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