The Yoshino area of Nara is famous for its beautiful mountains of cherry blossom trees. Contrary to popular belief, although a symbol of Japan, cherry trees are usually not part of the Japanese garden. An exception to this, and one of the reasons that Chikurin-in, Gunpoen (吉野竹林院・群芳園) is unique is that it features a number of cherry trees throughout the garden and surrounding the pond in the center of the garden.
Chikurin-in Gunpoen is considered one of the “Top 3 Best Japanese Gardens of Yamato” (大和三庭園), with Yamato being the old name for Nara. The other two gardens are Taimadera Naka-no-Bou in Katsuragi city where my wife and I lived for a number of years, and also Jikoin in Yamato-Koriyama.
It is a large 33,000 squared meter Chisen Kaiyu-shiki style of Japanese strolling garden with a pond and should definitely be put on your list of places to visit if you are in the Nara area.
Gunpoen Japanese Garden History
Chikurin-in Temple was originally called Tsubakiyama Temple, but later its name was changed. Shotoku Taishi, or Prince Shotoku, is said to have originally built the temple with a rough garden area laid out, but later in the Momoyama period (in 1594) it was actually the famous tea master Sen-no-Rikkyu who designed it. Later Hosokawa Yusai renovated the garden to what you see today.
There are a number of reasons why cherry blossoms are usually not used in Japanese gardens and one of them is that Japanese garden trees are usually highly pruned trees. These types of gardens are a highly maintained and controlled garden space. The Cherry blossom trees on the other hand are usually left to grow naturally because they are very susceptible to disease if you prune them.
The cherry blossoms and leaves fall in ponds and rock gardens, which makes it much more difficult to keep clean. Check out this article “Are Cherry Trees Used in Japanese Gardens?” for more details on the role of cherry blossoms in Japanese gardens.
With that being said, Yoshino is one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing spots in all of Japan. The famous shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, among other famous people throughout history, has held hanami cherry blossom viewing parties here. The emperor Hirohito and his wife have also stayed at the Inn at Chikurin-in which surrounds the garden. And a case could be made for one of the principle design features in Japanese gardens is making use of materials unique to their local environment.
Here in Yoshino, where so many cherry blossom trees grow naturally, fully covering some of the mountains, it is a part of the local landscape and almost expected from a tourists point of view. All of this makes a good case for a unique Japanese garden in Yoshino: Chikurin-in, Gunpoen.
Kinpusenji Temple and Shugendo
In the distance you can see the Zao-do Hall from the leading temple in Yoshino, Kinpusenji. The massive Hall stands 34 meters high and is the second largest wooden structure in Japan, the first being Todaiji Temple in Nara city.
Kinpusenji is the headquarters of Shugendo, an esoteric religion centered on mountain worship and combines different aspects of Shinto and Buddhism. Shugendo focuses on a personal path to enlightenment through training the body and mind via practices such as meditating under waterfalls and hanging off cliffs. I have trained with the Shugendo practitioners for a while and gone on many hikes to places like Mt. Omine, with Kinpusenji actually being the start of the pilgrimage trail that is now a World Heritage site.
The hotels and temples in the area use to mostly be shukubo, or places for the mountain ascetics to stay. Today they are a mix of traditional places with modern additions built on to accompany the large number of tourists it gets to the area, especially in spring during the cherry blossom season and also in autumn. The inns tend to be booked well in advance during the estimated cherry blossom blooming season, so you have to really plan ahead. This changes every year so it makes it difficult to predict when mankai, or full bloom, is going to be.
If you are planning on staying in the area the Gunpoen Garden is attached to a ryokan, or traditional Japanese style inn, also called Chikurin-in. If you stay at this hotel you get free entry to the Japanese garden. The food served at this hotel has also been awarded Michelin stars and features local food, especially mountain vegetables, from the Yoshino area and trout form the Yoshino River.
The Yoshino Shrine nearby is also a great place to check out. It is only a few minutes walk and the views are breathtaking. Being nestled into the hillside you get a view all the way across Nara to the Nijo Mountains on the other side of the prefecture, which border Osaka.
- Chikurin-in Gunpoen -
Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara-ken, Japan TEL 0746-32-8081
Chikurin-in Temple and Inn are a 20-minute walk from the upper station of the Yoshino Ropeway (Yoshinoyama Station). Chikurin-in Gunpoen is a 10-minute drive from Kintetsu Yoshino Station or a 20-minute bus ride from Yoshino Shrine.
Gunpoen Japanese Garden Hours
8:00am to sunset
Irregular closing days for maintenance
I hope you enjoyed this article about A Unique Japanese Garden in Yoshino: Chikurin-in, Gunpoen. Any season you can get the chance to visit this area please take it. The cherry blossoms in early spring and the beautiful autumn leaves usually attract the most amount of people. I recommend staying the night at Chikurin-in Gunpoen if you have the time (you can check here for their hotel information). Soon enough you can hop on the train and head back to nearby Nara city, Kyoto, or Osaka.
If you are interested in other Japanese gardens and how to bring a modern rustic style to your home and garden then check us out at ShizenStyle.