Japan: Borrowed moments
Written by and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
It’s easy to be mesmerised by Japan’s vibrant cities... but a tour of its unique culture wouldn’t be complete without a reviving stroll through one the exquisite historical gardens within Tokyo, the ancient capital of Kyoto, or business-savvy Osaka.
Tokyo bristles with towers and skyscrapers; they loom over its densely packed districts of boutiques and sprawling subterranean shopping malls. Sometimes, the city’s order and neatness can be as confusing as the tangle of highways, flashing neon, and multi-level streets that muddle the cityscape.
But Tokyo’s not a concrete wasteland. From vantage points – such as the 52nd-floor observatory in Mori Tower or the recently opened 450 m Sky Tree – sightseers don’t need to be eagle-eyed to find the countless parks and gardens that are scattered like cherry blossom around the central parkland surrounding the Imperial Palace.
And the view from these eyrie-like spots is getting ever leafier because Tokyo has a growing number of trees and lawns on top of the lanky skyscrapers too. Since 2001 Capital Hall has required all buildings over a certain size to have green rooftops – and this has developed into a ‘Green Tokyo’ initiative with plans to double the number of roadside trees, turn a landfill site in Tokyo Bay into a ‘Green Island’, and create new parks across the city.
While these parks and tree-shaded streets establish themselves, weary pedestrians can head to historic gardens that offer breathing space away from Tokyo’s dizzying busyness.
Meadows and rice paddies
Hamarikyu, for example, is an enchanting garden with a meadow of wildflowers, a saltwater lake, and pine-fragranced copses. Originally laid out as the grounds of a feudal lord’s residence in 1654, they were later used for falconry and duck hunting by the royal family. On the shore of Tokyo Bay, Hamarikyu is just a stone’s throw from the clamour of Tsukiji Fish Market, and the park’s jetty is a convenient spot to catch the water bus that heads up the Sumida river to Asakusa and its Edo-period attractions, including Tokyo’s oldest temple Senso-ji.
A local maxim goes ‘some people make a garden out of life to walk only on its paths’. Such folk may live in a world of their own, but many others like to visit worlds created by someone else – and the ‘stroll garden’ was a 17th-century creation that encouraged just that. To the north of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, Koishikawa Korakuen is a classic 1629 kaiyu shiki teien (or ‘circular tour garden’) where the visitor is drawn through a plum grove, past a lotus pond, around a waterfall ... with the emphasis as much on the ‘journey’ as the idealised landscapes that the path leads through. The finest sight here is perhaps of the garden’s humblest feature: the Eight-plank Bridge that haphazardly crosses a rice paddy.
Soothing the sense
The great 20th-century garden designer Shigemori Mirei often quoted the old Japanese saying “in houses where gardeners come and go, there’s no need for a doctor”. Mirei was convinced of the life-giving qualities of the natural environment and believed every home should have a garden, even if it only a koniwa or miniature landscape ‘dish garden’.
Mirei excelled at the karesansui, the dry landscape garden. He built several in former capital Kyoto and one of his influences was the 15th-century example at the city’s Ryÿan-ji temple. This classic Zen garden (as such gardens are known outside Japan) soothes the senses. The touch of worn-smooth wood on its verandah, the view of enigmatically positioned rocks on raked gravel, the sound of wind (even raindrops) in the trees crowding the perimeter wall, the aroma of dampened bark and moss – all combine to form an exceptional experience.
A little along the same road in western Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji is no less memorable but altogether more luxuriant: a golden pavilion set on the edge of mirror lake against a forest backdrop – with an exaggerated perspective thanks to miniaturised black pines on little islands and the distant shore. Also set around a lake, but laid out more than 400 years later, Osaka’s Keitakuen was once a private garden, but is now an elegant corner of larger Tennoji Park. Keitakuen in particular is often referred to as a rinsen or forest-and-spring garden, a charming term acquired from China.
There’s little doubt that inspiration for things horticultural came from the Chinese – after all, they had been making elaborate royal gardens since at least 1000 bc. The 6th-century arrival of Buddhism and Daoism from China also brought the Middle Kingdom’s landscaping expertise to Japan. Over the following centuries, the Japanese made the Chinese art of penjing their own (now we know it as bonsai), they emulated the Chinese rock garden (jiashan) and borrowed the ‘borrowed scenery’ technique where the garden and the landscape beyond become one through artful planting.
One of Japan’s most westerly points, Okinawa Island is almost as close to Beijing as it is to Tokyo. Between the 12th and 19th centuries, it was the hub of the Ryuku Kingdom and welcomed representatives of both neighbours’ imperial courts.
Shikina-en garden, in the capital Naha, was created in 1799 as both a royal palace and pleasure grounds for visiting Chinese officials. It’s a curious mix of influences: Chinese structures – a hexagonal pavilion and quirky half-moon bridges – stand alongside unquestionably Japanese elements such as lone ornamental trees and tightly pruned hedgerows.
It’s a splendid park that characterises not just Okinawa’s middle ground, but the development of Japanese garden design. Like any great ‘stroll garden’, it takes the visitor on a journey – one that weaves through a Chinese garden of abundance and energy to arrive at home-grown Japanese landscaping that’s effortless, timeless, and generous.
By the numbers
Ryoan-ji’s dry landscape garden consists of five groups of 15 rocks, positioned so that only 14 are visible to the observer at any one time.
Japan has seven gardens that are recognised as both ‘Special Places of Scenic Beauty’ and ‘Special Historical Sites’ – Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto and both Hamarikyu and Korakuen in Tokyo are included.
Japan’s first four public parks – Ueno, Asukayama, Shiba, and Fukagawa – were opened in the same year, 1873 … and are, coincidentally, all in Tokyo.
The famous Edo-period poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) was often inspired to pick up his pen after visiting a special garden. His most famous haiku – a form of succinct poetry – describes an easily overlooked moment: an old pond / a frog jumps in / water splashes
Springtime often stirred Basho’s creativity, especially hanami or cherry blossom viewing … on one occasion it so overwhelmed him that he lost his sense of direction: clouds of cherry blossom! / is that temple bell / in Ueno? or Asakusa?
But perhaps his most evocative poem describes the blizzard of petals that comes at the end of the short-lived sakura season: from all these trees / into salads, soups, everywhere / cherry blossom falls
Gardens to visit
Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo
Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, Tokyo
Ryÿan-ji Temple, Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto
Keitakuen in Tennoji Park, Osaka
Shikina-en Garden, Naha, Okinawa