuen.  His house is converted into a tea shop on a lake with traditional Japanese sliding wooden doors that can be removed in good weather to expose the tatami mats within.

The cultural experience at Mifuneyama Rakuen has assisted me in understanding the Edo Period aesthetics, art, and history.  I also much enjoyed the 2,000 cherry trees that were in bloom.  The experience has helped me gain exposure and perspective for how Japanese people often revere the spirit of nature in their cultural beliefs.  Where this cultural visit may have been merely a pleasant weekend visit for me, it was apparent that it was more of a required religious visit for the Buddhist visitors there.  The spiritual roots were visible with the other patrons as they steadily bowed to one another, careful and mindful walked through the historical grounds, and lit incense and paid respect at the Buddhist cave.

I want to revisit the site during the evening to see the light displays and again to see other seasons in bloom with flowers.  I felt deeply fulfilled from this visit and more in touch with Japan's culture as a result.

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