LONDON — Japan 2001, a series of events, is being presented across Britain to show the culture of contemporary Japan to Britons who normally are not familiar with Japanese life. Last May, a full-scale Japanese festival in London’s Hyde Park opened the yearlong, nationwide project. As well as concerts and exhibitions, fashion shows, performances and conferences, Japan 2001 is arranging for British children to stay with Japanese families living in Britain. At Kew, a “Journey Through Landscapes” blends Japanese lore into the woodlands, lawns, flower beds and glass houses of these renowned, riverside botanical gardens. Carp streamers flying at each entranceway to the gardens set the immediate tone.
Keiko Sato and Haruko Miura photographed each other in front of Chokushi-Mon, which at Kew predates Japan 2001 by nearly a century. After the Japan-Britain Exhibition of 1910, this replica of a 16th century Kyoto gate was rebuilt for posterity. Once an alien presence, it is now set in a tranquil, authentic, subtly molded Japanese landscape. A stone, engraved with a haiku, reads in translation:
Even sparrows, Freed from all fear of man, England in spring.
Keiko and Haruko, two young women from Tokyo, have come for a year in England to work up their command of English. Intent upon their language ambitions, and struggling with each day’s different experiences, they had paid little attention to Japan 2001. They came to Kew because everyone does, acclaimed showplace as it is.
Now they marvel at the surprising re-creation of elements of Japan in these gardens.
“But don’t you think Chokushi-Mon and the pagoda look a little strange here?” they asked. “Beautiful, but strange.”
As they wander around the gardens, their misgivings at the suitability of Japanese transplants melt away. They reach the Princess of Wales conservatory, where a microcosm of a Japanese landscape is installed. They exclaim at how well morning glories, hydrangeas and cosmos have been induced to bloom together, and how effectively the mythology attached to rice culture and a miniature terraced rice field are presented together.
When they reach the bamboo garden, they feel they are mysteriously back in Japan, so natural is the bamboo in its exuberant growth, and so evocative in its rustling. They learn from their pamphlets that these botanical gardens have been collecting plants from all over the world since the late 1600s. Amongst the 30,000 types of living plants at Kew, 750 species are Japanese plants. The young women also learn that Kew keeps millions of preserved specimens, seeds and DNA samples. The Millennium Seed Bank, an international collaborative effort, is storing seeds to meet the threat of disappearance of the world’s plants.
Keiko and Haruko agree that the area between the bamboo garden and the rhododendron dell is ideal for the traditional, timber-framed, thatched house that Japan 2001 is constructing here, and for the display of bamboo musical instruments. In the White Park area, they find an exhibition of local children’s artwork that is inspired by Japanese themes. They pounce on an exhibition of bonsai, and are most enthralled by a kimono exhibition. They wish their English were strong enough to understand the comments made by British viewers around them.
They make one more stop, in the museum that is showing 19th century artifacts in lacquer. Then they agree that is all they can encompass in one day. Kew, with 120 hectares and huge conservatories, is deserving of more than one visit.
In any case, they realize that some Japan 2001 exhibitions, such as those of dolls, are being held on only certain dates. Storytelling on Japanese themes, kids’ workshops, archery, papermaking and flower arranging also have definite slots on the calendar. Japanese food and drink and Japanese goods, though, are on sale all the time.
Keiko and Haruko are very impressed and proud of the scale of Japan’s displays at Kew. They applaud the continuing vision here that is devoted to discovery, understanding and conservation in wide-ranging programs. “Kew is right,” they agreed. “All life depends on plants.”