A lady and her landscapes

Image of Robin Lane Fox

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Flowering cherries are having a remarkable year. The cold winter held them back and the second flowering of the unsurpassed Winter Cherry, Prunus subhirtella, has coincided with the start of the spring season on such fine varieties as Accolade and yedoensis. I have been contemplating their pink and white blossoms against a clear blue morning sky, thinking of Japan, where the cherries are even finer.

The cherry-viewing festivals in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park have just finished but its surrounding gardens are easier to find and understand because of a beautiful new book explaining what historic Japanese gardens were about. The author is Helena Attlee, a fine explainer of foreign gardens’ history and meaning, who is known to many of you for her superb recent book on the gardens of Portugal. Her Gardens of Japan (Frances Lincoln, £16.99) studies 28 of the most famous sites and features photographs taken by her husband, Alex Ramsay, and a checklist of addresses, contacts and opening times in Kyoto and elsewhere. It will be invaluable for foreign visitors. She even explains how to write for permission to visit the green, cool garden in the Saiho-ji temple in Kyoto, so famous to visitors that the abbot has had to shut it to casual callers in order to restore peace.

Gardens begin so early in Japanese literature. Through translated poems and novels I picture them in clouds of fine plum blossom and irises, purple wisteria, autumn’s chrysanthemums and with an evocative use of water. On the lakes, parties would boat for pleasure and pretty young ladies would delight the onlookers by singing and playing stringed instruments. The essential text is Lady Murasaki’s great Tale of Genji, which one can hardly believe to have been composed around AD1000. “It was now the Third Month. The cherries were in bud and then suddenly the sky was a storm of blossoms and falling petals. Young ladies who lived a secluded life were not likely to be charged with indiscretion if at this glorious time of year they took their places out near the veranda ... ” As the cherry petals flutter down at the start of the new summer term, the scene still repeats itself in my Oxford College garden, without the discretion and with several square metres of exposed female midriff.

My experience of historic Japanese gardens is mixed. I enjoyed watching a Japanese garden master relaying the Japanese garden in London’s Holland Park in the early 1990s and I still enjoy looking at this clever garden in the spring. In Japan I never made any sense of the brushed sand and 15 rocks of the famous Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto, which was built with Zen teachings in mind. It might possibly go back on its present site to 1488. Attlee gives the basics for study of this cryptic little landscape but my memories of it are still clouded by the loudspeakers and the ceaseless crowds of schoolchildren who made contemplation of it so very difficult. Morning visitors might hear nightingales in the boundary hedge, she tells us, but even just after the garden’s opening I remember the chatter of white-shirted children in formation.

Kyoto is the place to visit, armed with this book’s excellent map and its list of the gardens within easy reach. The good news is that sparse sand and rocks are only one sideline in Japanese gardening and there is much more than Zen to their art of garden maintenance. Try Murin-an in east Kyoto, where “tree-roots run like swollen arteries beneath moss that covers the ground like green skin”. This garden of views, water and fine trees and shrubs is a masterpiece by Ogawa Jihei, the most accomplished Japanese landscape gardener of the 1890s. All the old hallmarks are there: azaleas clipped into mounds, ageing and leaning pine trees and fine camellias still flowering freely. In the temple complex at Tenryu-ji there is a “fine jewel” of a garden, also rich in camellias, moss and purple azaleas. It is most famous for its Dragon Gate, the dry bed of a waterfall with artfully placed rocks which cut a straight line down the sheer hill that faces the temple. The design combines this Chinese feature with a fascinating mixture of conservative tradition and response to the shock-waves of western landscape style.

Similar updating is visible almost everywhere. As so many of old Kyoto’s garden buildings were made of wood, they have repeatedly burnt down and had to be rebuilt. No site is holier or more historic than the Shinto shrine of Heian Jing in the gardens of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. But it was built only in 1895 and the gardens were beautifully planted by the great Ogawa to include many fine plants from the world beyond Japan. The lightly pruned weeping pink cherries are fixed on to scaffolds of elegant bamboo and their “fallen flowers are left to form a shining pink raft on the water”. In May the famous “steps across the water” will be flanked by lovely purple Iris laevigata.

This combination of historic principles with late 19th-century taste becomes clear when traced in a good book. Attlee helps us to understand what we are seeing, whereas I never found adequate English guidebooks in Japan itself. From Kyoto we can follow her on to the remarkably restored island garden in Okayama and even further west to Suizen-ji Joju-en in central Kumamoto. This “stroll garden” is 15 acres big and uses miniature versions of features in the natural landscape. It is a classic example of what Japanese call shukkei. The garden is not at all well known to western garden fanciers.

For me, the story begins and ends still with the gardens described in Lady Murasaki’s novel. I now learn that the garden of Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto is the essential place for Genji fans to visit. The name of the garden derives from the Murasaki novel and even in the 17th-century Prince Toshihito was modelling its fascinating design on the gardens and features described in her fiction. Meanwhile I have the novel and for this weekend the long chapter called “The Lady at the Bridge”. Its central character is so good, a “prince of the blood, an old man, left behind by the times”, widowed and left to bring up his two little daughters. “Much care had gone into the planning of his garden. The ponds and hillocks were as they had always been but the prince gazed listlessly on to a garden returning to nature.” His stewards were lazy and even the flowering cherries no longer consoled his loneliness without his wife. “The beauties of the passing seasons only made him lonelier.” Reading is still the best way into the spirit of Japan’s old gardens.

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