Six de­grees of per­fec­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Leisure - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

YOU’VE heard it said that a re­spect for longevity is deeply em­bed­ded in Ja­panese cul­ture. Change for change’s sake is not part of the na­tional psy­che. Stone walls that have taken on, with age, a beau­ti­ful patina are care­fully pre­served. Bridges are cov­ered in moss; cen­turies old tea-houses are vis­ited with quiet, dis­creet rev­er­ence. And limbs on an­cient trees are lov­ingly sup­ported by sturdy poles.

‘‘When the Bud­dha preached he stood un­der a tree,’’ wrote Tachibana no Toshit­suna at the end of the 11th cen­tury in Sakuteiki, per­haps the world’s first gar­den­ing man­ual. ‘‘When the Shinto gods come down from heaven they take up res­i­dence in trees. So is it not es­sen­tial that hu­man habi­ta­tions should be sur­rounded by trees?’’

The finest ex­am­ple of these prin­ci­ples, cen­tral to the Ja­panese aes­thetic, can be found at Ken­roku-en, an 11ha stroll gar­den in Kanazawa, a city on Ja­pan’s west coast. Ken­roku-en was de­vel­oped from the 17th to the 19th cen­turies by the Maeda clan as the outer for­ti­fi­ca­tion to their cas­tle. The name of the gar­den, taken from Chinese sen­si­bil­ity of the Song pe­riod, rep­re­sents six at­tributes con­sid­ered de­sir­able for a per­fect land­scape: spa­cious­ness, seclu­sion, ar­ti­fice, an­tiq­uity, wa­ter­ways and panora­mas.

There is some­thing for the gar­den lover in any month of the year at Ken­roku-en, which is con­sid­ered on of the ‘‘three greats’’ among the many won­der­ful gar­dens in Ja­pan. If you visit in early sum­mer the blos­soms of 400 cherry trees will have fallen, the wis­te­ria will have faded, but the iris will be bloom­ing in swaths of blue. Au­tumn brings the fa­mous fo­liage colours; even in win­ter there is plenty to ad­mire. The an­cient conifers, held up by solid poles all year, are pro­tected from heavy win­ter snow­falls by an in­ge­nious sys­tem of ropes, erected in a tent-like ar­range­ment. The most fa­mous is the Karasaki Matsu, a black pine ( Pi­nus thun­ber­gia) planted as a seed brought from nearby Lake Biwa by the 13th Maeda war­lord in the 19th cen­tury.

Restora­tion of the gar­den be­gan in 1774, af­ter it was de­stroyed by fire in 1759: this pro­vided the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate the fa­mous Emer­ald Wa­ter­fall along with more lakes and wind­ing streams, as­sisted by plen­ti­ful wa­ter and pres­sure from the Saigawa River.

Kanazawa, a beau­ti­ful city wedged be­tween the alps and the sea in the Ishikawa Pre­fec­ture, en­joyed about 300 years of peace un­der the Maeda lords. And, like the moun­tain city of Takayama, Kanazawa es­caped the bomb­ing of World War II due to its lack of in­dus­try. Peace and wealth en­cour­aged art, of course, and the styles and colours you will see there are more vi­brant than those of the an­cient cap­i­tal of Ky­oto. Walk around the city to the an­cient sa­mu­rai res­i­dences, along nar­row lanes and wa­ter canals, and through its beau­ti­ful gar­dens.

The el­e­gant iris has fas­ci­nated philoso­phers, politi­cians, writers and gar­den­ers through­out his­tory: it has a place in many cul­tures. In The Iliad, Homer de­picted the flower as the mes­sen­ger of the gods. Hera, wife of Zeus, an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween heaven and earth, was also re­spon­si­ble for lead­ing the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. The shape of the flower rep­re­sents the trin­ity to Chris­tians; in the Far East, es­pe­cially in Ja­pan, the iris is of cer­e­mo­nial and tra­di­tional value.

There are 300 species of iris grow­ing through­out the north­ern hemi­sphere, in­clud­ing the wa­ter and acid soil lov­ing Ja­panese iris ( Iris en­sata) that you see here. No true iris is na­tive to re­gions south of the equa­tor. You need to know about bearded iris ( Iris ger­man­ica) also, for while its blooms are the har­bin­ger of sum­mer, it is in win­ter that you place your or­der. Those who live in hu­mid, coastal cli­mates, from Syd­ney north­wards, will have greater suc­cess with evan­sia or louisiana iris.

Ken­roku-en Gar­den opened to the pub­lic in 1874 and was des­ig­nated as a Spe­cial Place of Scenic Beauty in 1922. It is easy to un­der­stand why, as Tachibana no Toshit­suna wrote, ‘‘Plant­ing a tree cre­ates an earthly par­adise.’’ With its rep­u­ta­tion comes the draw­back of many vis­i­tors to Ken­roku-en. Visit late in the af­ter­noon, when the sun is set­ting and the tour busses have left. From Ky­oto you take the Thun­der­bird 7 bul­let train.

Pick iris while still in bud; carry the stems, in bud, wrapped lightly in news­pa­per. The blooms can stain if crushed; in an­cient days in Egypt and Rome, iris was used to pro­vide dyes.

Suc­cess­ful grow­ers of bearded iris know that you should plant them where the sun can burn and the frost can bite. Plant the rhi­zome, the root of the iris, which should not be buried be­neath the soil but, rather, be level with it, where it can bask in sum­mer sun and en­joy win­ter frosts. Fol­low daily gar­den tips and tricks on twit­ter.com/hol­lyk­er­forsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Sea­sons in My House and Gar­den, is out now.

HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

Iris in bloom at Ken­roku-en, con­sid­ered one of Ja­pan’s three great gar­dens

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