Lying between Kyoto and Nara, Uji City straddles the Uji River, a tributary of the Yodogawa. This same river also drains Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, though upstream — where it passes through Shiga Prefecture — its name is Etagawa.
Uji itself, famed for its traditional Japanese tea, is home to two UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, the Byodo-in Temple (featured on the 10 yen coin) and Uji-gamo Shrine, while the forested hills between the city and Lake Biwa form part of the Lake Biwa Quasi National Park.
Meanwhile, adding to the area’s attractions is Uji Botanical Park, a 10-hectare garden opened in 1996 on low hills 2 km outside the city. Though it is still early days in the life of the garden, it’s already clear that this is set to become a prime spot to view double-flowering cherries, herbs, flowers in containers, potted lotus flowers, tropical plants, hibiscus and zokibayashi (managed deciduous woodland).
The first thing greeting visitors is a huge floral display arranged as a backdrop to a modern-art waterfall and fountain — a juxtaposition that signals this garden’s appeal to a wide range of tastes. Also in front of the ticket machine there is a 57-meter-long, 15-meter-wide “flower bridge” whose mass of colorful seasonal blooms planted in containers will be an immediate source of ideas for anyone with a small garden or balcony.
Just inside the main gate of the split-level entrance building there is small library (Japanese- language books only) and a garden-consultation corner. Next to this is a small but well-stocked tropical greenhouse, with a young jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) in front of it. Unfortunately, the area’s winter temperatures are low enough to make it difficult to grow this tree, and it will be interesting to see how it copes in years to come.
Moving on, immediately below the jacaranda, are some echiums (Echium wildpretii) that will bloom in the next few weeks. This biennial species of echium is native to the Canary Islands, and its red flowers contain copious amounts of nectar that make it especially attractive to birds and bees.
In the greenhouse, the showy white flowers of phalaenopsis orchids are the first thing to catch a visitor’s eye. These epiphytic plants native to tropical areas between the Himalayas and Malaysia are very popular with orchid-growers and are often hybridized. Another popular epiphytic orchid is the vanda, of which there are 45 species and many hybrids. Vanda “Kaltha Blue” is the name of the cultivar here, representing one of the rarer blue orchids.
While you are wandering in the greenhouse, keep an eye out by the pool for a splendid specimen of the Madagascar screw pine (Pandanas utilis), an unusual- looking tree with stilt roots. The 700 species of pandanas are native to the tropics, and in many regions the fibrous roots are cooked and eaten. In Tonga, their leaves are also used for basketry, mats and hat-making, while in the Solomon Islands they are used for roof thatch and umbrellas.
Back outside you can rest in the tea hut in the maple wood. This time of the year is ideal for enjoying the new foliage of maples and other deciduous trees.
Hostas and ferns also abound on either side of the “mountain stream.” One fern that’s especially attractive in spring is the kusa-sotetsu or kogomi (ostrich fern or shuttlecock fern; Matteuccia struthiopteris), which is native to Japan, East Asia, eastern North America and Europe. The pliable young crosierlike fronds can be lightly boiled and eaten with soy sauce.
Among the other ferns you will see there are the deciduous kusa-sotetsu which, when planted in moist soil, will spread rapidly. They also look beautiful in large pots. Choose a soil that contains lots of leaf mold and has good drainage. When planting outside allow plenty of space for the plants to develop fully.
The garden’s akamatsu hayashi (Japanese red pine) grove is planted with trees commonly cultivated in zokibayashi woodlands. Deciduous oaks such as abemaki (Quercus variabilis), kunugi (Q. acutissima) and konara (Q. serrata) are cultivated here. The spongy bark of abemaki was once used as a substitute for cork. Among the other oak species you will find here are kashiwa or daimyo (Quercus dentata), which have large attractive leaves. Though not a tall tree this is traditionally grown for its bold foliage which, after it dies, remains on the tree till spring.
The whole garden is built on a gentle slope planted with cherry trees, and with a large pond called shukei-ike at the bottom. The slope has being terraced in the traditional dan-dan batake method seen in farming areas. Double-flowered cherry trees bloom later than their single-flowered cousins, but the sunny south-facing slope and the fact that the trees here have ample space to grow will surely make this a great hanami venue in years to come.
One of the nicest cherry trees is ichyo (Prunus “Hisakura”). This small, wide-spreading tree with semi-double flowersis one of the sato-zakura varieties. Each flower is 5 cm in diameter with 20-50 whitish-pink petals.
Behind the parking lot there is a small section of native woodland that the park designers decided to incorporate into the garden — a policy I would applaud in the design of any new garden. This small grove contains some unusual trees that are only seen in warm-temperate regions of Japan and, despite its relatively small size, its very existence contributes immeasurably to the preservation of native species and also helps to foster greater awareness of nature in urban settings.
One tree that grows in this grove is kurobai (Symplocos prunifolia). There are 21 species of symplocos found in Japan, both evergreen and deciduous, and charcoal from this tree is used as a mordant, color-fixing in dyes. Unfortunately, though, garden designers do not generally utilize this tree, which can reach to 10 meters, and whose fragrant white flowers are borne in profusion between April and May in racemes 4-7 cm long.
Another tree you will find in this grove is nezu (temple juniper; Juniperus rigida). This native conifer grows in hills and on low mountains throughout Japan except Hokkaido, and its presence is a sure indicator of poor soil. Most specimens only reach 5-6 meters, with exceptional trees attaining a height of 10 meters. Wood from this tree is light brown, close-grained and resistant to rot. It is used for carving and in Japanese tearooms as a toko-bashira (alcove post). Leaves of the nezu are awl-shaped, 1-2.5 cm long, and stiff and sharply pointed with white undersides.
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