The art of the Japanese garden

The opening of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this week has got us thinking all about gardens. The innovative designs that are on display in Chelsea take a lot of preparation and planning, and the same goes for a classic Japanese garden. In fact, the art of the Japanese garden has been refined over 1,000 years, after merchants bought back gardening techniques and styles from China.

Created to display aesthetic and philosophical ideas, as well as highlighting the natural landscape, to the casual visitor a classical Japanese garden can be pretty unfathomable but visit a few and you’ll start seeing the different themes and concepts that run through them. Many are inspired by ancient Japanese art, others by distinct features of the surrounding landscapes, such as lakes, volcanoes and beaches or are miniature recreations of famous local vistas, and some by philosophical and religious ideas – the unstoppable advance of time is a common feature (getting pretty deep there!). Whether you visit a ‘strolling garden’ of an Edo Lord, or a dry-stone Zen garden, you will find that every one is a calm oasis for relaxation of the mind.

Here are some of Japan’s best gardens

Located in Kanazawa, Kenrokuen is designated as one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” and covers about 100,000 square metres. It was created for the enjoyment of the Maeda family, the Feudal lords that ruled from Kanazawa Castle. Kenrokuen means the ‘Garden of the Six Sublimities’ – according to Chinese tradition, there are six aspects that make the perfect garden; artifice, antiquity, panoramas, water-courses, seclusion and spaciousness. It is rare for a garden to have them all, but Kenrokuen does. Amongst the garden’s many features are bridges, teahouses, ponds and viewpoints plus a variety of flowering trees, which give the gardens a different aspect every season. The spring brings plum and cherry blossoms, the autumn colours are provided by cherry and maple trees, the summer brings flowers and greenery, and the winter brings a peaceful white blanket of snow.

This Buddhist temple, in the Kita-ku area of Kyoto, is home to 22 sub-temples and a load of Zen gardens, and is a place of peace and tranquillity within the city. Usually, only four of the temples and their gardens are open, but then Zen gardens, each meditative and deeply symbolic, are meant to be slowly contemplated. Within the temple complex, Ryogen-in is where you can see Japan’s smallest rock garden, the totekiko, whilst at Zuiho-in is a famous dry landscape garden designed in the 1960s, the painstakingly raked gravel reflecting the hope of the era. Daisen-in contains an elaborate stone garden, and is one of the most famous stone gardens in the country. Following the walls of the temple itself, every tree and stone has a meaning and forms part of a story of the journey to peace and tranquillity.

Another of the “three most beautiful landscape gardens” in Japan, Korakuen is located in Okayama, a 45-minute train ride from Osaka. It was created 300 years ago by the daimyo (lord) as a symbol of power and as a lovely place to stroll. It is centred around Enyo-tei House, and features ponds, hills, a grove of plum trees and even a tea plantation. An unusual feature is the lush, open lawns, believed to symbolise open-mindedness. The garden is designed to be enjoyed from the strolling paths that wind through the landscaping – at certain points the backdrop of Okayama Castle can be admired and there are beautiful Japanese cranes to visit, which have been bred in the park. As in Kenrokuen, seasonal plants and trees are used to change the garden’s aspect with the seasons.

The best garden in the Greater Tokyo area, Sankeien in Yokohama, as well as being a big, beautiful garden, is also a showcase for 10 culturally important buildings from around Japan. Once part of the estate of a wealthy silk merchant, the gardens were opened to the public in 1906 – the merchant’s family home is still here. Along with the 10 examples of traditional architecture, the garden features bamboo groves, streams, bridges, waterfalls and ponds, all of which can be explored by the lovely strolling paths. Sankeien has plum and cherry blossom, and autumn colours galore, but visit in July and August to see the main pond covered in Japanese pink lotus blossoms.

If you fancy visiting any one of these gardens, or all of them, give our tailormade team a call to start putting together your dream Japan itinerary!

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