The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was a time of tumultuous change in Japan that brought rapid industrial development and western ideas to a feudal society. The social and economic upheaval of the time provided unprecedented opportunities for several astute industrialists and businessmen, who not only amassed huge fortunes but also left their mark as patrons of the arts.
There is Kaichiro Nezu (1860-1940), who was both a successful businessman and tea ceremony connoisseur and used the wealth he made in railways to collect thousands of precious Japanese art works, which are now part of the collection at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo.
Keita Gotoh (1882-1959), another railroad baron who founded the Tokyu Corporation, left his legacy as an art patron at the Gotoh Museum also in Tokyo, which houses his vast collection of traditional Japanese and Chinese art.
Denzaburo Fujita (1841-1912) and his descendants collected many cultural treasures at a time when traditional works of art were being sold at bargain prices to western collectors. A connoisseur of traditional Noh theater and the tea ceremony, Denzaburo collected thousands of oriental antiques now housed in the Fujita Museum in Osaka.
Among these great collectors and patrons of Japanese arts, Sankei Hara (1868-1939) stands out for his particular interest in collecting not just traditional art but also ancient Japanese buildings. Hara moved the buildings he acquired – temples, traditional houses and even a three-story pagoda – to his expansive estate in Yokohama, which he dubbed Sankeien.
The estate, which the Hara family donated to the city of Yokohama in 1953, is open to the public and is a beloved spot for enjoying nature’s seasonal gifts, from cherry blossoms, water lilies and irises in the spring and hydrangea in the summer to fiery maple leaves in the autumn.
When we visited on a bright, warm day in mid-May, we were greeted by sparkling new leaves on the trees, water lilies in one of the side ponds, daffodils and the last of the azaleas.
The park, which spans 175,000 square meters and adjoins Tokyo Bay, features landscaped gardens centered around a large pond. Dotted throughout the space are 17 historical structures transferred from Kyoto and other parts of Japan, of which 10 are government-designated Important Cultural Properties.
Hara was actually born as Tomitaro Aoki, and hailed from Gifu prefecture in western Japan. After moving to Tokyo to attend university, he married the granddaughter of Zenzaburo Hara, a wealthy Yokohama silk merchant, and was adopted into the family.
Tomitaro was as successful as a businessman, if not more so, than his grandfather-in-law. He even acquired the Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma prefecture, which was Japan’s first modern silk factory and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the death of his grandfather-in-law, Tomitaro inherited the family estate and embarked on an ambitious 20-year project to transform it into a sanctuary of traditional Japanese gardens and architecture, with an inner garden where the Hara family lived and an outer garden, which was opened to the general public.
A Renaissance man who practiced tea ceremony, calligraphy and painting, Sankei named the estate Sankeien after his pen name – Sankei – which he used as his signature on his works of calligraphy.
Hara was a major patron of the arts, who supported many artists, including two giants of Japanese painting, Kanzan Shimomura and Taikan Yokoyama. The Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore stayed at Sankeien for two months in Shofukaku, a villa which was later destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
One of the treasures of Sankeien is the three-story pagoda, which was built in 1457 and relocated from Tomyoji Temple in Kyoto in 1912. It is amazing to think that these ancient buildings were dismantled and reassembled and have withstood the test of time.
Some of the buildings are open to visitors, such as the former Yanohara family residence, which dates from the early 1800s. A farmer’s house from Gifu Prefecture, it has a steeply slanted thatched roof in the gassho style made famous by the village of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The irori sunken hearth and farming implements inside help visitors to imagine 19th century life in Japan’s countryside.
For those feeling hungry after exploring the grounds, there are 3 casual restaurants to choose from serving comfort food such as udon noodles and onigiri rice balls as well as Japanese sweets.
The tea house inside the Sankei Memorial building, where visitors can enjoy matcha green tea with sweets, is currently closed due to the pandemic.
Strolling through the serene grounds of Sankeien, it is easy to forget that the park is in the middle of a major city until one climbs the steps to the concrete structure that was built on the site of the former Shofukaku in 1964.
When Sankei resided on the grounds of his estate the lookout would have provided a breathtaking view of the coastline. Sadly, that idyllic panorama has been replaced by signs of industrialization – a highway and numerous silos of an oil refinery with towers of steel looming in the distance.
While the sight may cause Sankei to “turn in his grave,” as one long-time Yokohama resident exclaimed, he might just as likely take comfort in the knowledge that his lovingly created estate continues to provide solace to countless visitors all year around.