There’s a reggae-loving bar owner in Fukuoka who loathes the stereotype that reggae is “summer music.” Truth is, though, his business does extremely well during summer. It seems that atmosphere-building is still an essential part of the seasons in Japan.
In the days before air conditioners, ice cream and Bob Marley, conjuring up coolness during summer in Japan was different. Wind chimes gave the illusion of a breeze, and water was sprinkled on scorching pavements. Blue-green colors and translucent textures made cooling down a ritual for body and mind. This may seem a barely adequate solution to Europeans or North Americans used to mild summers, though. Japan’s 30-degree summer days and semitropical humidity can be energy-draining.
Air conditioners aside, one of the coolest places to be in summer is a Japanese garden. Not surprisingly, architects today are looking back to the principles behind these gardens and their clever breeze-catching buildings, as they look for environmentally friendly ways to cool buildings without burdening water or power resources.
As early as the 8th century, Kyoto, located in a valley notoriously stifling in summer, had rivers diverted, ponds dug and lush gardens planted to bring relief from the heat. The influx of Chinese and Korean culture to Nara and Kyoto around the 7th century formed the Japanese gardens of today. Still, Japanese gardens may have taken shape as long as 2,000 years ago, when rice cultivation first sculpted the landscape anew. It is believed that even longer ago, densely grouped rocks or trees — essential aspects of Japanese gardens today — were placed as symbolic dwelling places for gods.
Garden culture has long since spread throughout Japan, creating fabulous regional differences. In southern Japan, tropical palms instead of pine trees are the main element at several gardens in Okinawa, Kagoshima and Miyazaki. At Okinawa’s Ishigaki Shitei estate, white coral sand instead of verdant moss blankets the ground, a striking contrast to the brilliant blue skies above.
Guidebooks usually list Japan’s “best” gardens, although these lists are sometimes out of touch with what contemporary travelers want. In Kyushu, Kumamoto’s Suizenji Garden is famous for its panoramic landscaping, featuring an elegant “Mount Fuji” and a “Nihonbashi” bridge. It might as well be a golf course, though, unless you can avoid swarms of group tours and guides shrieking into microphones.
Minor gardens are more often the peaceful havens Japanese gardens are supposed to be. These are often surprisingly close to overrun, famous ones. Japanese gardens are offshoots of that area’s culture. If you are visiting an area famous for a castle, temple or historic family home, you will often find an intimate garden in some poet’s home or minor temple nearby.
One of Fukuoka’s best-kept secrets is Yusentei Garden, a small oasis set deep in suburbia. The garden was built in 1754 by the sixth Kuroda lord of Fukuoka Castle as a summer escape. Its name translates as “place where a spring is a friend,” which may give an idea of its delicious green cool. No throngs congest its pebbled paths, or fall over each other to photograph the fat colorful carp. Yusentei is a place where you can stretch out for hours in its tea room, or sit undisturbed in a leafy spot, watching insects flit across the pond.
Most of Fukuoka Prefecture’s gardens are located in temples, with the distant Buddhist mystic area of Mount Hikosan, home to a particularly fine group of austere gardens. Just south of Fukuoka in Dazaifu is one of Kyushu’s most important shrines, Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, filled year-round with visitors. But just a two-minutes walk away at Komyoji Temple are peaceful, sealike swirling stones and cool light filtering through the delicate maples. West of Fukuoka in Maebaru, Raizan Sennyoji Temple is popular for its giant maple tree, yet the beautifully tended garden of nearby Zen temple Ryukokuji is often deserted. Call out a friendly greeting, and you may even be welcomed by the monk with a pleasant chat and a bowl of matcha green tea.
In contrast to Fukuoka, many gardens in neighboring Saga and Oita prefectures were created by daimyo. Saga’s daimyo house of Nabeshima created a number of flowing, pretty gardens in the district between Takeo and Ureshino. A striking example is Mifune-yama Rakuen, with its thousands of clipped azalea bushes and bold rocky backdrop. Nagasaki Prefecture, interestingly, has few historic Japanese gardens. Instead, it has a number of established gardens with fountains and other Western touches, such as Glover Garden.
Japan’s summer takes shape after the tropical rains that sweep up from India and Southeast Asia in early June, which prelude the relentlessly hot midsummer of July to August. While travelers to Southeast Asia are advised to move slowly, Japan’s fast pace doesn’t usually allow for that tactic. But some time soon, head for a Japanese garden, and sample the mood of a barely perceptible breeze and water splashing in the distance.