Great Gardens: Fujita Teien (Hirosaki)

Aomori, on the northern part of the Japan’s main island of Honshu, is not the most likely locale for one of Japan’s top 50 traditional gardens. The Tohoku region is more known for its exuberant festivals and its wild ruggedness than any carefully cultivated beauty. Perhaps that makes a visit to the Fujita Teien in downtown Hirosaki all the more special for being a rarity in the region.

The Edo-style stroll garden was designed in 1919 by a gardener from Tokyo for the stylish estate of a local industrialist, Kenichi Fujita. Fujita was the first president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and considered at the time to be the top businessman in Japan. When the Fujita family sold the estate (or had it repossessed or dontated it, the brochure is a bit fuzzy on the details) the city took over the property. The garden had fallen slightly into disrepair so after some work was done on the grounds, the gardens reopened in July 1991 for the entire city to enjoy. Encompassing 21800 square meters of land in central Hirosaki, it’s the second largest garden in Tohoku. (Of course I had to look up the first. 🙂 It could be the Hotel Hanamaki’s garden but that’s a rose garden, not a Japanese garden. So I am not entirely sure. Temporary research fail.)

A look down at the teahouse of the Fujita Teien
A look down at the teahouse of the Fujita Teien

The garden is unique in that it is divided into two distinct elevations – the upper cliff garden, with a wide lawn and several Taisho-era buildings, and the lower garden, with its lanterns, ponds and traditional tea house.

True to form, I much preferred the landscaping of the lower garden. (I grew up with a lawn. I don’t find it appealing as a garden feature.) The center of the garden boasts the tea ceremony house, with a lovely copse of trees surrounding it and a “hidden Christian” lantern tucked away near the fence. These lanterns had reliefs of the Virgin Mary carved into the base that could be hidden by grass or bushes, but would allow the local lord to practice Christianity even after the shogun declared it illegal.

The "hidden Christian lantern" near the tea house
The “hidden Christian lantern” near the tea house

The lower garden also had two large ponds, some meandering paths, and a scarlet bridge overlooking a waterfall that promises to be stunning when the nearby maple trees turn in the autumn. There was also a zigzag bridge over an iris paddy, though as the blooms had since passed, the gardeners were using the off-season to work on the beds.

The lower garden, near the iris beds
The lower garden, near the iris beds

The upper garden was of minimal interest to me, though it does house both a traditional Japanese residence and the Western-style house. The latter hosts a cafe where you can get a pasta lunch as well as one of several varieties of Hirosaki apple pie, a local specialty.

The Western-style house in the upper garden
The Western-style house in the upper garden

Entry to the garden is ¥310, but you can get a combination ticket for the castle (currently closed as it’s being renovated), the castle’s botanical garden (a lovely stroll) and the Fujita Teien. All are located right in the center of Hirosaki, easily reached by bus or on a long walk from the train station.

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