Constructed in around 1907 in the late Meiji era, Sorakuen is a beautiful public park close to the centre of Kobe City. Sorakuen originally belonged to former Kobe City Mayor, Kenichi Kodera, who built it on the residence of his father, Taijiro Kodera. The garden was acquired by the city in 1941 and renamed Sorakuen when it opened to the public that same year. The name ‘Sorakuen’ comes from words written in ancient Chinese books, and means ‘let’s be happy and enjoy together.’
The garden is typically Japanese but with some Western elements too, as during the Meiji era Japan first opened its shores to Western influences. Like many other Japanese gardens I have so far visited Sorakuen has a central pond and encircling paths, meticulously pruned pines, little bridges, artfully positioned rocks, lanterns and basins, carefully planned views out over the garden and the Kanshintei tea house. There is also the Sotetsu Garden, full of elegant cycads (the oldest of these is over 300 years old).
The Kodera Stable is the only remaining building from Sorakuen’s original construction (the others were unfortunately lost in fires during the Second World War). Other buildings found on the site today – the colonial style Hassam House and the Kawagozabune (part of a houseboat formerly used for pleasure cruises by a feudal lord of nearby Himeji) – were moved to Sorakuen in order to preserve them. Sorakuen suffered some damage during the 1995 Earthquake, including the loss of a chimney from the Hassam House (preserved in its fallen state as a gentle reminder of the destruction and devastation caused to so many) and the impairment of several stone lanterns (you can see the difference in stone colour where these have subsequently been repaired in some of the photos in this blog). The garden is considered Kobe’s best, and many local people come here to enjoy the open space and especially to view the spectacular colour in autumn and azaleas in spring.
Enough history for now. Phil and I were fortunate to be given the opportunity not only to visit this delightful public garden but to spend a week working here, learning from the wizened hands of Hori-san, Sorakuen’s main gardener. It was a real privilege to work with Hori-San for the week as he has a huge wealth of knowledge and experience from a long career in gardening for us to learn from. Hori-san celebrated his 70th birthday on our first day at Sorakuen but still came to tutor us even though he doesn’t usually work on Mondays (we bought him a present to say thank you, of course – it is both the British and the Japanese custom after all). Mori-san and Matsushita-san came with Phil and me to Sorakuen on the Monday to pay their respects and the four of us were treated to a tour of Sorakuen by Hori-san, the garden director and Ryan-san, who usually works in the visitor centre but spent this week working as a translator for Phil and I instead.
Welcome to Sorakuen…
After the tour we were put to work on our first job of the week – making a bamboo fence.
First we had to practise our knot-tying! Hori-san showed us how to tie the rope using the traditional otoko musubi knot. Now it’s a long time since I was in the Girl Guides and I can’t say that knot-tying was ever a passion of mine, but thankfully I mastered it pretty quickly! Mori-san had a go too to show off his man skills (that is a very tasteless pun by the way – otoko actually means ‘man’, so the otoko musubi is a ‘man knot’.
Hori-san had already put the cedar posts into position but he showed us how he had preserved these first by singeing them with a small blow torch. The post then has to be scrubbed with a sponge to remove the sooty residue.
Our first task was to cut newly harvested bamboo stems into 1 metre lengths using Hori-san’s ingenious, fit-for-purpose cutting board and special bamboo saw. We cut each piece just above a node at the top so that water wouldn’t pool in a length of hollow stem. The bottoms we cut in between the node so that they were hollow.
Our next task was to help Hori-san to attach longer pieces of bamboo to the post as laterals using a drill, nails and hammer. We had to be careful not to hammer the nails too hard which could cause the bamboo to split.
Next we positioned our 1 metre lengths of bamboo at the half and quarter points between the cedar posts, attaching them to the first and third lateral bamboo stems, crossing the rope at the back then tying with the special otoko musubi knot which Hori-san had had us practise earlier.
Next we positioned the remaining lengths of bamboo in between the existing ones, but positioning them on the opposite side of the lateral and tying these to the first and third bamboo laterals on this side too.
Lastly we wove rope over and behind the points at which the bamboo uprights crossed the second and fourth laterals, using a special technique Hori-san taught us to pull the bamboo stems very close together.
The finished fence…
It took us until lunchtime on Tuesday to complete the fence. After this it was time to prune some pines. There are around 200 pines in the garden at Sorakuen and these are pruned annually in November to get the garden looking at its best for the New Year’s festival. Hori-san told us that that pine trees can be pruned at any time of year without damage but that it is much easier to prune them in winter (November to February) as the needles can be removed more easily. 200 is far too many pine trees for poor Hori-san to prune single-handedly so specialist gardeners are hired in to help with the job. As all of Sorakuen’s pines had already been pruned Hori-san brought in some branches of a pine tree from a private garden he worked in, for Phil and me to practice on. He had not had time to prune it these last couple of years so there was lots of thinning to be done. This is what I learnt about the traditional Japanese pruning technique for pines:
- Dead, damaged and diseased wood should be removed;
- Crossing branches/shoots should be removed if it does not destroy the overall balance of the tree;
- 1-2 year old stems should be snipped back to just above a new side shoot, usually leaving 2-3 side shoots or emerging buds per stem (although these may be thinned if necessary). If the stem is very long and there are no side shoots visible it should be cut back to around 10cm;
- The aim in doing this is to give a ’rounded’ appearance to each cluster of stems on a branch. Each branch should have a cluster of young stems all pointing upwards and outwards like a palm with finger curling upwards. Any shoots growing inwards or downwards should be removed;
- After pruning, the needles should be removed to leave around 10 pairs of needles below the growing point of each new shoot. Any brown/yellow needles should also be removed. The aim in removing the needles is to allow light and air to reach the stems.
- Where possible the cluster of stems on each branch should be pruned from below by threading ones arms under and through. The tree should also be pruned from the top down and each branch shaken after pruning to remove fallen/loose needles.
Sounds a bit complicated doesn’t it? No wonder it takes so many years’ training to learn the technique. Phil and I only had a day to practice before we were let loose on some real trees.
Once we felt confident with the pruning technique Hori-san took us on another tour of the garden, showing us the different ways that the pines had been pruned. Just as in the UK no two gardeners work is the same. Now that Phil and I had our Japanese pine pruning glasses on we could see that some trees were too congested, others too sparse, some had had too few needles removed, others too many, and the shoots on some of the trees had been squashed as the respective gardener had leant into the tree to complete his work. Hori-san soon set us to work correcting some of the pruning work completed last November and we spent a couple of pleasant days continuing to develop our pruning skills.
Oh, and I almost forgot. These are jikatabi – traditional Japanese gardening shoes, which are just perfect for climbing into pine trees as Phil demonstrates.
I tried mine out too as you can see (thanks Tomoko 🙂 ). They’re surprisingly comfortable but it was so cold that in the end I switched back to my usual steel toe caps.
After this it was time to look at some tools. Tomoko, our manager at Kiseki No Hoshi had very kindly purchased us some authentic Hyogo Prefecture scissors and secateurs which she had delivered to Sorakuen ready for our arrival there on the Monday. We were thrilled!
Hori-san also showed us some other pruning tools used in Japan.
Each prefecture has its own tools it seems. These scissors, used in Kyoto, are very different from our shiny new Hyogo pairs.
Our last task during our week at Sorakuen was to learn to sharpen our new tools using Hori-san’s time-honoured technique of using two grades of wet stone and finishing with newspaper. Hori-san then let us have a go at sharpening some of the Sorakuen’s pruning saws too.
We learnt so much during our week at Sorakuen and really enjoyed ourselves too. Thank you to everyone there for giving us such a great experience and some wonderful gifts too. I will really treasure my new-old wooden handled Silky saw, the beautiful bamboo lanterns Hori-san hand-crafted for me, and my lovely ‘Sorakuen’ happi jacket (below).