Kasuga taisha shin’en man’yō shokubutsuen
Kasuga Grand Shrine Sacred Garden: Man’yō Botanical Garden
Nara, Nara Prefecture
160 Kasuganochō, Nara, 630-8212
The garden is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m between March and November, and from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m between December and February. In both cases, the gardens gates are closed 30 minutes after closing time.
Between March-November, it is open every day, but it is closed every Monday, or the following working day when Monday is a public holiday between December and February.
|Individuals||Groups (over 20 individuals)
|Adults||500 yen||400 yen|
|Children||250 yen||200 yen|
TEL：0742-22-7788 (Japanese only).
The garden is located in Nara park, close to the main Kasuga Grand Shrine complex. It is easy enough to walk to the park from either JR Nara station, or JR Kintetsu station, allowing one to take in the park’s many museums and temples, but for those less inclined to the exercise, the easiest way to reach it is by bus.
From JR Nara station’s east exit (JR奈良駅東口), go to stop number 2, and take either the 70 or 97 service, both bound for Kasuga Taisha Honden (春日大社本殿). This stop is in the shrine car-park, from which it is a short walk to the main shrine complex, or the rear entrance to the garden. Alternatively, take the clockwise Nara City Loop line (Nara shinai kanjō soto mawari 奈良市内環状・外回り), which departs every 10 minutes and get off at Kasuga taisha omotesandō (春日大社表参道). It is then an approximately 10 minute walk through the park to the shrine and garden.
At Kintetsu Nara station (近鉄奈良駅), one can board the same services as above from bus stop no. 1.
The garden covers approximately three hectares, walled off from the rest of the shrine grounds and park to stop Nara’s sacred deer from gaining entrance and eating the plants. It divided into a number of sections: as well as the main Man’yō garden, there is Gokoku no sato 五穀の里, an area devoted to the Five Grains – rice, wheat, beans, and two kinds of millet – which formed the staples of the Japanese diet; a camelia garden (椿園) with 250 different varieties of the tree, and a wisteria garden (藤の園) with 200 different wisterias. In total, it contains about three hundred varieties of plants, because its aim has been to assemble and exhibit all the possible plants that the Man’yōshū could have been referring to, with the result that one frequently finds different plants labelled with the same Man’yō name. Poems, as well as range of information is provided for all the plants – in Japanese – but all have their scientific name provided in Roman letters, making them easier to identify for the botanist or keen gardener.
From the entrance kiosk, where one pays the entrance fee and, as a foreign tourist, will receive a leaflet giving brief details on the garden in English, one can turn either left or right and follow a broadly circular path through the garden. The paths leads between well-kept lawns and lined with tubs, each with their different plant, label and poem. For the poetry fan, there is much to enjoy, and it would take hours to proceed along the path reading each poem in turn.
The centrepiece of the garden is a large pond, containing a number of well-fed koi carp (pictured above). Bags of fish food are available here for purchase for a small fee, and anyone approaching the water’s edge, bag in hand, will generate a surge of piscine excitement, as the fish struggle to get as close as possible to the edge to be sure of their share of the food. Younger visitors to the garden will probably find this the highlight of their visit, as the fish will come close enough to be stroked, and may even emerge partially from the water in pursuit of a choice morsel!
In the centre of the pond is a small island with attached stage (also pictured above). The stage is used for performances of traditional court music twice a year, on 5th May and 3rd November, but the major feature of the island is an ancient red-bark oak (ichihigashi), which has been designated a municipal cultural treasure. The tree is known as the ‘Sleeping Dragon Oak’ (Garyū no ichihigashi 臥龍のイチヒガシ), because its trunk has long since fallen horizontal, with its branches growing vertically upwards, and it lies on the islet, enveloping it like its reptilian namesake.
Further on along the path (provided one has turned left from the entrance kiosk), one leaves the lawns behind, and enters an area with trees and bamboo growing among moss-beds, here one will find a small shrine, with the usual stand of votive plaques, covered with wishes for academic success or freedom from disasters. The deity to whom these pleas are addressed is none other than Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, the famous Man’yō poet. The shrine building is a small pavilion which one can enter and sit in, while gazing at the garden, with the deity himself residing in a small container in the eaves. One can thus sit and search for poetic inspiration, hoping that Hitomaro will look down with favour on your efforts.
Continuing along the path, one can split off from the Man’yō garden and enter the wisteria garden. Wisteria (fuji 藤) have a special link with Kasuga, because they are the symbol of the shrine, and of the Fujiwara 藤原 family which founded it. The best time to visit the wisteria garden is when the blooms are at their height from mid-April to mid-May, although this is when the garden is busiest, with two-thirds of the number of annual visitors coming in this period. Even out of season, however, it is pleasant to wander the paths between the wisteria plants, dangling downwards like leafy beards, and come across another, smaller, fallen, yet living tree along the way. It’s also another slightly cooler oasis of shade, and restfulness if one is visiting in the summer months.
Nara is one of Japan’s principal tourist destinations, and is always busy with visitors, both from Japan, and all over the world. The majority of tourists, though, in their haste to get on to the main shrine complex, tend to give the Man’yō garden a miss (or only stop off for quick meal in the little tea-house by the entrance), which means that other than at wisteria season, you will find few other people wandering its paths, and it can offer a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle outside, as well as the attentions of the deer!
The Man’yō garden at Kasuga Grand Shrine is the oldest in Japan, and was opened in 1932, after an extremely lengthy period of development. The full details are too complicated to go into here, but for Japanese readers can be found in Kuroiwa (2008). What follows below is a brief summary of this work’s contents.
In short, the land upon which the garden was built was originally designated for the construction of a detached imperial palace in 1889, following the creation of Nara prefecture as an administrative entity the previous year. For a variety of reasons, this palace was never built, and the land was finally gifted back to the prefecture in 1911 for the construction of a public park of some kind. There were, however, differing views within the prefectural government about what form this park should take, encompassing the link to the construction of the wider Nara Park, balance between cultural, educational and entertainment facilities, and so forth – there was even discussion of having a zoo there! These disagreements meant that construction had still not started by the beginning of the Shōwa Period in 1926.
It was at this point that the possibility of creating a Man’yō Botanical garden was first raised, at a meeting between Interior Minstry, Prefectural Government and Kasuga Shrine officials on 3rd November 1927. Nothing might have come of this proposal either, had not the Osaka edition of the Asahi newspaper simultaneously been running campaign to ‘enhance Tempyō culture’. The Tempyō period, lasting from 729-749, was when Nara culture, which was most strongly represented by the Man’yōshū reached its peak, and the Asahi‘s campaign was timed to reach its peak in the 1200th anniversary year of the beginning of the period, 1929. Public opinion was thus in favour of the creation of a facility in Nara to showcase Tempyō culture, and the proposal for the creation of the Man’yō Botanical garden was finally accepted.
Even so, there were further disagreements over how much of the project’s 22,000 yen budget should come from the prefecture, the city and from public donation. Eventually, some 6,000 yen was collected from the public, the prefecture reluctantly contributed 2,000 yen and the city government 500 yen, allowing construction to start, despite less than half the necessary funds being in place, in August 1930. Further appeals for funding followed, and the Osaka Electric Railroad Company (Ōsaka denki kidō 大阪電気軌道) – the forerunner of today’s Kintetsu – contributed 1,500 yen, and the Imperial Court made a donation of 300 yen. Finally, the garden did make its budget, but not until 1932, when it opened.
The design of the garden was entrusted to Ōya Reijō 大屋霊城, the Osaka City Planner, who stated at the time:
I need to think carefully about how best to express the nature of a Man’yō Botanical Garden in the environment of the ancient capital, where it would not be particularly interesting to have an overly academic display of the plants, as in a university’s specimen collection; but where it is also difficult to conceive of a vulgar pleasure ground.
(Kuroiwa (2008, 882))
In the end, finding it difficult to combine faithfulness with Nara period norms, and the need to create an environment for the display of a wide range of plants, Ōya chose to base his design on later models, principally those of the Shinsen’en 神泉苑 garden in Kyoto, and Poseokjeong, a famous royal Korean garden, whose water and rock features were particularly well known. The result is that, despite its undoubted beauty, the Kasuga Taisha Man’yō Botanical Garden bears little resemblance to anything that might have been found in ancient Nara.
Visitor numbers declined quite sharply after the initial publicity of the garden’s opening (from 2700 per month to a tenth of that number in three months), but the garden has survived, and was even expanded in 1993 with the addition of the camelia and wisteria displays. This means that it now receives approximately 60,000 visitors a year.
Kuroiwa Yasuhiro. 2008. ‘Nara man’yō shokubutsuen no sōsetsu katei’, Randosukēpu kenkyū, 71: 880-84.