Glorious Gardens of Japan

Garden designer, Sally Cunis, highlights the beautiful botany from her recent visit to Japan.

Arriving in Japan last autumn with my husband to explore potteries and gardens, I clutched a well-thumbed copy of the ‘Gardens of Kyoto’ – a gift from a friend – carrying in my head an image of my Grandmother’s blue and white Willow pattern plate.

The plate bears a distillation of the classic idea of a Japanese garden; a small, arched bridge over water, a cloud tree, bonsai, weeping willow, rocks, blossom and a pair of doves flying over-head.

Despite my background reading, nothing quite prepared me for the reality of the public gardens, particularly their sheer scale and beauty.

Japanese gardens as we know them came from China in about 600AD featuring hills and ponds; they gradually evolved through the centuries into ‘Stroll’ gardens for relaxation and entertainment. These were the gardens of the wealthy, of Samurai and emperors.

In time, Zen Buddhism reached Japan from India via China and with it came the gravel gardens developed by enlightened monks as places for contemplation. They were, and still are, mainly attached to temples and to this day are looked after by monks. Samurai also incorporated them into their beautiful gardens. The Silver Pavilion in Kyoto is one such example.

Zen Gardens, Silver Pavilion

Centuries on, the tea gardens became popular, with exquisite tea houses dotted throughout picture-perfect landscapes. They can be found in the extensive gardens of Okayama which also boasts beautiful Koi carp, Chrysanthemums on display and gardeners shaping cloud trees.

The famous gardens of Kanazawa, where trees are trained over the water and massive branches are supported in the winter months by snake-like ropes suspended from tall poles, were a real joy. Despite the rain, hardy gardeners crouched in their blue water proofs and straw hats hand-weeding moss while others waded in the sinuous streams clearing the Iris of weed. Even the gravel is raked carefully in the rain!

Pruned and propped trees, Kanazawa

The best place though for a garden lover has to be Kyoto; the former Imperial Capital of Japan, home to over 2,000 temples and shrines – not to mention the palaces and pavilions, many of which sit within beautiful gardens.

The large gardens are complex in design. Many are for strolling but are also intended to be seen from inside; by sitting on a Tatami mat within a teahouse or palace, the view is neatly framed by wide windows when the sliding screens are opened.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto

The grand gardens of the Silver Pavilion and Tenryuji temple use the concept of ‘the borrowed view’. Massive pine and Acers are reduced in height, clipped, trained and propped, minimising the scale to an exquisite garden landscape which nestles within a backdrop of towering mountains smothered in tall red pine and maple.

Every little detail is carefully thought out and executed.

Autumn colours are reflected in water in which are set flat and standing rocks representing islands. Apart from the Acers, foliage in autumn, which is mainly evergreen, is layered in textures and shades of green; Toad lily, autumn Camellia, Nandina and early Azaleas add a splash of colour.

Japanese Toad Lily

In spring, cherry blossom and the flowers Magnolia, Azalea, Fatsia, Mahonia and Camellia will wash the gardens with colour. Many of these plants are familiar; they were collected in their hundreds by plant-collectors when Japan reopened her doors to trade in 1854 after 200 years of closure and established throughout gardens in Britain and elsewhere.  A large number are on Japan’s Red List of endangered species, some of which are now being successfully returned.

The gardens cannot be seen without reference to the magnificent buildings within whose grounds they stand. The shrines, temples and palaces are extraordinary in size, execution and every detail. Temples and shrines are painted red or orange to deter evil, the perfect foil to the gardens whilst the reflections of the Golden Pavilion are breath-taking.

Golden Pavilion

The Japanese love of gardens is demonstrated elsewhere in Kyoto where domestic space is limited; most houses have a beautifully planted container or two outside the front door and maybe even a ceramic pot containing a mini goldfish pond!