Sankei-en Garden in Yokohama (just south of Tokyo) is the kind of place you dream of when wedged, far, far too intimately between two strangers on a rush-hour train. It’s the opposite of the necessary grind of urban life, like a therapy session courtesy of Mother Nature.
It’s a truly vast classical garden, a whole 175,000 square meters of carp-filled ponds, verdant nature and traditional architecture. Best of all, Sankei-en Garden is just 90 minutes from central Tokyo, making it the ideal destination for a no-stress, minimal-planning-needed day trip from the city.
The garden was built by the extremely wealthy silk merchant Tomitaro Hara (1869-1939), also known by his pseudonym Sankei Hara, as a home for him and his family.
Hara was prominent in the cultural and artistic milieu of late 19th and early 20th century Japan, with close ties to some of the biggest artists and literary figures of the era. His wealth allowed Hara to indulge his passion for high culture and build Sankei-en to his exact specifications, bringing in the very best landscapers and gardeners money could buy. The results are a garden of grace and harmony, straight from the pages of classical literature.
The outer garden was opened to the public in 1906 and given over officially to the City of Yokohama in 1953, having suffered significant damage during the war. Today, the garden is an officially designated “Place of Scenic Beauty” and 10 of its buildings have been declared “Important Cultural Property”, with three more listed as “Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan”.
What to see
The best way to experience Sankei-en is to simply wander, taking whatever route takes your fancy. Do be aware that the garden is actually split in two, the inner and outer gardens. The outer garden is where you’ll first find yourself from the main entrance, the inner garden being located just behind the Sankei Memorial.
As you enter through the large wooden gates, on your left you’ll catch your first glimpse of Oike Pond, with the three-story pagoda of Tomyoji Temple peeking out above the trees just beyond it. This is the quintessential Sankei-en view, so make the most of it. Take some bread and feed the hungry carp and turtles while you’re there, just prepare yourself for the brutal jostling that will ensue.
Soon enough you’ll stumble upon Kakushokaku, the one-time residence of the Sankei family. A huge old mansion with a charming thatched roof, it was the building around which the rest of the garden was built.
On the other side of the pond, discover the Main Hall of Old Tomyoji Temple and the Buddhist Sanctum of Old Tokeiji Temple. The temple is the oldest structure in the garden, and in fact the oldest wooden structure in the whole of the Kanto region. It was built in 1457 in Tomyoji, Kyoto Prefecture, and moved to its current location in 1914, becoming the real jewel in the crown of Hara’s collection.
The inner garden is the former private garden of the Hara family; it is smaller than the outer garden and has a more ornamental, refined feel to it.
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Enter through the Gomon Gate and you’ll see a small pond and a series of traditional buildings before a backdrop of multi-colored foliage (in autumn, anyway). This is Rinshunkaku, a former residence of the Kishu-Tokugawa family. Laid out in a ganko formation, the buildings are said to emulate the pattern of flying geese. They are typically open to the public, offering a fantastic insight into classical interior design.
Strewn throughout the inner garden there is also an array of other historically significant structures, as well as various priceless artefacts recovered from the Old Tenzuiji Temple.
The Sankei Memorial sits on the boundary between the inner and outer gardens and is essential for placing the garden in its proper context. As mentioned, Sankei Hara was passionate about Japanese culture, amassing an impressive collection of artwork over his lifetime, much of which is on display at the memorial alongside his own attempts at artistic expression. There’s also a slightly hagiographic run through of Hara’s various achievements, including details of his admirable efforts to help Yokohama recover in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Getting to Sankei-en Garden
If you’re heading to Sankei-en from Tokyo, the easiest option is to catch the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Yokohama Station, transfer to the Negishi Line (towards Ofuna) and alight at Negishi Station. From here, take the number 58, 99 or 101 bus from bus stop number 1, and get off at the Honmoku, which should take around 10 minutes. The whole journey should take no more than 90 minutes.
Alternatively, take the number 8 or 148 bus from Yokohama Station and get off at Honmoku Sankeien Mae bus stop, a journey which may take a little longer.