In perfect harmony
Garden marvels for all seasons
RYOAN-JI, KYOTO: Don’t skip this famous attraction just because images of its 15 rocks in a rectangle of gravel are so familiar; the most famous of Zen dry gardens is a riddle worth puzzling over in person. Consider, for instance, how time is expressed through the medium of rock. The Japanese word for landscape, sansui, can be translated as water and mountain, or water and rock. In this garden, rock stands for both, as well as for the effect of water on rock, which over the ages becomes sand. This representation of the drip of time is balanced by the cherry tree that hangs over the wall of the garden, its falling blossom a reminder of the fleeting moment. Any time.
TOFUKU-JI, KYOTO: In the 20th century, Japan’s leading practitioner of Zen garden design was Mirei Shigemori, who created a number of the gardens in the temple complex of Tofuku-ji, famous for the fiery colours of its autumn maples. Find a way through the leaf-viewing crowds to Shigemori’s gardens, including the Garden of Vanity, at the sub-temple of Ryogin-an, where straight lines of white sand are raked between a border of smooth river stones, backed by a bamboo fence. November for the contrast of the brilliant leaves and austere dry gardens.
DT SUZUKI MUSEUM, KANAZAWA: The Zen dry garden is inverted and turned into a wet garden at the Museum of the Zen teacher DT Suzuki, who is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to Western philosophers. As you would expect, his museum is a temple of minimalism and contemplation. Entrance to the small garden around the building is free. At first glance it’s essentially a reflective pool backed by concrete walls overhung with mature trees, but then an unseen fountain burbles once, sending ripples across the water, echoing the raked patterns of a dry garden, themselves echoes of ripples on a lake and waves on the ocean. Spring for the hedge of flowering may and cherries; autumn for the colour on the hillsides.
KENROKUEN, KANAZAWA: In Edo-period Japan, warlords showed their sophistication and wealth by building flourishing estates that combined lit- erary references and sensual pleasures in what were called stroll gardens. Kenrokuen is one of Japan’s official Top Three and the cultural reference here is to the 11th-century Chinese poet Li Gefei’s six elements of a perfect garden: art and age, spaciousness and seclusion, water and views. But you don’t need to remember that to love the way the garden follows waterways down the hill and into several lakes, defining the spaces, walks and views. There are plum blossoms and cherries, a wisteria-hung teahouse perched on the lake and an ancient pine suspended over the water on bamboo poles. Early spring for plum blossom, April for cherries, a bit later for iris, summer for hydrangea, autumn for foliage colour and winter for snow.
BENIYA MUKAYU, YAMASHIRO ONSEN: Often Japanese gardens are designed to be looked at, rather than walked through. The most famous of these viewing gardens is probably the Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane prefecture, to the west of the main island of Honshu, where six gardens are framed by windows as if each were a separate painting. The gardens of Beniya Mukayu, a luxury hot spring ryokan outside Kanazawa in central Honshu, are much less formal but are also designed primarily to provide views from inside of the changing seasons expressed through trees. You can venture into the garden proper, especially to experience a tea ceremony in the tiny pavilion, which is reached, as required by design principles set out in the late 16th century, by uneven stepping stones, acting as a physical reminder that the path to enlightenment is not easy.
AN URBAN ESTATE: Tokyo’s Hotel New Otani is surrounded by more than 4ha of immaculate gardens that date to the 16th century. When Yonetaro Otani agreed to build a hotel to accommodate important visitors to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on his estate near the Imperial Palace, the plan was to maintain the landscape and preserve its Edo-period walls. There are waterways, bridges, winding paths and picturesque teahouses plus the largest outdoor swimming pool in central Tokyo (season starts July 15) and rooftop rose garden. More: newotani.co.jp.
HEIAN SHRINE, KYOTO: The Tale of Genji has been called the world’s first novel and was written by a noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in 11th-century Kyoto. Genji is a charming prince looking for love, and as well as the stories of seduction, the book features plenty of gardens and garden parties. Jihei Ogawa VII, a leading landscape artist of the late 19th century, used Genji and other Heian-period literature as sources for a garden that brings to life the sophisticated leisure of court life in classical Kyoto. It’s a stroll garden of controlled views and seasonal treats. If you miss the flowering of the valley of cherries, you might catch the pergolas of wisteria, or the maples reflected in the still waters of White Tiger pond. A large winding garden bed is planted with all 800 plants mentioned in Heian period writings, while the lake features a covered bridge that echoes West Lake in China’s Hangzhou, recognised as one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. Any time.
RIKUGIEN, TOKYO: When the Tokugawa shogun established Edo as the new capital of Japan in the early 17th century, one of his peace-keeping strategies was to force his feudal lords to live in Edo (now Tokyo) for six months of the year. Maintaining two extensive properties and households kept the fractious warlords busy and underfunded. It also allowed for the rapid development of Edo’s artisan and craft class, including its garden workers. Rikugien, in Bunkyo-ku, is one of the few remaining Edo-period gardens in Tokyo, and it’s a model of its type, with winding paths framing views around the lake and from its hills. Its name translates as Garden of the Six Princi- ples of Poetry and it was designed to feature 88 views of famous places in Japan and China referred to in classical waka poetry. You don’t need to recognise a single one to love this remarkable garden. Any time.
HAKONE OPEN-AIR MUSEUM, HAKONE: Opened in 1969, this is art in the garden on a grand scale, with works from the leading sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries, including 26 by Henry Moore on rotating display, arranged on a hillside in Hakone, gateway to Mount Fuji and about 90 minutes by train southwest from Tokyo. The hills are coloured with splodges of pale pink and bronze in spring and vividly streaked in reds and oranges in autumn. The garden continues inside the museum fences, with avenues of cherries, undulating clipped hedges, garden beds of hydrangea and hellebore as well as ponds and wild areas.
NEZU MUSEUM GARDEN, TOKYO: In MinamiAoyama, just along from Prada’s diamond-bubble building and Issey Miyake’s suite of stores on upscale Omotesando boulevard, is the surprising serenity of this private museum and garden. One of its treasures is the 18th-century Korin iris screen, in which repeated clumps of plump-petalled iris, coloured with lapis and malachite, suggest a meandering stream against a gold-foiled backdrop. The screen is brought to life at the bottom of the garden where a stream and pond are edged in huge clumps of iris. Early May for the iris displays.
Zen dry garden at Ryoan-ji Temple, left; Heian Shrine in Kyoto, above