On Jan. 17, 1995, as the city of Kobe suffered one of the country’s worst earthquakes in living memory, the rocks, artificial hills and root systems of Soraku-en, a Meiji period (1868-1912) circuit garden, held firm.
This was rather remarkable, given the extent of devastation experienced elsewhere in the city. Not that the garden was entirely spared. The main entrance to the 2-hectare grounds, made from zelkova, a now much-coveted hard wood, remained undamaged, but its side gates and sections of the adjacent walls collapsed. Even so, given the centrality of the garden, its survival was astonishing.
Visitors pass through this now thoroughly restored gate, modeled after the one at Kyoto’s Shoren-in monastery, to access the garden. The foundations of Soraku-en were dug in 1885, but the garden was not completed until 1911. It was eventually opened to the public in 1941. There were only a few visitors when I turned up, though a crew of photographers, makeup women and lighting staff were maneuvering two pairs of traditionally dressed newly wed couples into perfectly framed scenes.
Visitors entering the garden, constructed on the grounds of a private estate owned by Taijiro Kodera, will be immediately drawn to a wonderland of lush cycads, planted in great profusion over grass mounds. The plant’s ovoid center, with its nuttish, vermilion-colored fruit, ripens in the summer months. The plants were ordered from Kagoshima some 300 years ago and predate the current garden. Synonymous with southern climes, sago palms as they are also known, are some of the world’s oldest surviving plants, tracing their existence in some cases to 240 million years ago. Once in the grove of cycads, some plants towering to heights of 3 meters or more, there is a strong sense of being pulled back to the Jurassic period.
Arguably, the most outstanding feature of Soraku-en, a classic Japanese stroll garden, with a gourd-shaped pond and a number of artificial hills, is the kawa-goza-bune, an ornate boathouse dating back to the 17th century. In what must have been a magnificent social event, it was once used to host guests at floating parties.
Gardens function as everything from recreational spaces to art installations, and even hermeneutic instruments to divine the order of the cosmos. Circuit gardens such as this are at their most successful when they provide a fluid succession of predetermined, framed images. Thus, the visitor moves from the edge of the pond where pine trees dominate, up squat, grass-covered hills planted with azalea bushes, across the stepping stones of a stream said to represent the course of a river coursing from mountains into the ocean, past waterside clumps of maple, and groupings of camphor trees, some half a millennium old. Other points of visual interest include clusters of stone lanterns, 27 in all, and stone wash basins placed beside a teahouse named Kanshintei to symbolize purification. Individual rocks, including granite and blue Iyo stone, compliment the garden’s stone bridges, which are made of fieldstone.
This shifting of composition, manipulating of perspective, works to great effect at Soraku-en, where we pass from an expanse of lawn and pond to negotiating an earth bridge, our concentration heightened by the confined width of the structure, our pace reduced to one where the details of the immediate environs can be fully appreciated.
This deceleration of speed and time is essential to the experience of the Japanese garden. Soraku-en represents geological time, the glacially slow changes in natural elements such as rocks that almost achieve stasis, the cyclical flux of water, growth and decay seen in its plantings, and the temporal hand of landscape designers and the gardeners who maintain, and through that supervision, subtly alter the grounds. The brochure for the garden describes it as “A secluded oasis in the middle of the city, unchanged for over a century.” For once, what is often hyperbole turns out to be an accurate description.
The shifting, irregular lines of nature are either replicated or reinterpreted and altered in the Japanese garden, the results not entirely predictable. The same may be said of memory and experience. The garden described here will not conform precisely with what you will see when you visit it. Gardens are designed to take advantage of different times of day, weather and atmospheric conditions, the transforming qualities of light. The composition of these elements is never the same, even in the starkest of stone gardens. It is these engaging ambiguities that keep us returning to the same gardens, seeing in their infinity of form the regeneration of nature itself.
A subdivision of visual art, Japanese gardens present a natural, even cosmic, order that is not immediately apparent to the visitor. When we talk about the art of gardening, the emphasis is not on the garden as an art object, but the process of designing and making a landscape, which, at its most accomplished, requires an order of skill that is artistic.
Writer Masako Shirasu observed that nature in the form of an evanescent flower is brought to life as the “perfect harmony of stillness and movement, immutability and fluidity, because of the vase it is contained in.” The same might be said of the natural elements of a garden, animated by their very structure and confinements. Gardens like this are both restricting and liberating, delineating space and setting out permissible routes through it, while at the same time expanding our perception of interpreted nature.
The late 18th-century English landscape designer, Humphry Repton, wrote, “one of the fundamental principals of landscape gardening is to disguise the real boundary.” Are the boundaries of Japanese gardens defined by walls, or the mind? Whichever it is, the well-grounded confines at Soraku-en, tested by natural calamities and the passage of time, have held firm.
Information: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults ¥300. Soraku-en is just 10 minutes northwest on foot from JR and Hanshin Motomachi Station, or five minutes from Kencho-mae Subway Station. Stephen Mansfield is the author of “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space & Environment.”
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