An unlikely oasis
London is a city that is home to over 3000 publicly accessible parks and open spaces. Of these 3000 spaces, there are about 3 that have Japanese style elements; of these 3, only 1 truly conveys the essence of a typical Japanese aesthetic — the Holland Park Kyoto Garden.
located on the west side of central London, Holland Park is a tranquil area containing multiple facilities and gorgeous scenery. Towards the north side of the park you’ll find a densely wooded area that hides an unlikely Japanese vista, yet feels perfectly at home within its peaceful surroundings.
Named the Kyoto Garden after being built by the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry, this Japanese garden sits within its own secluded area within Holland Park that is easy to pass by (even when you’re looking for it). As is the case for many Japanese gardens, this humble approach aptly hides its interior until the moment you commit to its discovery.
Are you ready to enter this unexpected slice of Japan?
A quality representation
Taking your first steps inside the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park is a bit surreal. The space immediately opens up as you are presented with a scenic landscape that is unmistakably Japanese; compared to where you found yourself two seconds before, there is truly a sense that you have crossed a threshold and journeyed the near 6000 miles to Kyoto itself.
Traditional Japanese garden designs usually fall into one of four categories; Stroll, Paradise, Rock/zen, or Tea gardens. The Kyoto Garden here doesn’t really fall into any one of these specifically, rather, it aims to bring elements from each of them into a single composition that perhaps appeals more broadly. In this sense, it is a representation of Japanese garden aesthetics as a whole that everyone can appreciate.
Despite this being the case, the garden still feels like an extremely coherent space that has been well thought out, and the placement of its features has been done so with purpose.
Let’s take a look at some of the elements that you can see in Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden.
Water is quite a common feature in a Japanese garden and here it is the most prominent feature. A pond sits directly in the middle in which all other features and the path circulates around, however, its shape is that of two circles either end connected by a thinner section in the middle — kind of like a filled-in figure of eight. This creates a certain flow that makes it feel more than just a body of water.
The pond isn’t the only watery element to feature in the Kyoto Garden; on its far side, furthest from the entrance, is a spectacular waterfall that flows down from a rocky cascade that seemingly starts well beyond the boundaries of the garden. A small bridge allows you to cross over in front to bear witness to the immense volume and thunderous sound of the flowing water.
Rock is another common feature of most Japanese gardens and is often used very symbolically to represent various natural elements. There is a certain abundance here too but has toned down its symbolic nature compared to normal. Yet, its presence as part of the waterfall, the way it’s used as edging around the pond, and the almost dead-central positioning of prominent rocks in the body of water itself, does tie into its usual characteristics.
Water and rock often work together this way to represent the seas, mountains, and islands and could be said to be the case here too. If nothing else, it makes the space feel incredibly natural.
Continuing on the theme of feeling natural, is the amount of wildlife present in the garden. I’m not talking about pigeons which London has a bountiful number of (in fact that was almost none here) but the variety of carefree birds, squirrels and even a couple of grazing peacocks. Yes, the garden seems to attract a whole host of wildlife that only enhances the relaxing experience.
However there is another edition that is distinctly Japanese — Koi. These fish, also known as Nishikigoi (coloured carp) are renown in Japan and many consider them to be a symbol of luck and prosperity. They are commonplace in traditional Japanese gardens but have also made the journey to the pond of Holland Park. You can spot a couple of adult varieties here as well as a whole host of smaller offspring.
Trees and greenery
Earlier I spoke of how the placement of features is done so with purpose, nowhere does this apply more than the placement of trees and greenery in Kyoto Garden.
It feels very open due to the small amount of plant life within the garden. There are a handful of small to medium trees overhanging the pond and pockets of ground-level plants and bushes but that is mostly it, yet it doesn’t feel empty. Where it becomes interesting is the variety and how spread out they are. Every single one is different whether it’s shape, size, species, or colour, and has much more impact that sheer volume.
What’s more, the team that designed Kyoto Garden has taken into account its surroundings. Using a technique known as borrowed landscape, the trees that are actually beyond the vicinity of the garden end up feeling included in its design hence the lack of need to fill the garden itself.
Road to existence
Britain and Japan have a long history of cooperation and it is through this cooperation that Kyoto Garden at Holland Park has come to exist. The 17th of September 1991 is the day that the Prince of Wales and the Crown Prince of Japan came together and officially opened the garden. Along with the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry, numerous Kyoto based companies came together to support the project.
But that is not the end of the story.
The cooperation between the two countries continued. On March 11th 2011 Japan was struck by the biggest earthquake ever recorded in its history. Following the devastation, Britain played a role in assisting the country not 48 hours later by sending specialist search and rescue teams, providing 100 tonnes of bottled water, as well as offering expertise and equipment among other humanitarian aid.
In light of these efforts, an extension to the existing Kyoto garden was opened on the 24th July 2012 named the Fukushima Garden. This is named after Fukushima prefecture that was one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that followed causing the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident.
Here you will find more colourful flower beds, screening bamboo, and plenty of seating, all for the purpose as a separate space for quiet contemplation.
The Kyoto Garden at Holland park is something of a rarity. It’s a space that embodies Japan in a non-traditional way that is freely accessible to everyone to enjoy. There is a transportative property to it that further builds upon the already calming setting of Holland park that relaxes the mind. It’s a space that truly captures the essence of a true Japanese garden with the same care and attention you can expect to find from the real thing.
Taking the time to spend half an hour to an hour here is enough to discover what Kyoto Garden — and Fukushima Garden — has to offer but would be an ideal place to spend time on a regular basis.