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Though it’s neither very large nor very old, Sorakuen Garden in Kobe is one of the best-designed pond-strolling gardens (kaiyushiki-sensui-teien) I know, with many interesting features and plants of exceptionally high quality.

The main entrance to the 2-hectare garden is a superb wooden gate modeled after that at the Shoren-in monastery in Kyoto. Made entirely of keyaki (wood from the Zelkova serrata tree), this gate with its massive, 1.2-meter-wide door panels has stood intact for more than 100 years, surviving both World War II air raids and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that destroyed its side gates and nearby walls.

Not so lucky was the main house in the grounds, which fell victim to the air raids. Built after Taijiro Kodera, a samurai, bought the land in 1857, the house must have been a splendid building if the gardens — built between 1887 and 1912 — are anything to go by. Even the briefest stroll around them is enough to make you realize that no cost was spared in their creation.

As you enter the garden, immediately on the right is a superb collection of sotetsu (sago palm; Cycas revoluta) giving an air of some faraway subtropical idyll. As the Latin name of the sago palm suggests, however, these trees — which are native to coastal areas of southern Kyushu, the Okinawan Islands, Taiwan and China — are not palms at all, though their leathery, pinnate leaves do bring palms to mind. In fact they belong to the family Cycadaceae, whose members are living relics from prehistoric times.

The sago palm’s cream-colored flowers are extraordinary to behold, with the male blooms — borne on separate plants from the female ones — being phallic structures, 40-60 cm long, sticking up straight in the center of the plant. If you look carefully at the layers on the cone, you can see stamens hidden inside. By contrast, the female flowers are featherlike structures in the center of the tree.

Interestingly, the tree’s Japanese name, sotetsu, derives from so (to recover) and tetsu (nail or steel), an reference to the fact that it can withstand huge environmental stress and still keep on growing, combined with the traditional belief that nails hammered into the base of a weak tree will help it to recover.

Although the sotetsu garden and Sorakuen’s tsuki-yama (artificial hills), yama-momiji (Japanese maple; Acer amoenum var. matsumurae) valley, kara-yama (bare mountain) and gourd-shaped pond were the first parts of the garden to be created, none of the plants at any of these sites is the garden’s oldest.

That distinction goes to an an enormous, 435-year-old kusu-no-ki (camphor tree; Cinnamomum camphora), whose presence there is connected to the remains of Hanakuma Castle which can still be seen just a short distance down the road near the JR railway lines. A pre-Tokugawa fortification whose grounds once extended to include the present site of the garden, the castle was, according to Chinese geomantic beliefs, thought to be most vulnerable in its northeastern corner. So in 1567, this kusu-no-ki was planted there to help ward off evil spirits.

Just to the left of the kusu-no-ki there is a large kurogane-mochi (round-leaf holly; Ilex rotunda) with a colossal stone lantern in front of it, while close by is a fine specimen of ubame-gashi (Ubame oak; Quercus phillyaeroides), an evergreen native of the warm-temperate areas of Japan along the Pacific coast. Though frequently grown as a hedge or as a small, well-clipped garden tree, large specimens like this — especially in urban areas — are rare. Amazingly, timber from this tree is so hard it will even scratch glass, while on nearby Awaji Island and in many other places it is used to make high-quality charcoal.

At the top of the garden are a number of historic buildings. The attractive red-brick stables date from 1910, and next to them is a colonial-style house that was moved here in 1961 from its original location in the foreigners’ quarter in nearby Kitano-cho. From here, a delightful stroll down through the small valley planted with yama-momiji brings you to the gourd-shaped pond, whose surrounding rock-work and tsuki-yama are outstanding. Also, don’t fail to notice the stone bridges made from huge, single slabs of stone — and to wonder just how, in the days before high-powered cranes, these rocks were transported and maneuvered.

On one side of the carp-filled pond there is an interesting houseboat, known as a kawa-goza-bune, which has sat high and safely dry there since being donated to the city in 1980.

Dating from the end of the 17th century, and believed to be the only one of its type still in existence, this magnificent vessel used by the feudal lord of Himeji to entertain guests with floating parties on rivers. The two-story houseboat’s gabled roof is thatched with bark of the sawara (Japanese cypress; Chamaecyparis pisifera), and its wooden parts are beautifully lacquered and lavishly adorned with gilded decorations.

Finally, the garden has one other tree well worth seeking out close by the lawned area near the pond. This is a multi-stemmed shiro-matsu, or hakusho (Lacebark pine; Pinus bungeana), a native of the mountains of central China at altitudes between 1,400-2,800 meters.

Noted, like the London plane tree (Platanus xacerifolia), for its bark that exfoliates annually in thin patches, the shiro-matsu is gray-green in color, with patches of white, red and brown on the trunk. In China, the bark is said to turn white when the tree reaches 30-50 years old — hence the Japanese name, meaning “white pine.” The 5-10 cm leaves grow in groups of three, and have a turpentine scent when crushed.

Although shiro-matsu have long been cultivated in Japan, especially around temples and cemeteries, they are still relatively rare, so this is a great opportunity to admire a particularly fine specimen.

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