Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sado-naturalism? A hard look at the Japanese garden - Part Two

Clipped bushes, classic little bobbles.... we'd disparagingly call meatballs if they were lined up in front of a burger outlet in North Carolina. Does the fact that they were in a historic monastery garden in Kyoto make them any different? A bobble is a bobble is a bobble, isn't it? Here of course I could appreciate their being parts of a whole , but still felt each one was an example of something I personally do not care for.

The Abbot's private garden at Kiyomizu Temple (above) was an opportunity to see a small garden, like many designed to be viewed from a building, with a backdrop which cut it off from the city. A lantern on the hillside opposite was an excellent example of shakei – borrowed landscape. The garden itself was centred on a pool, a classic example of a miniaturised landscape, with a bridge which you had to imagine yourself using, rather than ever using in actuality. Stones and clipped bushes (mostly azaleas, I think) made up the composition. Everything was harmoniously balanced.

Genkyuen garden, Hikone Castle

Tree clipping is also something here which evokes mixed reactions. There are those people who get very emotional about how much they hate bonsai (I have heard of bonsai enthusiasts being thrown out of nurseries). I am not one of those; indeed I rather like bonsai, although I would never bother with them myself. They are however only one end of a whole spectrum of tree management in Japan. A great many trees in private gardens and public spaces are clipped; much of the work of gardeners is concerned with tree management - Niwaki as it is called. In a crowded environment, in a culture where seeing the macrocosm in the microcosm is important, I can see that this is a very useful skill. In the case of pines in particular I think it lengthens the useful lifespan of the tree, and the results can be very pleasing. Sometimes though, in larger spaces, it just seems so unnecessary, a tradition applied too readily. 

Where tree clipping passes from useful skill to absurdity is in where trees are trained to resemble the windswept trees of the coast (as at Jogasaki above), which are seen to exemplify a virtuous tenacity, as much as being beautiful in their own right. Clipping and training can be so extreme that permanent and highly obtrusive bamboo structures are needed to support branches to extended that they can no longer support themselves. Which seems to me to be an absurdity, as the trees no longer resemble anything natural. An example of the means overcoming the end. And a reminder that bondage and sado-masochism is an important part of the pornography industry here (see Ian Buruma's excellent book on popular Japanese culture A Japanese Mirror).
For heaven's sake - put it out of its misery and cut it down!

Cut and trained to look like a windswept pine - except that it needs a bamboo framework to support it.
A conservative tradition of heavy-handed pruning, a contrived idea of what nature is, and an over-reliance on clichéd stock forms? All of these criticisms could be levelled at the European tradition of classical formality; indeed I have often done so. And here too, perhaps even more so.
But the basic design principles, techniques and philosophy can inspire continued development.

Here was one which was occupying a few square metres of a wedding venue in Kyoto. Very nice use of a few perennials (rarely seen here in traditional gardens).

And here is a garden on a very steep slope at Jogasaki, only five years old, a reminder of how a hot humid summer makes things grow. Made by a lady potter who scatters her various creations around the garden. A wonderful naturalistic creation with a dense ground flora, mostly native. And - its open too, the idea of public open gardens is beginning to take off in Japan. Private and contemporary gardens - that's what I'd like to do next time I come.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

A hard look at the Japanese garden - Part One

Garden at Tenryu-ji monastery, Kyoto. Classic sand garden, pool and borrowed scenery.

I have a clear memory of a favourite book in the library at school – it was about traditional Japanese architecture and included quite an extensive section on gardens. I remember taking it out again and again – I was utterly fascinated by those gardens. Like many other western teenagers (including to some extent my son) I developed something of a passion for Japanese art and design. Finally, after many years, arriving here and seeing them for the first time feels like meeting someone you have corresponded with for a long time but never actually met – certain things are just as you imagined, but much remains unexpected – and certain things you do not feel comfortable with. Anyone who knows me knows I am interested in naturalistic plant-focused design - so I was interested to see what my reactions would be. I feel a bit sensitive about critiquing someone else's garden heritage, but there has been so much unthinking adoration of traditional Japanese gardens in the west, I think it's fair enough to be a bit more critical.

Some of the greatest beauty is in the detail and finishing. Paving at the Katsura Palace.

In many ways I am sorry I have not visited Japan before, to begin to explore this extraordinarily creative and complex civilisation at an earlier stage in my life. As far as gardens are concerned though, I do feel it has been good to see them 'in the green' after having seen and experienced so much else in the world of making gardens, growing plants and designing landscapes. I can look at them as an experienced adult rather than a naïve youth, too ready to be smitten by the exotic. I was interested to feel my reactions to the gardens and see them not only for what they were themselves but what they offered us as garden practitioners and garden users today. To sum it up, I felt distinctly underwhelmed by much of what I saw; maybe I just knew these gardens too well before I saw them; there is plenty to admire and learn from, but also a lot that I did not respond to. I can imagine that if I were Japanese I might have been very critical of the garden tradition here.

Like many traditional garden styles, plentiful labour is essential.
Moss when it works, is wonderful.

But very often it doesn't.
Good examples of tree pruning at the Katsura Palace.
I recently spent five days in Kyoto with Juliet Roberts, editor of Gardens Illustrated magazine. We started out looking at Tenryu-Ji, like many gardens, created around a monastary on the hillier outer edges of the city (14th Century). As we came in, a work crew were bent hands and knees over areas of moss beside and extensive areas of immaculately raked sand, a reminder that these gardens are immensely high maintenance. Most of the garden was however composed of heavily pruned trees growing out of what was for the most part bare earth. The overall effect reminded me of roses sprouting out of bare earth in a British municipal rosebed. 

Many gardens are built for viewing from a particular point. If however you get up and walk into the view, what you see is actually rather uninteresting. The analogy is with a stage set - effective and dramatic when see from the seats but wander amongst it and all you see is MDF and support struts. Planting is only relevant if it can be seen from the privileged viewpoint. We (and interestingly, the Chinese), expect to be able to wander around our gardens and see them from lots of different angles.

The bare earth effect we saw in many other places, so it is worth looking at in a bit more detail. Moss appeared to be growing, and I can imagine that a moss surface was probably what was desired, or originally intended. Moss only works as a ground cover if the soil is consistently moist, and preferably shaded. In sunlight, with regular summer temperatures of over 30C, it simply does not do, and either bare earth or algae-stained dried mud is the result. I found myself wondering how come a garden tradition with access to an incredibly rich woodland flora had not come up with an alternative ground cover to moss. Even the moss surrounding the stones in the great Ryoanji was burnt-up and patchy.

View from the sublimely beautiful Katsura Palace.
A hot and sweaty traipse through some rather featureless suburbs brought us to the Katsura Palace, where the garden was laid out in the 17th century. There was almost no signage and several people who we asked had never heard of it. It turns out that whereas foreigners can get in by applying to the Imperial Household Agency a week in advance, Japanese citizens have to apply for tickets in a lottery. The palace is a characteristic piece of Japanese understatement with several acres of grounds dotted with tea houses and small water bodies. It is how many of us imagine a Japanese garden, as presented to us from over a century and a half of imagery, from Gilbert and Sullivans Mikado on. It has the hump-backed bridges, the pines with layered foliage, rocks and little thatched pavilions we expect. A set of images which have become so cliched with endless repetition that it is actually very difficult to see beyond them to get a genuine reaction.
Ryoanji - and its worshippers. Quite rightly. I think this is a masterpiece of understatement.

An early morning taxi ride gets us to the most famous of Japanese gardens, Ryoanji, shortly after opening at 8.00. We have a precious ten minutes in the company of the famous fifteen stones before the first tour party. It is really rather special, very condensed, a garden in the abstract. The nearest thing I have ever seen to it were 'dry tray landscapes' in China. It is so designed that you can never see all fifteen stones at once and it is impossible to see the whole thing at once, although it is not that big. It is the ultimate Zen koan, or puzzle. All this seemingly modern abstraction is all the more impressive when you realise this is similar in age to our European Renaissance.

Context is all important. Japan often feels a claustrophobic country, its population squeezed into a narrow coastal plain between the mountains (thickly forested) and the sea. Rice paddies jostle factories and apartment blocks. Most people can only garden in tiny backyards, on balconies or at the front of their houses. One of the joys of walking around residential districts is seeing how gardeners create incredible assemblages of pots and other containers in front of their houses: bonsai, shrubs, perennials, annuals, barrels of water with waterlilies. When you have as strip only half a metre wide, the only way to go is up, so plants get stacked onto shelves and climbers reach up to the second storey. Landscape designers do similar tricks – with three-layered shrub plantings against walls which can stretch for long distances along walkways, but fit into the narrowest of strips. Courtyard gardens are created in the tiniest of spaces, wherever a shaft of sunlight reaches the ground. This use of minimal space is the real miracle of Japanese gardens.

A tiny courtyard garden in an old Kyoto house. The simple planning of such tiny spaces is perhaps the Japanese garden tradition's greatest contribution to the world.

The only other garden that made a similar impact on me was one of the sand gardens in the Daitokuji temple complex. A not dissimilar size to Ryoanji it was simple and stark, with a healthy aura of Polytrichum moss around a group of two stones and neat little tuft of Selaginella, ferns and sedges around some others. Interesting that it dates to the 1980s when a venerable tree finally fell down, and something had to replace it. Elsewhere at Daitokuji there is an extensive tea garden which had good ground cover planting, and a balance between the clipped elements and naturally-free growing plants. It felt lush, quite naturalistic, calm and cool, the most relaxed planting we had seen. 'Cool' is important – Kyoto in summer is very hot and humid – we looked like beetroots for much of the time. It was almost the only garden where I felt at home with the planting.

Sand garden at Daitokuji

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wild Japan

Angelica ursina
A recent trip to Japan (the purpose of which will have to wait until another blog post) has been a wonderful opportunity to see some wild habitats on the other side of our continent. Always too briefly, as I am sure I spent far more time rattling along in suburban trains than I managed to be out in natural habitats. Precious moments snatched have to be made the most of.

The main purpose of my trip was actually in Hokkaido, the great northern island, which looks and feels a totally different place to the rest of Japan. Sparsely populated, with huge forests and extensive agriculture it has a sense of space impossible to find anywhere else. Botanically I think it has more in common with the Russian far east. Long cold winters end with a thorough soaking with snow melt topped up with summer rainfall. Warm, without the suffocating humid heat of further south, make for a brief but intense growing season.

Lush is the best word to start with. Very green. And so much that seems to be giant, including too all-too familiar species, Fallopia sacchalinense, the larger version of Japanese knotweed and Petasites japonicus, another plant we have at home as an aggressive escape from cultivation. The three metre knotweed is a very prominent part of the landscape, in a land naturally forested, it runs amok when there aren't trees or grazing or mowing to restrain it. The petasites, with its vast leaves appears more restrained than at home, never forming the monocultures which sprawl along laybys in Britain where was thrown out of the back of a car twenty years ago. I wonder whether these species, and of course the 'normal' Japanese knotweed, F. japonica, actually do better in our climate, somehow the longer growing season more than offseting its being cooler, and sometimes drier.

The two metre plus meadowsweet Filipendula camschatense is also very common. Judging by how well it grows with us (our one day a week gardener Diana says it is her favourite plant in the garden), I am surprised it has not escaped from cultivation. Maybe in time it will.

Petasites japonicus  and Aralia cordata
The other plant that you can't avoid noticing along Hokkaido roadsides is what looks like a slightly squashed version of another of our bête-noires, giant hogweed, except that it isn't. You can shake hands with Angelica ursina without burning your skin, which is just as well as the plant is everywhere, its vast leaves common in woodland but only seeming to flower in sunlight.

Otherwise the woodland floor is a solid mass of things we pay good money for in nurseries back home: aralia, aruncus, astilbe, aconitum, glaucidium, hosta, cardiocrinum – and trilliums earlier on apparently. The woodland itself seems dominated by some very nice looking oaks, with much larger foliage than ours and maples. So frustrating to be here, at what feels like a very very long way from home, for such a short time. Definitely a place to come back to.

A dear friend from Sheffield (in oriental terms we are classmates, a very important bond), Ayako Nagase, now an asst. prof. at Chiba University had, some time ago, told me of her interest in sea coast flora for green roofs. I was surprised we in Europe hadn't paid more attention to those tough little plants that grow on the very thin soils of clifftops. Indeed, it was at Ayako's prompting that I spent some time crawling about the clifftops of the Gower peninsula in south Wales only a few weeks ago, in search of the seed of the little blue bulb Scilla verna, which hardly appears to be in cultivation (we found plenty).

Ayako Nagase with her green roof based on Jogasaki coast flora

Japan's coastal flora is very different to what we can offer. She took me to Jogasaki, one of those rare places on the eastern Tokyo to Osaka coastal strip which is not built up. A pleasant green seasidey town, where it feels like people come to have fun (a rare commodity here – people work far too hard), Jogasaki's volcanic coast feels like an exotic Pembrokeshire. The flora includes some amazingly high quality foliage plants like Chrysanthemum pacificum and Farfugium japonicum. Sometimes these arrange themselves into compositions which look, well, designed. A very attractive flora indeed. These are plants which are not necessarily exposed to salt spray but are to cold northerly winds, and grow in little more than crevices in lava. Other species include **

Another Japanese friend, Yuko Tanabe, had once told me about a place called Ibukiyama (Mt. Ibuki) not that far from Kyoto, with an incredible perennial flora. So, accompanied by several other colleagues, we all got the bullet train down from Tokyo and then piled into a hire car to have a look. Arriving halfway up a massive limestone mountain, we find that a great many other people had come with the same idea, including Yuko's mother who had come on a coach trip. In Japan and China one so often has to share nature with a great many others, but at least here the visitors are quiet and respectful and seem to be mainly interested in photographing the flowers.

They're all here to photograph the flowers

Ibukiyama is pretty incredible. The summit is covered in perennials, with the occasional gnarled shrub (often a hydrangea). No grasses or sedges – not until our way down did we come across a few grass tussocks. Filipendula multijuga in bright pink and Ligularia stenocephala in yellow made for a combination that garden designers always try to do their best to avoid. There are also Angelica pubescens, Veronicastrum sibiricum, Lilium leichtlinii and Veronica subsessilis in full flower. On the way down we past through acres of aconitum and actaea species just about to come into flower and Leucosceptrum japonicum - a plant I had only ever seen one of before, at Chanticleer; marvelling at it, I never believed I would be hiking through acres of the stuff half a year later. The dominant plant in terms of biomass though is Boehmeria tricuspis. In fact I would say that an awareness of this genus was one of my big discoveries of the trip – fantastic well-shaped foliage plants, the only point against them being that they look a bit too like their relative, the stinging nettle.

Ibukiyama is an extraordinary place. As you look around at the surrounding mountains and hills all you see is forested summits. Here, for some reason, massive snowfalls occur (including the heaviest every recorded) and appear to prevent tree or shrub growth. Most extraordinary though is what Yuko explained about the history of the place. During the 15the century it was used as an enormous herb farm, with medicinal herbs from all over Japan being grown here. When it fell into disuse, the plants took over. It really is an enormous garden gone wild.