Yokohama has many things to offer to its visitors. Sankeien Garden Park is one of those places that top it all with the sheer amount of flora and fauna, plenty of historical sites, a three-story pagoda, two lakes, and at least one waterfall, as far as I can tell.
Table of contents:
- History of the Sankeien Garden
- How to travel to Sankeien Garden from Tokyo?
History of the Sankeien Garden, my version
Various reports say that the Sakeien Garden story starts with Tomitaro Hara, who inherited a sizeable raw-silk export business at the end of the 19th century. In 1906, Tomitaro Hara opened the Sankeien Garden gates to be visited by people for free.
While I could go on and feed you the whole history of the garden, I leave here the official link to the garden’s website and continue with my version of the story with some little details about the sites I have photographed.
It was a hot and humid but overcast day when I went there with my wife to visit the garden for the first time.
Shortly after the entrance, I realized I stumbled upon a fantastic place that could cover various interests for so many people, be it families, romantic couples, nature, and history lovers. And photographers like myself, shooting families for a living. Ok, ok, photographing families. ☺️
Look at the image above; it’s stunning how many greens are in there. For me, it was a little sweaty time due to the high humidity combined with a hot day, which, trust me, it’s never the right combination. I believe I took that day 200 photos. The garden is vast and beautiful, with ponds, little bridges like the one above, and more.
The serenity of the place strikes right after the first steps you make into the garden. Although the summer was almost gone, I managed to find a couple of Lotus flowers. I could only imagine the entire area covered with such delicate and fragile flowers. As I have found them there, the exact location of the Lotus flowers is after walking, let’s say 10-15 meters from the entrance, on your right side.
Three-Story Pagoda of the Former Tomyoji Temple
On the left side, it’s the main pond/lake, however you want to call it, which has a direct view of the Three-Story Pagoda of the Former Tomyoji Temple. Unfortunately, at the time, my wife and I decided we are sweaty enough not to go up the little hill to see it. (We’ve been to the ever-famous Chureito Pagoda just days before this, and we decided that one pagoda is enough in a short span of time-ok, ok, we were lazy, don’t tell anyone🤫).
Sanju-no-to (pagoda) is a form of Buddhist temple architecture that usually is housing relics of Buddha or other holy persons. See below the explanation I found online:
Pagodas in Japan are called tō (塔, lit. pagoda), sometimes buttō (仏塔, lit. Buddhist pagoda) or tōba (塔婆, lit. pagoda) and historically derive from the Chinese pagoda, itself an interpretation of the Indian stupa. Like the stupa, pagodas were originally used as reliquaries, but they ended up losing this function in many cases. Pagodas are quintessentially Buddhist and an important component of Japanese Buddhist temple compounds but, because until the Kami and Buddhas Separation Act of 1868, a Shinto shrine was normally also a Buddhist temple, and vice versa, they are not rare at shrines either. The famous Itsukushima Shrine, for example, has one.Wikipedia
Kakushokaku building is probably the largest building in the entire Sankeien Garden, and my first stop is to admire its craftsmanship. It’s pretty impressive to see the structure, not only big (950 square meters) but also beautiful. I couldn’t have helped but notice that, like many other Japanese buildings, doors and windows are closing “nice and breezy.” I understand why it is that for such old buildings, but newer ones… like the house I have lived in before moving to a new place, no.
Juto Oido Hall of the Former Tenzuiji Temple
Juto Oido Hall of the Former Tenzuiji Temple was formerly constructed in 1591 by the Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the samurai leader at the end of the 16th century. Descriptions of this structure say that the craftsmen initially painted it colorfully, but with time that has faded away.
The cute story of this structure (originally built to cover a juto-stone dedicated to health and long life for Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s mother) is nicely complementing the carvings and artistry of the people who have constructed it. At the time when I have visited the garden, I had no clue about all of these. I took photos of the things I’ve considered worthy of taking pictures.
Being intrigued by all the photos I took, I realized that this garden is more than a garden; it is an open-air museum. I wonder if Tomitaro Hara thought it like this. Was he thinking about a garden and then added the structures, or the garden-aka fauna, and then added the facilities? There may be answers to my questions, but maybe I’m not looking to find out.
I was particularly impressed with the Gekkaden building. As an OCD person, I could see some “imperfections” but I couldn’t make my mind if they were due to the design or for strengthening the structure.
In this building’s description, it’s written that it initially was constructed in 1603 at the Fushimijo Castle in Kyoto by another samurai leader of the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The story continues with it being relocated from the Mimurotoji Temple ( in Uji City) and reassembled in Sanken Garden in 1918.
Tenjuin Zen Buddhist hall
In the vicinity of the Gekkaden building, there is the Tenjuin Zen Buddhist hall. As a portrait photographer, I can only imagine what fantastic portraits I can make here. Unfortunately, the portrait session I had a booking scheduled for to shoot there didn’t occur due to the husband getting infected with COVID-19—the realities of today. (The good news is that now that family has healed and all members are healthy again).
Like the other buildings in the garden, this has a rich history since the Edo Period, around 1651. It was initially constructed as a part of the Shinpeiji Temple, near the Kenchoji Zen Temple in Kamakura. Since 1916 resides in the Sankeien Garden for the enshrinement of the ancestors of the Hara family. If enshrinement sounds weird to you, I guess in translation, it means that it should have corpses inside of it.
Returning from the Tenjuin Buddhist Hall, on a separate way you can find the Choshukaku building. If I were to be honest, this building is one of those places where I’d like to be initiated in a Japanese tea ceremony. The little water stream that flows in front of this building makes it an unique place to enjoy such ceremonies.
Not to mention what unique portraits I can do here; it shouts “kimono portraits session”!
It is believed that the Choshukaku building was initially constructed in 1623 on the premises of the Nijojo Castle in Kyoto by yet another samurai leader, Tokugawa Iemitsu. If you haven’t seen a pattern already, I will tell you. Many of the buildings that exist now in the Sankeien Garden are originally built at the order of a samurai leader. Interesting facts about the Japanese culture.
Shunsoro- the Japanese tearoom
Coming from a country where many old and traditional buildings were made out of clay and hay, seeing this Shunsoro, a Japanese tearoom, reminded me of my home country Romania. I felt for a split second “at home.”
It is believed that this Japanese National Cultural Property was built in the early 1600s by a military commander called Oda Nagamasu; see the pattern I was mentioning earlier? He was the brother of the samurai leader Oda Nobunaga and a tea ceremony practitioner, for which he was known as Oda Uraku. I tried(maybe not hard enough) to find out why the commander had a different name for the tea ceremony, but so far, my attempts came out unsuccessful.
For the first time in my research of the Sankeien Garden, this is when one building’s fate was shared with another. This Shunsoro tearoom has been moved together with the Gekkaden building from the Konzoin branch temple of Mimurotoji Temple in Uji City, Kyoto.
Yanohara Family Residence (gassho-style )
Something exciting in Sankeien Garden that caught my attention in an instant was the Yanohara Family Residence. It’s a fascinating building and not very common, probably due to its size and the very thick and steep thatched roof. I spent the longest time in this building(you can visit it inside) and enjoyed every moment. Unfortunately, this was a refuge for my wife and me because some light rain started spraying, and we rushed in without me having the chance to take even a single shot of the entire building; indeed, you can see it here.
The house dated from the 1800s and was built initially in Shokawa Village in Gifu Prefecture. (In Gifu Prefecture, there is a very well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site that is on my bucket list: Shirakawa-go.). Due to the construction of a dam, the former Yanohara Family Residence has been moved to Sankeien Park.
It’s said that this house was built for farmers. At the same time, it features upper-class elements: a spacious entrance hall, tatami mats in the reception room, and other distinctive architectural elements.
Until today, one thing that stays with me was the irori sunken hearth in the middle of the biggest room, which looked like to be the living room of the house. The park employees are starting a fire in this fireplace every day so the visitors can experience the near real-life and sense how it was in the Shirakawa-go. And yes, be prepared to exchange your 21st-century cologne with something more vintage: real wooden smoke.
Are you still here? I thank you for reading my thoughts so far, but there is another edifice I have to write about. It is the Gomon Gate, yet another architectural element that has been relocated to Sankeien Garden, from Kyoto, where it was a part of the Saihoji Temple. If you have ever visited Kyoto, maybe this gate is not very different from others. Still, documents about it mention it being built around 1708 and relocated to the garden in the 1900s.
Something very interesting happened when I was trying to find the right angle to photograph this Gomon Gate. The garden employees, maybe five or six of them, equipped with a small camera, flowcharts, and pencils, were making an inventory of… elements. They have patiently waited for me until I was happy with the photo I took. After realizing they were kindly waiting behind me and said ありがとうございました！(Thank you!) they all have made a deep bow and thank me.
Japanese culture is fascinating, and probably the thanking part is a custom that goes far beyond what a thank you means in western countries. If you think this list of facilities you can find at Sankeien Garden is long, I may disappoint you. There were other Cultural Properties that either were closed to the public(I assume private-owned areas) or the workers were doing maintenance work.
One property I wish it were open at the time is Rinshunkaku, because from the photos I could find online, it’s gorgeous.
How to travel to Sankeien Garden from Tokyo?
If you are currently during your holiday in Japan and your hotel happens to be in Tokyo, there are a couple of ways to travel to Sankeien Garden.
The first option is to rent a car and drive there. Depending on the time of the day, it can take from one 1hr 24 min to a lot more if you go through the city and avoid the city expressways(42min at the time of writing this article). Driving in itself can be an experience to consider while in Japan. Just make sure you avoid spiral Ohashi Junction, where there is no GPS signal and end up 10 km in the opposite way(it happen to me).
The second option is to use public transportation, which can take from your time from 49 mins and up. From any point in Tokyo, there are many options to travel via public transport to the garden. Ueno-Tokyo Line to Yokohama Station, where you have to change to the light blue Negishi Line until you reach Negishi Station. From there, the trip can be continued with a bus from Negishi Ekimae (bus station) for 7 stops, ending your trip 10 mins away from the final destination at Sannotani bus station.
I know it may be overwhelming, but you have to trust your Google Maps application on your smartphone. I highly recommend respecting the times indicated on the app for departing times every time you take a train or subway. Sometimes 2 mins difference between trains can make a big difference in the direction of a specific train. In Japan is quite common for a train to “change” its color and destination, although it passes the same station as other trains. Trust me and thank me later.
Thank you for reading my thoughts about Sankeien Garden. I hope you feel inspired to visit it and spend quality time there, be it alone or with your loved ones.
As always, I hope my article has inspired you for yet another place to add to your bucket list. Thank you for reading my articles, and don’t forget that I am a portrait photographer ready to capture your shared moments in a timeless way.