Takamatsu’s one must-see sight, Ritsurin-kōen (栗林公園), is 2.5km south down Chūō-dōri from the JR station. The formal garden, Japan’s largest at 750,000 square metres, lies at the foot of Mount Shuin. Its construction began in the early seventeenth century and took several feudal lords over one hundred years to complete. The gardens were designed to present magnificent vistas throughout the seasons, from an arched red bridge amid a snowy landscape in winter, to ponds full of purple and white irises in early summer.
The East Gate is the garden’s main entrance but JR trains stop at least once an hour at Ritsurin-kōen Kita-guchi, close by the North Gate. At either entrance you can pick up a free English map of the gardens and buy tickets that combine entrance with tea in the Kikugetsu-tei Pavilion. From the East Gate you can either follow a route through the Nantei (South Garden) to the left or Hokutei (North Garden) to the right. The more stylized Nantei garden has paths around three lakes, dotted with islands with carefully pruned pine trees. The highlight here is the delightful Kikugetsu-tei, or “Scooping the Moon”, teahouse overlooking the South Lake. Dating from around 1640 and named after a Tang-dynasty Chinese poem, the teahouse exudes tranquillity, with its screens pulled back to reveal perfect garden views. Viewed from across the lake it’s just as impressive, swaddled in trees that cast a shimmering reflection over the water. The Nantei also has the less elaborate but more secluded Higurashi-tei teahouse, set in a shady grove.
Hokutei has a more natural appearance, and is based around two ponds – Fuyosho-ike, dotted with lotus flowers, and Gunochi-ike, where feudal lords once hunted ducks and which now blooms with irises in June. Keep an eye out for the Tsuru Kame no Matsu, just to the left of the main park building, a black pine tree shaped like a crane spreading its wings and considered to be the most beautiful of the 29,190 trees in the gardens. Behind this is a line of pines called the “Byōbu-matsu”, after the folding-screen painting (byōbu) they are supposed to resemble.