Kokedama Dreams

First week of work at Kiseki no Hoshi- Meeting Tsujimoto Sensei- 苔, 苔 and more 苔

It’s probably time to admit that until last Tuesday, when we started working at Kiseki no Hoshi (Planet of Miracles) Museum of Plants, I didn’t actually know what it was. I know it sounds a little mad to commit yourself to working on the other side of the world for 4 months in a mystery place, but I really did try to find out in advance. Way back at the time of applying to the Triad (and many times since), I read the website: the English version says that is it “An Experimental Botanical Museum to Create an Exciting Flower and Greenery Area.” What does that mean? I didn’t know. I also looked at a lot of pictures and asked lots of people. They all said things like: “it’s a conservatory. It changes over 7 times a year.” A conservatory, like Everest Windows? NO. Like a glasshouse in a botanic garden? Not that either. So I didn’t really understand, and when family and friends asked me where I was going to work, I just said ‘It’s a conservatory, it changes over 7 times a year.” And then changed the subject.

Now that I’ve spent a week working at Kiseki, I realise that the reason I didn’t understand is that we don’t have anything like this in the UK (or not that I’m aware of: corrections gratefully received). I don’t think that there was anything like this in Japan before Tsujimoto Tomoko either. So, what is it? Where am I working, and what am I doing?

Well, Kiseki no Hoshi is definitely a conservatory, not a glass house. A conservatory designed by Tadao Ando, and built in tandem with the rest of Awaji-Yumebatai, which is a complex of hotel, restaurants, landscape & grounds, an earthquake memorial, business facilities: all to fill the space left after a huge amount of hill and earth were removed to build artificial islands for KIX airport. The building may have been designed by Ando, but the idea for it, the internal design and just about everything are the brainchild of the incredible Tsujimoto Tomoko. A simplistic version of what I can understand, is that she got   to build this because she wanted to. She’s a very important and well-respected woman. And, working for her is GREAT. She’s just so knowledgable and skilled- and hilarious too!

Anyway, Tomoko-san’s concept for the museum is to present a modern version of the Japanese concept of ‘nature’ and the value of plants to all of us. Specifically, she wishes to make people consider the integral role that nature has always had in shaping and defining traditional Japanese life and culture: a role which is quickly being forgotten in modern society. Think about any aspect of Japanese culture and you’ll see that NATURE is written all over it, whether it be festivals to mark the changing of the seasons, art, gardening, poetry…

So, there are 8 or 9 display spaces, and they each house a (predominantly) temporary display which is based on a specific concept, e.g. plants in life, plants in urban environment, plants for inside etc. All a mix of exotic/temperate. Think the Chelsea Flower Show crossed with Eden Project crossed with… Something Japanese. The famous 7 display changes follow the same pattern of themes every year. Right now we’re turning Christmas into the Amazing Orchid Festival. Each of the rooms/spaces generally retains their own concept throughout the year, regardless of the current seasonal theme. For example, during the orchid festival, the five senses garden will display fives sense through orchids.

And, do you know what? It is AMAZING. I had previously seen a lot of pictures which made the place look small, or twee, or kitschy or tacky. But it’s not. It feels incredible. It is huge, and light and airy and immaculate. The design of the planting, the hard landscaping and the building is inspired. The plants look lush and healthy (because they don’t hang around for long, I suppose), it smells incredible and there are a million things to look at in a reasonably small space. All in all I find it uplifting and inspiring. It’s also really innovative (compared the UK, not compared to Longwood I expect!) in terms of display horticulture technique. LOTS of ideas to steal from Tomoko-san. Unfortunately I’ll have to leave details of those (and the other things I’ve been up to) for another time because this is becoming a really long post.

I’ll just say that I have quickly learnt that high-quality display horticulture (that’s creating temporary displays rather than permanent planting) can be very powerful but is unbelievable long and involved to create. Much commitment is required! The preparation is almost a meditation. For example, I have spent pretty much all of the last week sitting on a beer crate, wrapping the roots of orchids in moss (苔/ koke) to create kokedama (苔玉)- moss balls- so that they can be displayed. Previous Triads will understand this- I wore down the skin on my right thumb and forefinger with the cotton thread that is wrapped around the moss to hold it in place in a day. Ouch. And the actual displaying, or the designing of the display? A whole other ball park which will be explored next time…

For now, here are a few photos that I took. They are a bit rubbish and do not represent what it is really like to be here. I think the place is particularly hard to photograph because it is the light, scents, space, air and height that make it feel so special. Oh- and the music! There is constantly music playing: a twinkly, twangly sort of modern sound scape. That sounds bizarre, I know, but it really adds to the atmosphere and space of the conservatory.

I hope that all made sense and you all know where I am and what I’m doing now!





2 thoughts on “Kokedama Dreams

  1. Amazing blog Katie! I have been wondering what on earth to expect in Japan – I knew it would be beautiful but I didn’t quite understand what Kiseki no Hoshi was as a concept! Looks like you’re having an awesome time!


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