Long ago, Japanese aristocrats used to debate about which was the finest season, spring or autumn. Generally, poetic souls favored autumn, which -- with its crying insects, fragile flowers and falling leaves -- epitomized the fleeting nature of life.

We can "visit" the poetic gardens of old through the great 11th-century novel, "The Tale of Genji," written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in the imperial household. This, for example, is her description of a princess' garden:

"In Akikonomu's autumn garden the plantings were more beautiful by the day. All of the autumn colors were gathered together, and emphasized by low fences of black wood and red."

She adds: "The garden was so wide that it seemed to merge with the autumn fields."

This is an essential aspect of Japanese gardens, that, no matter how closely clipped the trees, or carefully placed the stones, the garden always draws on its natural setting. Sometimes the design of the garden "borrows" the surrounding scenery by opening up to a vista of valleys or mountains. Sometimes, as in the old shoreline gardens of Edo (old Tokyo), it even invites in the sea.

One of the finest surviving shoreline gardens is the Hamarikyu Garden in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, and the best way to arrive is by boat. The waterbus journey along the Sumida River is not exactly scenic, but stepping ashore, near groves of pine trees, one is suddenly connected to the city of the shoguns, and to Japan's great tradition of blending art with nature.

Originally a reedy marsh, the land was drained in the 17th century to enable the construction of a feudal lord's residence. Then, in 1704 it was transformed into a country palace with a fine landscape garden for the sixth Tokugawa shogun, Ienobu. The black pine tree he planted to mark the occasion is still growing here, after 300 years.

At the heart of the garden is a lake that rises and falls with the tide, and is dotted with islands and crossed by a long, staggered bridge made of fine hinoki (Japanese cypress).

Currently, the most colorful area is a field of pink and white cosmos flowers. There, even now you can hear the silvery calls of countless crickets. Dragonflies dart among the petals, and on a warm autumn day it is a little slice of heaven.

Although cosmos (C. bipinnatus) is now one of Japan's favorite autumn flowers, it is native to Mexico, so Lady Murasaki would not have known it in 11th-century Kyoto. Instead, the flowers that evoked autumnal pathos were native to Japan or China, and she mentions some in the following passage, describing the garden after a typhoon.

"Akikonomu sent some little girls to lay out insect cages in the damp garden. Disappearing and reappearing among the mists, they made a charming picture. Four or five of them were walking among the wasted flowers, picking a wild carnation here and another flower there for their royal lady. The wind seemed to bring a scent from even the scentless asters."

Despite the passage of time, the very same autumn flowers and insects are still loved today. And since most of us live in cities, they are probably more precious than ever before.

However, Japan's celebrated "seven flowers of autumn" appear over a fairly long period, from midsummer to the end of the season, so it is difficult to find them all in the same garden at the same time. (For a list, see last week's "In Bloom" on this page).

One of them is the hagi (bush clover; Lespedeza japonica). At Hamarikyu they have already shed their tiny purple flowers, and soon the leaves will fall, too, leaving behind a fine mesh of twigs. Traditionally these pale, golden twigs were made into brooms or fences. But left as they are, they look picturesque against a clear winter sky or decked with raindrops. So, if you have a hagi bush in your garden, do not hurry to cut off the twigs.

I would like to make a similar plea for all our garden plants, as they begin to drop their leaves or produce berries and seeds. As all these things provide food and shelter for insects and birds, the less we tidy up the more we invite wildlife to our balconies, gardens and lives.

At Hamarikyu, for example, the old duck-hunting grounds are fairly undisturbed. Grasses are left to wither naturally, some fallen trees have been left to rot, and the mature trees are not chopped back like many city trees. Perhaps that is why, sitting on a nearby miniature "mountain," I saw so many signs of life. There were lots of small shijimi-cho (literally, "clam-shell butterflies," named for their silvery-blue colors), sparrows picking up grass seeds, and brown-eared bulbuls flying among the shii (pasania trees), which are now full of acorns.

Unfortunately, for all the relaxing human scale of the garden, the vast skyscrapers and tunnels of nearby Shiodome are forming a landscape of a very different kind. But just as I was leaving, a few wild geese flew in from the river and, like an ancient painting of autumn, skimmed over the susuki (pampas grass) and landed on the lake.