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Travelling to the gardens of Japan

I had been fascinated - and mystified - by Japanese gardens for as long as I could remember.

Exactly a year ago today my Englishman and I arrived in Japan. We had come for the gardens. During the following three weeks we visited as many as we possibly could. It was glorious!

For both of us this was our first trip to Japan. We had been contemplating it for years, but something had always come up. Then, in the beginning of 2019 we finally booked flights for October. There was great anticipation, yet, a few weeks before our departure I almost didn’t want to go.

I had been fascinated – and mystified – by Japanese gardens for as long as I could remember. Seeing them in person was going to be so exciting, but would I be able to comprehend them? My interest in the history of European gardens had taught me that cultural context was essential to their understanding. Japanese culture being so very different from European, I tried to acquire as much knowledge about it as possible prior to your trip.

As we set off I still felt I had not done enough research. Several relevant books stayed behind, unread, and the garden names on my list were so complicated I struggled to even tell them apart. With hindsight, however, the preparation turned out to be not that bad. The only gardens I regret having missed are the Samurai gardens in Kanazawa. At the time of our visit I hadn’t read about them yet. But due to my preparation we managed to gain access to the famous moss temple garden and all imperial palace gardens, despite the complicated reservation procedures. And in addition to the many other gardens on the list we found several hidden, unknown and surprisingly impressive ones in passing.

Saiho-ji Temple, Kyoto

When we started to plan our trip my Englishman said: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to travel like Henry James?’ At the time he was reading his biography which describes the author staying in each place for several months during his travels. Adapting the concept to the twenty-first century, we decided on two weeks in Kyoto with a few days in Tokyo at either end. 

This might not seem particularly radical, but all other tourists seemed to feel compelled to take full advantage of the hyper-efficient rail system which makes it possible to see every corner of this rather large country in just a few days. We used said trains for a few day trips, but generally we kept congratulating ourselves for having chosen the Henry James approach. There were so many interesting gardens in and around Kyoto, we could have easily spent many more weeks exploring them.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo

But our first impression of Japan was Tokyo. The coach from the airport dropped us on the 2nd (or was it the 3rd?) floor of the bus terminal. It was built inside the complicated knot of a 6- or 7-level high road system. We emerged at ground level to find ourselves in a clean-swept cityscape that seemed to consist entirely of precisely-angled beige and light grey concrete. Buildings were tall and slim with a narrow gap inbetween them, presumably because of earthquakes. It all looked like a very tidy toytown version of Manhattan. Everyone was dressed in neatly-ironed clothes in shades of white, grey or black. the green of trees stood out against this colourless backdrop. There weren’t many of them, but without exception each tree was skilfully pruned to look like an oversized bonsai by the side of the street.

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto

The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun coming out every now and then, exactly what we had expected. Everybody with knowledge of the country had told us October was a great time to visit Japan. Summer was too hot, winter too cold and spring too crowded because of the cherry blossom. October with its mild temperatures was ideal and the tourist crowds would not return before November when the acer leaves on the main island of Honshu changed colour.

The next day we met a friend who lives in Tokyo for sweet bean paste with preserved fruit in a traditional cafe. We were sitting on what seemed like kindergarten furniture (a clear demonstration that we were all too tall for traditional Japan), when she casually mentioned the typhoon. What typhoon? Well, apparently it was typhoon season. She was concerned that the approaching typhoon, called ‘Hagibis’, was different from the ones which hit around this time Tokyo each year. She had received a warning from the German embassy, something that had not happened in the two decades since she moved to Tokyo. The Japanese media were calling it a ‘super-typhoon’. She told us that normally a typhoon was mainly very, very strong rain. Nothing to worry too much about. We just wouldn’t be able to walk around outside and would have to pause our garden visits for a day or two. 

Suddenly October didn’t seem like such a great time for visiting Japan anymore. We spent the evening looking at maps online charting the probable course of ‘Hagibis’. We quickly realised that our train journey to Kyoto two days later would be right in its path. 

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto

So, we decided to try and outrun the typhoon. The next morning with luck we managed to get seats on one of the last high speed trains to leave Tokyo before southwest-bound service was suspended. As we arrived in Kyoto it began to rain. For the next 36 hours it poured. In its intensity the rain felt tropical. And these were only the fringes of ‘Hagibis’. Elsewhere in Japan trains and buildings were destroyed in giant floods and even the perfectly-prepared Japanese society came to a brief stand still. 

This unexpected encounter with a typhoon impressively demonstrated something whose existence we tend to forget in Europe yet which is part of everyday life in Japan: the severe force of nature. So many aspects of Japanese culture have been shaped by it, not least the gardens. I had read about this a while ago but only really understood it now.

Korakuen Garden, Okayama

I had meant to write about this trip to Japan shortly after returning home, just like I had meant to keep a diary throughout our stay. Neither happened, yet I wonder if that has actually been beneficial. Time edits memory, helps to make connections and extracts meaning from pure perception. Maybe now, a year later I am actually better able to write about this strange culture and its gardens, and perhaps even understand some of it.