|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