The Kyu-Furukawa Gardens might take pride of place along the northern edge of Tokyo’s busy Yamanote train line, but this popular springtime destination isn’t your average Japanese garden. While it certainly has the quiet ponds and Japanese maples you might expect, this rather grand estate and its grounds are actually known for a less traditionally-Japanese flower: the rose. These days, when the rose garden blooms in a profusion of reds, pinks, and yellows each May, it’s the most popular rose garden in the city.
Back in Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912), in the days long before these rose gardens had become the destination they are today, the original owner of this distinctive residence was the notable politician Mutsu Munemitsu, who played a part in both domestic Japanese political rebellions and international diplomatic relations. His son was adopted into the family of Toranosuke Furukawa, a major industrialist and mine owner, and thus the inherited lands eventually became part of the Furukawa family holdings, giving them the name still used today.
In the early Taisho period (1912–1926), adjacent land was purchased and the estate was entirely redesigned from the ground up, giving us the beautiful grounds and buildings we see today — thought to be an iconic example of Taisho-era garden design. The bottom of the hill was dedicated to a small Japanese-style garden, but the main focus has always been higher up the hill, where the hillside is given over to terraced beds of colorful rose bushes and climbing banksia roses. Placed like a crown at the top of the hill, the European-style residence compliments the European-style gardens, both being designed by English architect Josiah Conder, who is noted for having brought European influence to a number of Japanese buildings during his career.
While the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens roses stand out with their colorful petals and carefully-manicured geometric arrangements, the Japanese garden is nothing to scoff at, having been planned by famous Kyoto garden designer Ogawa Jihei. The small pond is notable for being carefully shaped into the Japanese character for heart (心), lending it the character’s graceful curves, and the splashing of multiple waterfalls provides a calming background hum.
After the war, the Furukawas were breaking up their industrial empire, and this beautiful house and gardens were first offered to industrial entrepreuner Yonetaro Otani, before becoming state property. After quite a few years of use and abuse, the Otani Museum stepped in to restore the facilities inside and out, and the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens have been open to the public since 1989. Visitors can now buy tickets (400 yen) to freely explore a handful of rooms on the building’s first floor, or time their visit for a special guided tour (800 yen), which includes a look at the second floor, which contains a surprising number of Japanese-style rooms despite the architecture. Guests looking for a break from walking through the gardens can also find refreshments in the dinging hall cafe, and sometimes in the Japanese-style garden teahouse, where tea and sweets are offered for 500 yen. Whether you’re deeply interested in the unique mix of Western and Japanese cultures that epitomized Japan’s Taisho period, you can’t get enough of roses, or you just love exploring gardens in Japan, the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens are definitely worth a visit, during the May rose season and throughout the year.