We were very fortunate to be able to spend a week working for a distinguished gardening business in Kyoto, Ueyakato landscape company. I thank Kato sensei and all his staff for their wonderful hospitality, in particular our mentors who gave their time to share their experiences and teach us about gardening in Japan. We were able to work at 4 amazing places: 3 historic gardens and 1 modern park. We were able to see the workings of the business and learn from very experienced and warm people, in distinguished places in Kyoto.
We began at Murin-an. What a place to start. We tidied areas of the garden whilst learning about the plants contained within the garden, some pests and diseases that affect it, and how the garden is maintained. Kato sensei kindly gave us a lecture about the garden in which much was shared.
Murin-an is one of 200 gardens registered as cultural assets in Japan. We sat to view the garden from the seat of the gods, in front of the alcove so important in Japanese architecture. The garden is superbly layered, using the borrowed landscape of the Higashiyama mountains to let nature flow along its waterfall and stream into the garden. The garden and building are never separate, and the garden is never separate from nature beyond. The garden’s design is technical, with the using golden ratios to achieve depth and balance. It is a fantastic example of how Japanese gardens create scenery with skill, precision, and deftness.
Cultural asset preservation was formalised 100 years ago in Japan. However the movement has already existed in other forms previously. Nanzen-ji and Tenryu-ji were the first registered assets. 25% of the preserved assets are located in Kyoto. Murin-an is a fairly young garden, created by Yamagata Aritomo in 1894. The garden questions how to conserve. The designer’s ideas are very important in shaping this. But do we conserve to a specific time or aim to preserve the garden’s atmosphere whilst allowing it to change? Here the changes within the borrowed landscape have influenced changes within the garden. The mountain ecology has changed and necessitated a change in the garden to adapt to new environmental conditions, but the spirit of the place is paramount. The garden does have a known peak, in the middle of the Edo period. The discovery and interpretation of the spirit of a garden is very difficult, often with much complexity and subjectivity. However, without it true conservation cannot happen.
Interestingly the garden shows how continuity in conservation is important. Previously looked after by the state, the fluctuating yearly budget meant that continuity was difficult and features were lost. One such feature was a wildflower meadow within the lawn has been reinstated. Conservation requires skilled funding, and a deep understanding of the heart and atmosphere of the garden. Features can be lost quickly, but reinstating these can take much longer.