Japanese people love top lists since ancient times. Very important is the Top 100, which could already experienced during the Edo period like in Ukiyo-e woodblock printings like the 100 views of Edo from Hiroshige or the current list of the 100 most scenic waterfalls.
But also other numbers are very important in Japan like the 3 – 5 – 7 or especially in gardens the 8.
When visiting these gardens, we might be surprised why they are named the Top Three. We know all those amazing gardens in Kyoto with their special atmosphere and styles.
The Top Three in contrast are not especially beautiful but mainly one: huge!
Some people assume that they are the Top Three because they are the largest gardens in Japan…
However, this is not the reason why they are listed here. They all are famous for their scenic beauty.
It is not sure since when the term „Three Great Gardens“ was used for the first time, but it was already written in a book for foreigners in 1904. The Kairaku-en was established in 1842 though, so it being one of the „Three Great Garden“ can not be for so long.
In the Edo period, one theme in art and poetry became very popular, which is called „Setsugekka“ 雪月花 or Snow Moon Flower. It dates back to the Chinese Tang dynasty (618 – 907).
In Japanese Waka poetry it is traditionally used as „Tsukiyukihana“ 月雪花. This also assembles the seasonal order.
Moon 月 for autumn (there even is a moon viewing festival!), snow 雪 for winter and flower 花 for spring.
Every of the above mentioned gardens is dedicated to one of these terms:
Kenroku-en to winter, because of its famous snow landscape. Nowadays the Yukitsuri on the Karasaki pine along the shore of the pond is famous for winter.
Kōraku-en to the moon. On the grounds of Kōraku-en we also find fields. The moon viewing ceremony is a festival of harvesting, which fits perfectly into the composition of the garden.
Kairaku-en to flowers, because it is famous for its hundreds of plum trees and other flowering trees and shrubs.
This Top Three list with the background of Snow Moon Flower is not unique to gardens, we can also find it applied to scenic spots of Japan.
However, I am never satisfied by Wikipedia…
There are very few sources on who named those three gardens and when. But one source says, that the naming happened when Japan faced the time of great change between Edo period and Meiji period.
Influential people, known as the Meiji oligarchy, for example Takasaki Goroku, are said to choose Daimyo gardens in different regions of Japan to show the western world that Japan is a civilized nation with a great culture.
To show their approach to become more open and also accept influences from the western world, they also initiated the construction of the Rokumeikan by an English architect (Josiah Conder).
There were three rules which should apply to the selected gardens:
1. It should be a garden like the Kōrakuen or Rikugien in Tokyo (which were already famous).
2. It shouldn’t be located in a metropolis.
3. It should be a garden which is still maintained.
Now we can see why huge gardens were chosen. Koishikawa Kōrakuen as well as Rikugien are large strolling gardens. None of the smaller garden types like Karesansui or Roji are applying to this.
The idea behind searching for gardens outside of the metropolis is to promote and boost the rural areas.
The Mito family (an official branch of the Tokugawa family) created the Koishikawa Kōrakuen in Tokyo. As this garden is one of the example gardens of the Three Great Gardens project, the Kairaku-en was chosen, which is another garden of the Mito family in Ibaraki.
Kenroku-en was already very famous and the process of choosing it went smoothly.
A problem was the remaining third garden.
This source thinks, that Mito Akitake and Takasaki worked together to get the Okayama Kōraku-en (the garden in Tokyo was named earlier) into the list. Maybe to remind at the original Mito Kōrakuen in Tokyo.
Perhaps the last point which spoke for Okayama Kōraku-en was, that even the Emperor chose to stay there in 1884.
Mito (Tokugawa) Akitake led the Japanese delegation to the World Fair in Paris in 1866 and was able to meet the heads of several European countries as a representative of the Tokugawa shogunate. He aged 14 at that time.
He also represented Japan at the World Fair in Philadelphia in 1876 and studied in France afterwards.
Takasaki Goroku was sent from Tokyo to Okayama prefecture as a governor in 1875 and completed a land reform in which three prefectures were merged in the larger Okayama prefecture we know today.
Takasaki fell in love with Okayamas Kōraku-en and this seems to be one plausible reason why he supported the garden to become the third Great Garden.
But even old textbooks claim that Takamatsu’s Ritsurin Garden is more beautiful. However, these three gardens were chosen by few and who knows how many gardens the „judges“ have seen?
With this knowledge in mind, we now know that the „Three Great Gardens“ are not the three most beautiful gardens in Japan from today’s perspective.
They were chosen at a time were Japan wanted to look as cultivated as England and France with their great and neat gardens.
Even in Josiah Conders book „Landscape Gardening in Japan“ of this time, he focused on the bigger strolling gardens, which could be a sign for the taste of the Meiji period.
As we all know, preferences change. What hardly changes are historically solidified terms.
(I used Japanese sources only for this article.)
An eBook about the History of Japanese Gardens (Part I) will be published soon. Stay tuned!