Under the cherry blossom
The Japanese have a different way of seeing. When French artists like Monet, Degas and Cezanne first saw Japanese woodblock prints they too were jolted into a new way of seeing.
Used to traditional landscape and single point perspectives the unusual compositions, unexpected framing, odd angles and truncated views of the Japanese artists appeared revolutionary. The Japanese approach to cropping and framing images was hugely influential in modern art.
The same unusual control of perspective is also seen in Japanese gardens, where the view is manipulated and revealed at various points in a journey through the garden. Pathways, for instance, twist and turn to highlight different points of view or to separate different elements of the garden, perhaps a bamboo grove and a pond, so that they can be contemplated individually.
In Zen gardens the pathway to a teahouse not only controls the view but is itself a metaphor for life, with the uneven and slippery stepping stones mirroring the obstacles in the way of achieving peace.
Likewise, pergolas and other structures offer specifically framed views that may have religious or literary significance; and the practice of shakkei, the borrowed landscape, incorporates distance into what may be only a small garden.
Where to see it
Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa
This garden is officially listed as one of Japan’s top three landscape gardens, and it’s our favourite. Throughout the journey, the views are carefully controlled from intimate images to grand vistas.
Rikugi-en garden, Tokyo
This large Edo-period strolling garden was restored by Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro, and donated to the Tokyo city government in 1938. It contains many elements of borrowed landscape.
Korakuen Garden, Okayama
Another of Japan’s official top three landscape gardens, the views here feature the soaring roofline of Okinawa castle, which appears to be in the garden but is actually on the other side of a six-lane freeway.
There’s a theory that Japanese gardens developed their sense of calm control in response to the wild and unpredictable landscape beyond the garden gate. In a land constantly threatened by earthquake, and covered with vertiginous mountain slopes and dense forest, imposing order around the house and temple was a balm to anxiety.
Certainly, Japanese gardeners are masters of horticultural control. In fact, they are so good, you might not even notice their work. Mature pines that look formed by nature may instead have been shaped by hand over decades, and still be pruned with scissors. Trees are kept to appropriate heights around the temples through careful, invisible trimming, the moss is swept of leaves that might damage it and assiduously weeded with tweezers. Unless you see the workers, you might not notice the skill, but it’s the same attention to detail that is clear in bonsai, in the perfect mounds of azalea, and in the individual blooms of magnificent, and massive, flowers.
Where to see it
Ninomaru garden, Nijo Castle, Kyoto
Japan’s finest collection of topiaried and pruned pines is found in this garden, designed by landscape architect and tea master Koburi Enshu in the 17th century.
Adachi Museum of Art
Designed as a series of views seen from the windows of the museum, the clipped forms of shrubs echo the forms of the boulders they nestle against and of the hills in the borrowed landscape.
The moss at the famous Silver Paviilion has been carefully cultivated for hundreds of years, as have the carefully pruned pines.
Under the cherry blossom
In Japan, the cherry blossom isn’t just a flower, but a cultural icon, sakura.Its blooming is celebrated nationwide and evening news broadcasts in spring include a cherry blossom forecast as the blossom season shifts north from Okinawa. Manufacturers and advertisers get right behind the blossom. Sake brewers bring out special-edition sakura drinks in bottles sprinkled with pink. Beer makers, chefs and confectioners join in the fun and even Kit Kat releases a sakura version of its chocolate biscuit for spring.
The importance of cherry blossom goes right back to the beginning of rice cultivation in Japan 1900 years ago. In heralding spring, the blossoms announced the end of the harsh winter and the beginning of rice-planting season. Within the animistic beliefs of the time, mountain spirits were thought to inhabit cherry blossoms and to have the power to influence the rice harvests. The fallen blossoms were consecrated to the gods and later offerings of rice wine were made in thanks for the previous rice harvest.
In the 8th century, the Emperor Saga turned these traditional sake offerings to the gods into a full-on feast, with food, wine and poetry enjoyed under the canopy of blossom. The cherry blossom viewing party, called hanami, took off, and is now a frenzy of crowds and picnic blankets for the few weeks of the season.
Part of the appeal is the limited time to enjoy cherry blossom. The beauty and ephemerality of the cherry blossom has long been understood in Japan as a metaphor for life itself. Sakura is both a symbol of beauty, and of the journey to find beauty. It represents the samurai spirit and consequently the cherry is the subject of much poetry. I like this one, by the 19th century haiku master Issa:
a corrupt world
in its latter days…
but cherry blossoms!
Where to see it
Heian shrine, Kyoto
Chosen as a location for both Memoirs of a Geisha and Lost in Translation, this shrine has the largest planting of weeping cherries in Japan.
Hirosaki Castle, Hirosaki
The park around the castle features more than 2,500 cherry trees, which bloom in rows and groves and tunnels, and sprinkle their petals over moats and ponds.
Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
There are a few hanami spots in Tokyo, and this is the biggest, with more than one thousand trees of early and late blooming varieties extending the season.
The Philosopher’s path, Kyoto
The three-kilometre path alongside the canal that links the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji to the temples of Eikando and Nanzen-ji are planted with 360 cherries donated by the artist Kansetsu Hashimoto in 1922.
Come with us
Seeing Japan in cherry blossom season is high on the list of must-dos for garden lovers. We have been running spring tours to Japan for more than 30 and they sell out in a flash. Because this disappoints so many travellers who aren’t quite quick enough, in 2017 we’ll be taking two tours to Japan in cherry blossom season, one led by Graham Ross and one by Robin Powell. For details of the itinerary go to www.rosstours.com or call 1300 233 200 for a brochure.