The spectrum of autumnal colours is startling. Deep reds bleed into vibrant magenta through to a gentle pink. Bright, summery oranges fade into amber and finish as a striking gold. A dark, wintry pine becomes emerald, then lime and finally a bright apple green.
Japan’s seasonal blooms are famous, and justifiably so. Starting in February, tourists flock to the country to witness its cherry blossom season which continues until May in its far north.
Tokyo’s Ueno Park, Arashiyama in Kyoto and Nara Park near Osaka are swamped by local and foreign visitors seeking to absorb this beguiling display of nature.
Korakuen Garden in Okayama is a lesser-known but equally spectacular venue. More than 500 cherry blossom trees within its grounds and by the adjacent Okayama Castle unfurl their wares from late March.
This traditional garden in one of Japan’s most overlooked cities is immaculately kept and rarely overcrowded, unlike the prominent cherry blossom spots.
Known as ‘sakura’ by the locals, cherry blossoms are not just popular sightseeing attractions but hold a deeper meaning in the nation’s culture.
With their relatively brief but magnificent bloom seen as a metaphor for the fragile beauty of life, they have for centuries been an iconic element of Japanese art and literature.
Their coming in the spring is viewed by the Japanese as a representation of the birth of a new era and fresh opportunities.
These profound meanings can be more difficult to contemplate amid the throngs scrambling for photo opportunities at Japan’s most popular sakura locations.
Comparatively quiet and ringed by towering trees, Korakuen though has a welcome feel of isolation despite being in the heart of downtown Okayama.
Its blooming charms are not limited to the springtime. Even before the stark-white cherry blossoms appear, the garden in winter is painted with the fuchsia glow of its more than 100 blooming Japanese plum trees.
These give way to the cherry blossoms, which themselves are replaced by the soft purple shades of iris that blanket its grounds in the summer.
Perhaps the most enchanting transformation takes place in summer’s wake, when Korakuen Garden is adorned by a palette of autumnal colours. Reaching its peak in early-to- mid November, this seasonal reward sees the leaves of its hundreds of maples turn many different shades.
This stunning setting lures couples keen to use the garden as a backdrop for wedding photo, as well as scores of artists excited to recreate its grandeur on canvas.
Korakuen may not be well known outside Japan but it has a grand reputation domestically. Built more than 300 years ago as a private sanctuary for local lord Ikeda Tsunamasa, it is considered one of the nation’s three best landscape gardens.
In contrast with many classical Japanese gardens, which are labyrinthine places with many separate, intimate areas, Korakuen is open and spacious in the manner of a park.
The 13hectare garden is punctuated by a series of ponds, hills, groves, islands, shrines, halls and pavilions. It also has rice and tea fields within its grounds. The former are planted by hand as part of the 54-year- old rice festival on the second Sunday in June every year. As part of the festivities, young Japanese women known as ‘saotomes’ don kimonos and straw hats to plant rice seedlings.
The spoils of the tea fields are used at the two elegant teahouses in the garden, including the quaint Renchi-ken, said to have been Ikeda’s favourite.
The lord kept the sprawling space to himself, using it to host important guests and only occasionally opening it to the public. In 1884 the garden became the property of Okayama Prefecture which made it a public attraction.
Significant artefacts from the Edo period and those left behind by Ikeda’s family are now on display at the Okayama Prefectural Museum, by the entry to Korakuen.
For less than $AUD10, visitors can gain access to the museum, the garden and the castle.
Unique in appearance, the lofty black structure is also known as Crow Castle. Originally built at the end of the 16th century, it was destroyed during World War II.
Korakuen was also badly damaged by Allied bombing and was painstakingly restored to its former grandeur. The castle, which looms above the garden, was also recreated in the years after the war.
Its Moon Viewing Turret, constructed about 1620, is the only part of the building that survived the bombings.
The castle’s unusual design incorporates exterior walls made of wooden boards painted with black lacquer. Its original construction was overseen by Ukita Hideie, a lord of the Sengoku period, who used it as a military installation and later developed a town in its surrounds.
After Ikeda’s family gained control of the castle, he ordered the construction of Korakuen. Now, visitors from all over can visit the late lord’s haven to witness the seasonal beauty of the Lord’s work.
- April 5, during the start of the cherry blossom season at Korakuen Garden, the annual Goshinko Festival passes through the garden. A procession up to 1km long of people in traditional Japanese garb moves through Okayama, stopping at the garden.
- From late July to mid-August, Korakuen is lit up by thousands of candles and fairy lights, affording visitors a rare opportunity to see it at night.
- Visitors to Okayama should consider a day trip to the charming ancient town of Kurashiki, 20km south-west of Okayama. Kurashiki has an authentic, timeworn neighbourhood criss-crossed by canals and punctuated by well-preserved old storehouses. Okayama can also be visited as a day trip from Osaka, 190km away. Okayama is only 45 minutes from Osaka on the Shinkansen bullet train.