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The Arashiyama area in western Kyoto along the banks of the Katsura River is famous for its cherry blossoms in spring and its glorious autumn foliage. Until this month, a less popular attraction had been the gardens of Hogonin Temple, a sub-temple of Tenryuji Zen Temple — largely because they had been closed to the general public for 140 years.

The gardens, known as Shishiku-no-niwa, are believed to be at least 600 years old and were created during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) by Sakugen Shuryo, a Zen priest and garden designer who was a disciple of another, more famous Zen priest, called Musou Kokushi (aka Soseki). During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the gardens were well known and are mentioned in “Miyako-rinsen Meisho Zukan (Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako [the former name of Kyoto])” by Ogawa Tazaemon, published in 1799. As part of a long and careful process of restoration, just now a teahouse near the entrance is being repaired by carpenters, and in time the entrance gatehouse will also be repaired.

The 8,000 sq.-meter gardens — whose name roughly translates as Spirit of Buddha Garden — showcase nature in a natural setting, and the atmosphere of this wooded area designed for strolling is profoundly tranquil. Iroha-momiji (Japanese maple; Acer palmatum) grow here in large numbers and Tawara Gisen, the head priest, said that many of them are self-sown seedlings. And indeed, the ground is littered with maple seedlings, which Tawara said he will soon put in small pots and give to visitors free of charge.

Another attractive feature of Shishiku-no-niwa are the colossal rocks that dot the garden. These rocks were not positioned by the garden’s designers; instead the garden was made around them. Long ago, when the river’s waters were higher, the softer stone was gradually eroded so that, when the water level fell, these impressive rocks were high and dry.

Elsewhere, the woodland floor is covered with various species of moss, the most common being oosugikoke (hair moss; Selaginella remotifolia). In the middle of the garden there is an akamatsu (Japanese red pine; Pinus densiflora) growing out of a rock which, over the centuries, has been split by its roots.

Growing on this rock is a hitotsuba (tongue fern; Pyrrosia lingua). Also known as Japanese felt fern, this is a creeping, evergreen epiphytic variety that spreads by rhizomes. The simple strap-shaped upright fronds have a leathery texture and are around 30 cm long and 5 cm across, with rust-colored spores growing on the underside. There are numerous cultivars of this variety, which is native to China, Taiwan and Japan, and some have cristate or contorted fronds.

Throughout the garden, considerable effort has been made to erect traditional-style bamboo fences. One of these styles, known as takeho-gaki (bamboo-branch fence), is made from branches of bamboo packed tightly together. Further examples can be seen in the Sagano area of Kyoto behind Tenryuji Temple.

There is also a hanging bamboo gate. Known in Japanese as shiorido (bent-branch door) or agesudo, this uses strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern. The gate is suspended from stout oak branches. Though not very common, this style of gate is used in tea-ceremony gardens. The niwashi (gardeners) who are presently restoring the gardens also constructed an unusual bamboo fence they call a Hougan-gaki in honor of a priest adept at bamboo-work.

Both the Hogonin and Tenryuji temples were burned to the ground in 1877 by die-hard Satsuma soldiers from southern Kyushu who were opposed to the new government in Tokyo. Hence the hondo (main building) of Hogonin Temple dates back to early in the Taisho Era (1912-26). Visitors can enter this building and sip Japanese tea while admiring the trees in the garden. At this time of the year the vivid green color of the new leaves is known as shinryoku.

The gardens will remain open until May 31 and will then reopen from October until early December. Aside from the autumn leaf colors, visitors in fall will also be able to see fine shows of susuki (eulalia; Miscanthus sinensis) and hagi (bush clover; Lespedeza thunbergii). Next year the gardens will again also open in spring and autumn.

As an added incentive to visit, by pre-arrangement small parties can be held in the teahouse in the garden, with food delivered from nearby restaurants.

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