Tuesday 15 October 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: Find your Zen in Japanese gardens

Cherry Blossom near a castle in Hirosaki, Aomori.
Cherry Blossom near a castle in Hirosaki, Aomori.
Cherry blossom

Diarmuid Gavin

This morning the Irish rugby team will line out against Samoa in Fukuoka on the northern shore of Japan's Kyushu Island.

Japan is an extraordinary country whose history and culture has fascinated and inspired many aspects of western life. And, apart from the exciting rugby, I've delighted in the regular reports home by the likes of the very amusing Henry McKean on Newstalk as he discovers the differences which make the country so intriguing and exciting.

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It's been a long tournament with the team enjoying sometimes long periods off in between matches. With some players having a definite interest in gardening, I've sent out recommendations of gardens they may like to visit.

In this country we're familiar with the concept of oriental gardens as our landscape and climate allows us to easily mimic the elements which go together to make up these tranquil retreats.

We have an assortment of natural landscapes on our island, from hills to bogs, plenty of water, an ability to grow pines, azaleas, maples and bamboo and we can easily source ornamentation such as stone bridges, lanterns and Buddha statues.

In the early years of the last century, Scotsman Colonel William Hall-Walker employed Japanese master horticulturalist Tassa Eida and his son Minoru to lay out a Japanese garden on his estate in Kildare which is now part of the National Stud.

All things Japanese were popular back then and 40 labourers used hundreds of tons of rocks, large pine trees and a cargo-load of ornamentation from Japan including a miniature village carved from lava that originated in Fujiyama.

However, there's nothing like seeing the real thing and I've had the joy of visiting that remarkable country a few times to learn more about their beautifully serene gardens.

The Irish team could do worse than take a trip to a gorgeous garden in Fukuoka, called Ohori Koen. It has a man-made mountain, waters which flow around a large lake, a stunning rock garden and tea rooms with outdoor gardens. Japanese black pine, satsuki azalea, and ornamental grasses keep the garden green all year round.

In Tokyo, Kiyosumi Teien was originally the residence of a merchant and then passed on to a feudal lord who turned it into a garden. Eventually it was donated to the city and opened to the public as an amenity in 1932. And it's a stunning place to visit, a remarkable representation of nature and garden craft set against such a modern city.

Its appearance changes with the rise and fall of the water level in the tidal Tokyo bay and a magnificent set of stepping stones will lead you around the water's edge.

Ryoan-ji in Kyoto is my favourite oriental garden... it's the first Zen rock and gravel garden and I found it mesmerising. In one courtyard there's 15 stones, grouped into three mossy islands set in raked white gravel, that confront you with their silent presence. You view it from a veranda or platform and everyday for the past 500 years people have come to gaze, sometimes for hours, at this 'empty' space.

The stones appear like rugged islands dotting a vast white ocean, or a series of mountain tops rising above a cloudscape and receding into the distance. No one knows who created it or why... or what it really represents. That for me makes it even more remarkable.

It's very different to what we seek in a garden. It's not crammed with plants or colour but it's remarkable in its ability to captivate.

Also worth a visit in Kyoto is Tenryu-ji Temple, at Arashiyama on the western outskirts of the city. One of Kyoto's great Zen temples, its spectacular Japanese stroll garden is framed by the scenic mountains of Arashiyama which appear to be part of the garden and create a view reminiscent of a painting. The garden features a circular promenade around Sogen Pond and has been designated as a 'Special Place of Scenic Beauty'.

Let's finish our whirlwind trip of Japanese gardens by wishing our team the best of luck in today's match!

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