In the last week or so, roses have been taking the first of their twice-yearly turns to brighten the streets of Tokyo. Potted roses in narrow sidewalk gardens and shrub roses arching over railway fences have suddenly burst into glorious colors.

Last week I visited two rose shows: The 5th International Roses and Gardening Exhibition at Seibu Dome, and the famous rose beds at the Kyu Furukawa Garden in Tokyo's Kita Ward. The gardening exhibition has just finished, but the roses at Kyu Furukawa will continue to bloom until early June. There are also lots of roses to enjoy at Shinjuku Gyoen, Jindai Botanical Park and other public gardens. So let's talk roses.

East and West combined at the rose exhibition to provide some pleasant surprises. For example, there was a very authentic English garden designed by Kowa Creative Art, a Tokyo company whose brand name, Barakura, means "rosy life." Its founder, Kay Yamada, is a textile and fashion designer who fell in love with English gardens on various trips to Britain. In 1990 she created an English garden in the cool hills of Tateshina in Nagano Prefecture, and imported plants, bricks and even gardeners to make it as authentic as possible. Although Barakura's exhibit was an "instant" garden made for the few days of the show, it had just the right kind of gentle color combinations and naturalistic planting that you can find in many long-established gardens in England.

Regarding roses, Mark Chapman, one of Barakura's English gardeners, said that small roses such as the delightful pink-and-white "Ballerina" are ideal for Japan's climate. He explained, "Although a lot of people like the large-flowered roses, a heavy rainfall can quickly damage the blooms. But small ones like 'Ballerina' can shake off a shower. And they can also stand up to the heat of summer."

Barakura import their rose stock from Peter Beales, a well-known British rose specialist, and even the compost is imported, too. Chapman said, "We grow our roses in proper-sized containers, in good compost, to make sure they get the best start in life."

Another inspiring exhibit was a magnificent display of "weeping standard" roses in the Japanese style. Through deft and patient grafting, Tsuyoshi Ishii creates large cascades of tiny blooms, similar to the chrysanthemum cascades we can see in the autumn flower shows. Ishii has chosen dainty roses, such as the fragrant, peach-colored "Nozomi," as well as a sweet little "Royal Emblem" rose with double white blooms.

Event judge Bill LeGrice, a second-generation rose-grower from Norfolk in England, was also bowled over at seeing these "superb" weeping standards for the first time. He said, "I'm used to seeing 'Nozomi,' for example, as a ground-cover plant, so it's good to see new ideas coming up at the show."

Over at Kyu Furukawa the roses are planted in the old-fashioned way: in formal beds edged with low-growing, evergreen box (Buxus sempervirens). This style matches the austere, dark stone of the Western-style house, which was designed in 1914 by the respected architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920). However, this formal style exposes the whole plant to view, and even when standard or hybrid tea roses are carefully pruned and groomed, the stems are not very attractive. British gardeners often solve this problem by growing lavender, catmint and other soft, clump-forming plants in front of the roses.

The variety of roses available nowadays is quite bewildering. So, at the risk of over-simplifying, here is a quick guide to their three main groups.

First, the wild or "species" roses, which usually have simple, single blooms. A lovely example of this is Japan's native ibara (Rosa multiflora), which is now at its peak, bearing masses of small white flowers. This wild rose made a great contribution to gardening, as it was a parent of the modern, multi-flowered "floribunda" hybrids.

Another wild Japanese rose that is often grown in the West is hamanasu (R. rugosa), known as the "Japanese rose" or "Hedgehog rose." This strong plant has large white or dark-pink flowers, about 9 cm across, crinkly leaves, and produces big bright-orange rose hips that look very attractive hanging among the leaves.

Next are the "old roses," such as damask roses, which were known to the ancient Persians and Romans and were grown in medieval Europe. These generally come in shades of pink, purple and cream, with softly rounded shapes, many petals and wonderful fragrances. Unfortunately, though, they only flower for a short time. However, around 1810, a rose imported from China was planted near an old damask rose and the result was the birth of the first "Bourbon" hybrid. This was a happy accident, because it inspired a new wave of "Bourbon" roses that combined the repeat-flowering of the Chinese roses with the sensuality of the European flowers.

Thirdly, there are the "modern roses," which date from the mid-19th century when people began making more complicated hybrids. The famous "hybrid tea rose," for example, is a modern marriage of East and West: Chinese genes give the blooms a high, pointed center, and deep, curled-back petals, while European genes give them long, strong stems. The "floribunda" roses mentioned above are also modern hybrids, which offer many blooms on one stem.

The roses at Kyu Furukawa mainly come from America, Germany, France and Japan. Is it my imagination, or are most of the American varieties show-stoppers? "Rio Samba," for example, is an American hybrid tea with as many pink-and-yellow ruffles as a Broadway dancer. However, "Mr. Lincoln" is as dignified as its name, with a superb velvety finish to its deep-red petals.

"Asagumo" or "morning cloud" is a Japanese hybrid tea whose petals drift from yellow in the center to pink at their edges. But my favorite was "French Lace," a modern floribunda rose (1982) with old-fashioned appeal. Due to the crowds and "keep off the grass" signs, I couldn't get close enough to tell if it was fragrant or not. But its silky petals were falling into gentle, creamy waves, and the buds were exquisite too: full of promise, and the ancient romance of the rose.