Delivering Japan

Sitting in the shadow of a blooming cherry blossom; a startling moment of reflection and a feeling of utter contentment is something I was not expecting; yet it’s a sensation that I can easily recall since my recent trip to the Kew Gardens’ ‘Japanese Landscape’. The Japanese garden that Kew showcases, is utterly brilliant.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are — undoubtedly — one of the world’s most-renowned gardens with the largest collection of plants. Hidden amongst the 300 plus acres of beautiful scenery, are lovingly developed spaces that bring the charm, tranquility, and quintessential Japanese aesthetic to the infinitely more accessible area of West London.

The suitably named ‘Japanese Landscape’ is certainly a central focus for Japanese enthusiasts, although it’s not the full extent. The bamboo garden houses a well-kept surprise and Cherry blossoms cover much of the surrounding areas. (At least at this time of year.)

Before going much further I would recommend taking a look at my in-depth post on Japanese garden composition.

Now, let’s begin exploring the wonders of these Japanese gardens.

The Japanese gateway
My view while relaxing in the Japanese landscape

The Japanese Landscape

During my time at Kew, the Japanese garden attracted a lot of attention, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s an environment that has been expertly designed with a deep understanding of Japanese garden aesthetics; the result is a faithful reproduction of a Momoyama period garden (1568-1600).

The reason for choosing this particular period is due of the central feature: the Chokushi-Mon, a replica gateway of the karamon (gate) you can find in Nishi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto that was originally complete in the Momoyama period.

Completed in 1996 after just over a year of work, Kew gardens’ Japanese landscape incorporates a blend of traditional Japanese garden styles, but with a flow that resembles that of a stroll garden — hiding and revealing each element only at the most appropriate position.

If you take your time there’s a journey to be had here, so let’s go on one.

A modest beginning

The entrance to the Landscape garden, in traditional Japanese fashion, is incredible humble and inconspicuous; however, a Japanese tōrō (stone lantern) awaits at the foot of the path in front as you enter. Resembling that of a tea garden, a simple path bends round surrounded by low-level shrubs and plants on one side, and a denser, light-reducing row of trees and bushes on the other.

The overhang, creating a sense of comfort, forces you to look left as you continue on the path. You’ll be glad you did, as across the way you’ll notice some bamboo fencing, a stone walkway, and a Tsukubai (dripping water basin) — something I feel could easily be missed.

These are small but interesting details that reflect the simplicity and ritualistic nature of a tea garden; however, there is also something charming about this simplicity that adds enough character to want to venture over. This is part of the wider definition of Wabi-Sabi; the Japanese term used to describe traditional Japanese aesthetics focusing on the beauty of imperfection and transience.

This is the smallest portion of the entire landscape but also serves as an important precursor. The overhanging trees have also played another part here until now — to block out the view of what’s to come.

Gateway from Japan

Emerging from the shadow of the tea garden, the path suddenly widens and gives way to immaculately finished stone walkway. Light begins to fill the eyes once more and are drawn to where the path leads; standing in the centre of which grants you the first look upon the grandeur of the Chokushi-Mon gate.

Illustrative explanations aside for the moment, the revealed vista is quite impressive — even when you’re expecting it. With each new element that has come to surround you in this new setting; the widening path, the flowering trees, and the Chokushi-Mon, you are truly granted the illusion of stepping into Kyoto.

The gate itself is 20% smaller than its original counterpart in Kyoto which has become a national treasure; nevertheless, the numerous carvings and ornate design and been perfectly mirror that of the Chokushi-Mon. A pair of iconic Komainu (literally lion dogs); one with the month open and one closed, are present on each side of the gate. They act as guardians and are present on many shrines, temples — and gates — across Japan.

The combination of Irimoya roof and Karahafu style gables which are common for temples, shrines and castles was also great to witness. This is a traditional four-sided sloping roof with inset gables, further accentuating the curves and architecture.

All-in-all, it’s quite an achievement to find something quite so special so far away from its ancestral home; in truth, I spent quite a while sitting and marvelling at its existence.

Chokushi mon
The Chokushi-Mon gate

A moment of Zen

When you eventually decide its best to move on; walking down a small sloping path reveals the last vista — a spacious rock garden.

Incorporating zen elements, this portion of the Japanese garden is its own small-scale depiction of the natural landscape. With gravel being the primary element representing water —as is tradition in such gardens — numerous outcroppings of grass and rock protrude to give the impression of islands in a sea or lake. These connect via small bridges that only add to the imagery. In the corner, tiered rocks and white stones give the illusion of a waterfall, while numerous varieties of plants, trees, and shrubs create an impression of wilderness.

It’s a space that gives pause for thought with ample opportunity to do so with a large viewing area. What makes it a great finale, is the viewport you are treated to from the bottom of this well-thought-out garden; the rock garden is splayed out in front, and the Chokushi-Mon is clearly visible rising in the background.

Take a moment to relax on the numerous benches provided here and you can easily get a little bit lost in thought. It’s definitely a sight worth savouring.

Bamboo garden and Minka

As previously mentioned, the Kew gardens ‘Japanese Landscape’ is not the only Japanese inspired space to be seen; the bamboo garden is well worth taking a peek inside as it houses a Japanese Minka house.

Enclosed on all sides by rapid growing bamboo, it’s a much smaller space compared to the ‘Japanese landscape’; as silly as it sounds, I nearly missed it entirely by the sheer density of the bamboo surrounding it. What eventually comes into view, is a suitably rustic, fairly large, Japanese house complete with thatched roof and engawa. (a wooden veranda running around the outside of the building.)

What makes this building impressive though, is the fact that this isn’t a replica.

This home was previously owned by a family back in Japan. Following the death of the last family member however, it was donated and transported to Kew gardens where it has been rebuilt and preserved.

Kew gardens Japanese Minka house.
A Japanese Minka House

Here there and everywhere

We’ve now discovered two different dedicated areas that are well worth visiting to scratch that Japanese itch; yet the full Kew gardens Japanese experience wouldn’t be complete without seeing some Cherry Blossoms — luckily, they are not hard to find.

If you plan your trip between late march and late April theirs a good chance of becoming part of the Cherry Blossom season. Spread across the site I was able to make out the distinctive colours of white and pink Sakura petals; being the unofficial yet most associated flower of Japan, its hard to not to make the connection and feel that the Japanese theme is present throughout.

There is though one last hidden surprise. That is the ‘Cherry walk’.

In the height of the season there are few things more picturesque than an avenue flanked either side by blossom trees in full bloom. That is what awaits you at the Cherry walk behind the Palm house at Kew, so make sure to make time and see the fleeting splendour that only Japan itself could rival.

Part of the Cherry Blossom walk

Final thoughts

Even if we imagine for the moment that there is nothing else to see, the Kew gardens Japanese Landscape, bamboo garden, and collection of Sakura trees, are a worthwhile trip for those wanting to explore a piece of japan in London. The Chokushi-mon and authentic Minka house are unique structures that you will not find elsewhere in the UK, and are alone a good reason for enthusiasts to consider coming to take a look.

When stroll by, take your time, enjoy the view, and get a little bit lost in your own thoughts; you’ll wonder where the time went. What makes me say this?

It’s exactly what happened to me.