Friday, May 19, 2017


The marquee flora in Japan are of course the sakura (cherry) in spring and the momiji (maple) in autumn.  These trees get top billing and their annual shows bring in billions of tourist Yen.  But just as in film, there are supporting actors in a garden, plants that make the stars shine.  These players are not flamboyant and the niwa (garden) paparazzi, so focused on the celebrity trees, will just as likely give them a miss.  

In April, just as the last cherry blossom has been whisked away by a persuasive breeze, there is what is called shinryoku (fresh green of April).  This refers to the incredibly vibrant greens of the new spring leaves on plants and trees.

Murin-an villa in the Sakyo ward of eastern Kyoto was built in 1896 by Aritomo Yamagata, an Elder Statesman and advisor to the emperor during the Meiji (1868 - 1912) and Taisho (1912 - 1926) Eras.  Three structures - a wood sukiya-zukuri-style house, a red brick Western-style house and a Yabunouchi-style tea house - sit on more than 3,000 square meters of land.  It is a gorgeous garden that occupies the vast majority of this large property.

Yamagata's aesthetic differed slightly from most.  His vision for the villa garden was something more natural, something that resembled the countryside with wildflowers and a meandering stream.  He wanted the garden to blend seamlessly into the Higashiyama Mountains in the distance.  The concept of musakui-no-sakui was paramount.  This means the garden should appear as if Mother Nature alone created the landscape, even if it is in reality the meticulous work of many gardeners.

I went to Murin-an for the "Fresh Greenery Illumination" which the villa hosts every year at the end of April/beginning of May.  A recent and unfortunate trend at temple illuminations is projection mapping.  There was none of that here.  The lighting was soft and subtle highlighting the brilliant greens of the garden.  Visitors were invited to sit in the washitsu of the main building and simply gaze into the garden as night fell over it.

As the sun faded and the natural light changed, so too did the garden.  There was a slow shift in depth.  Some plants and trees emerged and others receded into the darkness.  Silhouettes grew stronger.

Of course there were no electric lights in the garden when Yamagata had it built.  Apparently he was fond of the moonlight playing over the stream and meadow.  That vista must have been even more serene.

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