Sunday, 21 December 2008

A day in Kyoto

This week two boxes arrived from Japan, part of the treasures we'd posted home on our recent trip. To unpack not only the purchases we'd made and the things we'd been given, but the maps and brochures of some of the places we'd been, brought back so many memories. It was the day we'd spent in Kyoto with our friend, Ryoko's father Tsugio, that was the stand-out experience.

Tsugio knew we were interested in seeing some Japanese gardens so he organised a day with typical Japanese efficiency and punctuality. We had first to get permission to visit two Imperial Palace garden. This involved presenting our passports at the office and much Japanese talk and gesticulation! However, we were soon sped off in a taxi to the first garden, nestled in the foothills of the nearby mountains.

Shugakuin Imperial villa and gardens were the creation of the ex-emperor Gomizumo-o in the mid 1600's. There were three villas, each in its own enclosed garden, set in an estate of rice paddies and vegetable gardens. We ascended the hill from one to the next, along paths lined in small pines. Each of the villas had a separate enclosed garden with stream, stone bridges and lanterns and an impressive gate entrance. The highest villa was the ex-emperors own and he visited one day a year in autumn, to gaze from this window at his dragon-shaped pool and write poetry!The day was glorious and, though we were given no time to linger, the experience was unforgettable. The maples were fiery red and eagles soared overhead and fished from the dragon pool.

Then it was back to the Imperial palace in Kyoto to view the Sento Imperial Palace gardens. These were far more formal and elegant. They are centred around two lakes, joined by a canal. They are a strolling style of garden on a grand scale, and, though very impressive, lacked the inspired feel of Shugakuin. Nonetheless there were some wonderful features, especially this fabulous wistaria-covered bridge that spanned the connecting canal. Monet, eat your heart out!

There were gardeners working in the gardens. This lady was sifting leaves from the gravel paths using a small brush and bamboo scoop.
Our next garden took us from the exclusivity of a small group with guide and minder to the bustle of the general tourist traffic. We wanted to see the famous Zen garden of Ryoan-ji. Tsugio took a deep breath and whisked us there. We were thrust into the midst of hordes of Japanese high school children and American tourists, all talking loudly and somewhat ignorantly about the experience around them! We removed our shoes and padded across sock-polished boards to sit on the steps and contemplate the raked gravel and stones of the little Zen garden. We did our best and the garden is wonderful and enigmatic and so different. In the end, though, the mob drove us away and we explored the rest of the garden complex. These gardens are largely deserted but were serene and beautiful, laid out around a twilight lake covered in water lilies. The trees were magnificent, shading the paths and defining the walks. What other people missed!
Then Tsugio produced bus passes and we proceeded to the nearby Golden Pavilion. Again it was a tourist Mecca and we followed the throngs to the viewing spot. It is a stunning sight! Who cares if it was reconstructed in 1942 (when Tsugio was a boy), burnt down by a disaffected monk! Again it is a stroll garden dating back to the 1220's. Like most Japanese gardens there is a feeling of seclusion and calm, in spite of the many people.

Finally Tsugio took us to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. This was no ordinary cafe. It was once a city villa with garden centred around a small river that runs through Kyoto. The rooms all look out on the garden and once we'd finished our sumptuous meal, we had time to don the plastic mules provided and shuffle down the paths and cross the stone bridges in the lantern-lit dark. It was like an up-market fairyland!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

All is forgiven

Remember when I drastically pruned Rosa "Shropshire Lass?" Well, early summer is here and she is now flowering her heart out. She is such a lovely creature!

I'm careful about colour placement in my garden - some may say obsessive, even. I loathe pink with yellow or orange. But Shropshire Lass transcends all this somehow. She has the palest flowers - white, flushing pink with a peachy tinge. They flutter all over the shrub like butterflies. And though she is surrounded by yellow and orange and golden flowers, she never gives me a moment's unease. She only flowers the once ... but what a display!