2001, Hannah Gardner, Study Tour, Japan


by Hannah Gardner

As I look back on the summer of 2001 that has just come to a close, three weeks in particular bring back memories so vivid and so many in number that it is hard to know where on earth to start a summary, for that is all this can be.

It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I approached my first Japanese train platform, having disembarked at Osaka International Airport last June. Within minutes (we are talking seriously efficient) I was gliding through the city suburbs, heading for Kyoto. This, the first of many great train journeys taken during my three weeks in Japan, whetted my appetite for what was to follow. Curvaceous bonsai were evident behind nearly every closure, the reflective water margins and grassy green of regimented rice fields punctuated the grey urban sprawl, replacing the lawns we are so accustomed to in England.

My first week was spent in Kyoto, the historical centre of Japan, and to my delight, I found that the city, nestled as it is in a wide basin between tree-covered mountains, retains much of its character, whilst embracing the frenetic facets of modern Japan. I did see Geisha in Gion, and the temple and shrine gardens, although overwhelming in number, proved to be as inspiring and engaging as I have hoped. I can only mention the most notable of the many visited here.

The Japanese-led tours of Shugakuin Villa (133 acres), in the foothills of Mt. Hiei, and at Katsura Imperial Villa (17th century) gave me a glimpse into secular landscape design. the tiny but perfect meditation gardens at Ryoan-ji in the karasensui style (late 15th century) and Daisen-in Temples were simple, affecting and immaculately curated by the current generation of monks. The intention here is to express the spirit of Zen through the media of only rocks and sand. These much-reduced elements are used to express the abstracted essence of nature. I also found time to visit the golden pavilion at Kinkakuji, where I have to admit I found a very handsome, 600-year-old, gentlemanly Pinus sylvestris to be of much greater appeal that the more commonly revered and recently restored, very shiny pavilion. Other gardens I visited include: Kyoto Botanic Garden; Ninnaji; Tofukuji (1940, re-designed by Mirei Shigermori); Hein Shrine (1895); and Saihoji.

An overnight train swept me across the heart of Honshu, through Tokyo, up the coast eventually leading through the tunnel and into Sapporo, the main city of Hokkaido. My stopover here was certainly action packed. First, I took a tour of the Botanic Garden, where I wandered under giant two-metre Petisitesand hunted for Trillium in shady corners of the nursery. The rock garden is enjoying something of a renaissance and will, I feel, return to its former glory in years to come.

I spent a total of 12 days in the north, dividing my time between the great open spaces and long days of botanising offered in the mountains, and socialising in the name of good relations between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and our Japanese friends.

Leaving the friendly a fun people of Takinoue and inspired by an earlier conversation with Dr. Takahashi of Sapporo University, I boarded the night train bound for the northerly port of Wakkanai, my destination the tiny island of Rebun, lying in the northerly reaches of the Sea of Japan. The last frontier between Russia and Japan, the island more closely resembles the uncluttered Russian coast where life is harsh and function takes precedence over form. There is no glossy finish to these islands, no bonsai, in fact few gardens at all. There is no need as the whole island (save the few perimeter villages scattered along the shelf that borders the land and the sea) is clothed by knee-length coastal meadows. Here I found in abundance Trollius hondoensis, Hemerocallis esculenta, H. middendorffii, Iris sanguenea, I. setosa, Geranium erianthum, Polygonatum sp., Lilium, Leontopodium, Alliumand giant umbles (Pleurospermom camtscaticim). Unfortunately, it was too late in the season to spot the rare Cypripedium macranthum var. rebunense, an endemic relatively common in cultivation, but now difficult to find on the island due to over collection.

Too quickly, it was time to move on. I had completed the two day walking course that spans the length of the island (15km) and had found, inland, interesting orchids (Orchis aristata), roses and climbers (Hydrangea petiolaris). Shoreline sitings included the tattered pink petals of Dianthus superbus var. longicalycinus and the glaucous succulent Mertensia asiatica. I spent a day on the neightbouring volcanic island of Rishiri and botanised the foothills, quickly finding the endemic little yellow poppy (a variety of Papaver fauriei), but was beaten by the weather and could not make the summit in the time I had. I wanted to compare alpine flora on the main island with what I had seen on Hokkaido. In general, I felt my trips plant-hunting there had been a little early in the season: the weather wasn’t good for most days and a lot of areas were still covered by snow. Another few weeks would have made all the difference.

In Nagano, the mountainous area I visited next, lying just north of the Japanese Alps, I found more in flower. The volcano Myoko-san (2,446m) and its neighbour Hiuchiyama (2,462m) are relatively undiscovered and dramatic mountains with a varied, interesting flora. I was immediately struck by the contrast to the peak of Daisetsuzan in the north. Here, the higher areas had been virtually bare, whilst now I was rewarded with spreading, stunted meadows. My two-day hike led me up through the forested foothills where I found Rhododendron aureum, Shortia soldinelloides f. alpina, Trillium, Clintonia uneiodes, Polyganatum sp. and the ghostly Monostropastrum globosum. The visual highlight was beds of silk-hatted Paris japonica running amok under the thick trunks of prostrate Betula ermanii.

I had an incredible journey through Japan, negotiating the hazards of menus written only in Japanese (and my resulting diet of randomly selected raw fish); decoding kanji subway instructions, signposts, timetables . . . the lot; and drinking reservoirs of green tea enabled me to explore areas of great natural beauty. I have become a more cultured and enlightened horticulturalist. Japan is a country of so many contrasts that even though I travelled as widely as I could in the given time, I feel that I only scratched the surface of what there was to see.

I should like, once more, to sincerely thank my sponsors. Your support enabled me to enjoy such a fantastic experience and light the spark of what will now be a life-long interest and involvement with Japan. I made the most of my opportunity, but I am grateful you gave me the means to do so.

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