Ritsurin Garden was once the summer retreat of the Matsudaira family. Work on the park began in the 1600s and took about 100 years to complete. Using the backdrop of adjacent Mount Shiun in a principle known as "borrowed landscaping," the 75-hectare (185-acre) park, Japan's largest Cultural Heritage Garden, incorporates the pine-clad mountain into its overall visual design. Basically, the garden, arranged around six spring-fed ponds and 13 scenic mounds, can be divided into two parts: a traditional, classical, southern garden; and a modern, northern garden, once a lord's private hunting grounds and with wide grassy lawns and huge lotus ponds. No matter the season, something is always in bloom, from plum and cherry trees in spring to camellias in winter (a bulletin board at the entrance identifies what's in bloom). English-speaking volunteers are on hand most days to provide free tours if you wish.
The southern garden is the more interesting one, representing what's called a strolling garden, in which each bend of the footpath brings another perspective into view, another combination of rock, tree, and mountain. The garden is absolutely exquisite, and what sets it apart are its twisted, contorted pines. On one of my visits, a mist was rolling off Mount Shiun, lending mystery to the landscape; what better fits the image of traditional Japan than mist and pine trees? Altogether, there are some 1,400 pine trees and 350 cherry trees in Ritsurin Garden, which you should tour in a counterclockwise fashion to fully appreciate the changing views. Although I consider this garden just as beautiful as those in Okayama and Kanazawa, tall buildings on its eastern periphery detract from its overall effect; without them I would give this garden top rating.
There are a couple of things you can stop and see during your tour of the park. In the northern garden are the Sanuki Folk Art Museum (Sanuki Mingei Kan), which is included in the park's admission fee and displays local folk art and handicrafts such as ceramics, lacquerware, furniture, and items used in daily Edo life (regrettably, there are no English-language descriptions); and the Commerce and Industry Hall (Shokoshoreikan), which sells local products, including kites, masks, woodcarvings, umbrellas, fans, and food items and sponsors craft-making demonstrations on weekends and holidays. But my favorite thing to do is drop by Scooping the Moon House (Kikugetsu-tei) in the southern garden, with its teahouse dating from feudal days overlooking a pond. Powdered tea, used in tea ceremonies, costs ¥710 for adults and ¥550 for children. It takes about an hour to see the southern garden; add another half-hour if you also take in the northern garden.