Adachi still lifes are sure to grow on you

The world's top-rated gardens await visitors to Shimane Prefecture

by Stephen Mansfield

Just 20 km east of Matsue, the impressive collection of paintings and ceramics at the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, is at risk of being upstaged by its six superlative landscaped gardens.

The museum and its surrounding horticultural wonders await visitors today thanks to three men: an art epicure, a painter and a master landscape gardener.

Zenko Adachi (1899-1990), a collector and garden connoisseur, died at the ripe old age of 92, content with having blended two art forms here in this museum in the remote rural place of his birth, from where he went on to become a successful textile merchant and real estate dealer in Osaka.

The museum’s art collection, spanning the years from 1870 to the present day, numbers some 1,300 works, including ones by painters such as Shoen Uemura (1875-1949), famed for her bijinga works (drawings and paintings portraying the beauty of women), and the renowned painter of flowers and birds, Shiho Sakakibara (1887-1971), as well as wood sculptures, gold-lacquer ware and a collection from the mingei (folk art) practitioner Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966), a highly gifted local potter.

The largest number of paintings in the collection, however, are by Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), a leading figure in the nihonga school, which combined traditional Japanese painting with modern techniques and themes. Yokoyama’s works include fine ink paintings and moody color screens.

Meanwhile, not content with the merely physical, Adachi commissioned the six-part garden, made his aesthetic preferences clear, but didn’t do the design himself. Finally completed in 1970, this modern masterpiece of interconnecting gardens is the work of Kinsaku Nakane (1917- ), who considers this to be his most important commission.

A powerful force in modern landscaping, Nakane’s work survives in several other gardens. Taizo-in, a Kyoto garden, combines the novel idea of a dry landscape garden with running water and walking paths similar to those in a stroll garden. At Jonangu, another Kyoto setting, Nakane created a gallery of historical garden styles in three interconnecting gardens representing the Heian (794-1185), Muromachi/Momoyama (1338-1573) and contemporary periods. In these ambitious, boldly conceived works, we can see the broad strokes Nakane employed in creating the kind of Japanese garden composites and forms visible in the Adachi gardens.

These were partly inspired by “Black Sand, Blue Pines,” a landscape painting by Yokoyama. The painting shows a grove of pines placed at a diagonal across a sand dune, with a sliver of blue ocean and a sky tinted pale orange visible beyond the tree line.

The most accomplished Japanese gardens are considered works of art, objects of quiet contemplation in which the hand of the gardener is artfully concealed. Painting and gardening were closely linked, and the ability to create painterly scenes composed of natural elements and materials was at one time the ideal of a great garden.

In common with art and architecture, Japanese gardens beg to be analyzed. The Adachi Museum’s grounds are divided into five main zones: the Dry Landscape Garden, White Gravel and Pine Garden, Moss Garden, and Pond Garden. Far from being a modest exercise in miniaturization, the gardens cover a staggering area of almost 5 hectares (165,000 sq.meters).

Embedded in this digest of Japanese garden forms are a number of traditional tea houses. The Juryu-an, the grandest of these otherwise humble arbors, is a replica of a tea house in the famed Katsura Rikyu garden in Kyoto. Here, for a price as exalted as its cultural antecedent, visitors can sample powdered green tea made with water boiled in a golden teapot.

Ranked to date for six years running the world’s most beautiful landscape design by the U.S.-based magazine Journal of Japanese Gardening, the tribute begs the question, why locate such a preeminent garden so far away from any of Japan’s main population centers?

As well as being the birthplace of its founder, Zenko Adachi, perhaps the answer to this riddle lies in the landscape itself. There is nothing random about the elements of this well-contoured space. Topiary is used here to create a deliberate optical effect. The use of large rocks and clipped forms at the front of the view brings the foreground closer to the observer, while making the middleground and background spaces appear smaller and more distant.

In the White Gravel and Black Pine Garden, color is reduced to a restricted palette of evergreen azaleas, black pines and Japanese red pines. Transplanted from the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture along the Sea of Japan, the red pines number 800. The tightly grouped satsuki azaleas are shaped into hemispheres and, with the carefully composed rock settings, are positioned on a graduated slope. A waterfall, the focal point of this carefully managed perspective, appears at the apex of the triangle formed by the rock and plant placements.

The perfectly vertical cascade, known as Kikaku-no-taki, flows down a pine- studded cliff from a height of 15 meters. A visual focus that unifies the design, the cascade turns out, rather disappointingly, to be created by piped water — but then it does look almost too ideally sited to be true. Artfully, however, the managed compression of space also conceals a busy road just beyond the line of pines.

In the system of changing seasons, the “great rule of the metamorphosis of the world,” as one Chinese scholar put it, each season has its color, element, orientation, and flower. Seven permanent gardeners maintain the manicured grounds, creating a landscape that almost seems too perfect. In the larger Japanese landscapes, seven is often the preferred number for a gardening team. This may be connected to the supposedly auspicious 7-5-3 pattern, sometimes seen in rock and bush groupings, its provenance being in the Taoist theory of the harmony of odd numbers. The Adachi gardeners often work up to 14 hours a day sweeping gravel paths, pruning, brushing leaves and clippings and trimming grass with tiny electric shears. Should there be no rain during the late spring and humid summer months, the entire garden is drenched by hand with long hoses.

One of the necessary restrictions of the dry landscape garden is that, with very few exceptions, it is forbidden to enter the composition. The design of the museum galleries and corridors helps to compensate for limited angles. Broad windows, wings and open patios frame painterly landscapes, with each section of the garden appearing in differently framed perspectives. Observed from inside the building, the wall openings are flanked by works from the museum’s collection, creating a seamless integration of art, architecture and landscape.

Indeed, Zenko Adachi is quoted as saying, “The garden is, so to speak, a picture scroll” — a fitting description of the horizontal viewing panels visitors enjoy as they proceed through the building.

In Nakane’s work you realize that the Japanese garden is a free form of art. Rather than simply creating a composition in the service of art, however, the Adachi Museum gardens embody the search for the essence of landscape — the ultimate purpose of all Japanese gardens.

Lying 20 km east of Matsue, the museum is served by direct buses from the city. Alternatively, there are free shuttle buses from JR Yasugi Station. The museum and gardens are open from Apr. through Sept. from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.; and from Jan. through Mar. and Oct. through Dec. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Foreign visitors pay half the regular ¥2,200 entrance fee. The writer is a Japan-based, British photo- journalist. His most recent book is, “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form.”