Sorakuen

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Surakuen is a garden in Kobe, and one of the first sights i saw whilst in Japan as i wandered round Kobe on one of the first weekends after we arrived.  The garden was completed in the early 20th century, built on the residence of the Taijiro Kodera, the father of former kobe city mayor Kenkichi kodera.  The garden was given its current name after coming under the owenership of the city. The garden is based around the a central pond, surrounded with stepping stones, stone bridges, streams, and waterfalls. The grounds have interesting specimens of cycads, large camphor trees (perhaps 500 years old), azaleas, and maples. The garden has a splendid entrance, having the original gate zelkova gate still standing.

The sotetsu garden within Surakuen contains cycads, some over 300 years old, imported from Kagoshima. The campher trees within the garden are also aged specimens, said to be planted by Araki Murashige at Hanakuma in 1567.  The pond is a renovated reservoir, with the stream representing a rivers path from mountain source to ocean.

The garden contains very interesting culturally important objects.  The first is the houseboat, kawagozabune, originally used for pleasure cruises by the feudal lord of himeji, and was constructed around 1682. The boat was moved to the garden in 1980. The house boat is thought to be the last of its type in existence, delicately styled with laquer, gold leaf, and layers of japanese cyprus for it’s roof.

Unfortunately the original kashintei (main hall) and the yushintei tea house burnt down during the war. The kanshintei was subsequently rebuilt. The garden also contains 27 traditional stone lanterns of various styles. The tea house has a traditional stone basin for washing, a part of the purification one undertakes before entering the tea house.

The kodera stable is another culturally important surrounding the garden.  Constructed by kenkichi kodera in 1910, it has many interesting architectural features, for example a circulae cuppola, dormer windows, a garage for carriages, and housing for stable hands.  The Hassam house built in 1902, for the residence of Mr K Hassam, an Anglo-indian trader, can be admired for its fusion of eastern and western architectural influences. The house was moved to the garden from the kitano-cho area of Kobe in 1963, and it has 2 of the earliest gas lights seen in japan.  The chimney that fell during the great hanshin earthquake is displayed like a sculpture in the front yard.

The garden is made up of various types of stone, including iyo blue stone and several forms of granite. Fieldstone is used for the traditional stepping stones. The garden contains also numerus pine trees, symbolically divine, complemented by  a beautiful collection of maples. One particular pine of beauty is the lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana.  From northwestern china, it has beautiful silver mottled bark almost like arctic camouflage, and grouping of needles in 3’s.  The garden also has beautiful azaleas showing in spring, and a chrysanthemum exhibition in autumn.

This was indeed a wonderful placement. The garden itself is a little gem. There are not many gardens in kobe itself, and this makes surakoen even more special.

The location of the garden within the city itself, although slightly away from the centre, gives it it’s magic.  The garden is walled, sheltered from the city that looms over it. The stately imposing original gates seem protective, and give the garden its hidden qualities.
I found the juxtaposition between the cityscape and the garden beautiful. I felt it enhanced the garden’s serentity, history, and sanctuary.

The garden  specimen trees are eyecatching, notably campher, zelkova, and pine providing wonderful structure, as well as my favorite, Lagerstroemia fauriei.  This is called saru suberi, literally monkey slip or slippery monkey tree. The pond gives the garden its repose, with the structure of the beautifully pruned trees and shrubs reflecting the depth this garden has that belies its size.

We were able to view the garden from the home of the former owner and this raised viewpoint highlighted the garden’s beauty. It has an intricate design. Larger trees shelter its boundaries, and the combination of pines and balled clipped azalaeas puntuate the garden. The winding paths allow you to get lost within, and creates many different views, from different levels and with different hard landscaping features.

Natural woodland groves are formed with rockery, streams, and waterfalls. These features act as wonderful focal points and add to the variety of elements in the garden.  Notably the placement of stone lanterns, and the larger structures of the houseboat and tea house. There are many routes one can take and many places to sit and contemplate the garden. The garden is a beautifully designed and carefully maintained. Everything is placed with precision, and the plants are shaped with delicacy and a skilled exactedness.

We were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home straight away by all. Emu san was a fantastic translator of the garden and of Horinochi san’s gardening experience, from his years at Surakoen, and also in kyoto.  Horinochi san was a wise, kind, and patient teacher. With his guidance we learnt many skills: how to construct a traditional bamboo fence, pruning pine trees, topiarising azaleas, designing and constructing paths, tradional tool maintenance, and shrub pruning for flower and structure. With the help of Emu san, he answered many questions, explained many techniques and aspects of japanese garden design, and interpreted the garden to us from many angles.

I returned to view the garden at an evening opening at the weekend. Lighting the garden at night created beautiful silhouettes and reflections, enhancing the fabric of the garden. The feeling of the event was a lesson in simplicity. Visitors were invited to come and view the garden, enjoy drink, food, and conversation. Charcoal burned in traditional receptacles to warm, and food was cooked on home made wood and charcoal stoves. It was simple and genuine way of connecting with the visitors and volunteers who clearly had a strong attachment with the garden. Thank you to all for their hospitality, and for giving up their time to teach us and share with us such a lovely place.

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