Shiba Koen in Minato, Tokyo, on the scene since 1873, is the forerunner of Japan’s public parks. It appears plain, the better to enjoy the contrast of the Park’s Momijidani or Maple Valley. Here maple trees abound and are afire with a multitude of shades of reds, yellows, and golds, more than 50 shades for sure. It’s maple madness at Shiba Koen.
This is thanks to the ingenuity of Nagaoka Yasuhei, Japan’s first public and chief park designer from the early Meiji period to the Taisho. Yasuhei chose about 12 maple species to bloom in December as well, so Shiba Koen would be ablaze with colour almost all year round.
Shiba Koen was Yasuhei’s blueprint for future public parks. Natural features of the environment are landscaped so they highlight and offset each other. The Park developed on a small ravine, keeping the old steep rock formations, a brook, a waterfall, to show off the abundant maple and other flora. A trail upward and around has been made on its slope lined with old jizo, leading to a tiny shrine - through an arch of maple. Shiba Koen was also the blueprint for public parks as communal activity-based spaces. It was the first to sport exercise equipment in 1902.
Shiba Koen’s territory includes a small Toshogu Shrine with its distinctive black and gold lacquer, and the large Zojoji Temple. This gleams with red lacquer and red paint brushed wood. Opposite Zojoji on the main road is a broad road divider – a park in itself, containing lovely huge overhanging trees, monuments, and a sculpture or two.
The name koen denotes a public park, a concept unheard of before 1873. Then, it was decided to convert the previously exclusive domains of the Edo Period feudal families into public parks for the hoi polloi. There were so many of these grand grounds that Edo was known as Garden City. Temple grounds were also up for conversion, but they tended to be inclusive, anyway. And so we get Shiba Koen.
I do wonder what winter’s like at Shiba Koen, whether it’s all red hot with maple madness as Yasuhei intended. But maybe it’s winter’s 50 shades of grey.