Japanese Garden Maintenance 101

A week working at Sorakuen

Although I have been working in a garden in Japan for over a month now, I hadn’t actually done any official, proper, traditional Japanese gardening until this week. Armed with my sentaibasami and jikatabi, I spent Tuesday to Friday working in the lovely Sorakuen Garden, under the tutelage of Horonouchi-san, gardener extraordinaire.

Sorakuen is the only traditional Japanese garden in Kobe, although it’s reasonably modern. It was built in the late C19th-early C20th as a private garden for a wealthy business man. His mansion was destroyed in the war and unfortunately the original site  now has an ugly office block on it which rather spoils the opportunity for borrowed landscape. However, there is a lovely Anglo-Indian mansion in the garden, Hassam House. It was built by an Indian merchant in Kitano in 1902 and moved to Sora-kuen in 1963. I didn’t go inside because they were doing some renovation work, but I did go into the European-style stable, which was part of the original house. It’s a little incongruous in a Japanese garden but I surprised myself by feeling homesick at the sight of red bricks and wooden sash windows! The garden was passed to Kobe City Council in 1941 and has been a public park since then. It is known for its azalea collection, chrysanthemum festival and amazing Sago palms. Although it’s right in the heart of the city and surrounded by (ugly) buildings, it is a wonderful, peaceful little haven. And full of birds: it  is worth going early in the morning just to hear the song. I even saw my first kingfisher, having never seen one at Bodnant!

Although we only spent four days working in the garden, we managed to cover a range of the skills required to maintain a traditional Japanese garden:

  • Building a bamboo fence
  • Pruning pine needles
  • Pruning azaleas
  • Pruning camellias & other shrubs
  • Japanese tools & maintenance thereof
  • Placing stones to make a path
  • Understanding Japanese garden features

It was also a great opportunity to ask a lot of questions about all of the things I haven’t understood in The Long Awaited Japanese Garden Manual and about Japanese gardens and life in general. By the way, if you’re feeling impressed that my Japanese language skills have improved to the level of technical conversation- don’t be. We had a fantastic interpreter in the form of Sorakuen’s very kind publicity manager, Emu Ryan-san. It really isn’t that common to find Japanese people with a good fluency in English and my Japanese hasn’t progressed much further than the initial “xxx wa doko desuka?”, “sugoi!”, “kawaii!”, and the still useful, “kore wa niku desuka?”. I am daily cursing myself for not finding more time to learn before I arrived.

Despite my inept language skills, it was a fantastic week and I learnt a great deal. I have previously considered the maintenance of Japanese gardens to be rather magical and mysterious but now that I’ve had a small insight into the tasks and routines of the season it all makes a lot more sense. Interestingly, although the skills required are highly technical, the routine of maintenance seems relatively simple in comparison to western gardens. This is because of the more limited range of plants used and the specific rules about how each task should be done. Not to say that looking after a Japanese garden is easy- it isn’t. Oh dear! I’m afraid that I would need to write a lot more to explain what I mean properly, and I’m not going to. It is now quite late at night and I have a busy day tomorrow finishing the set-up for our “western style living with orchids” display, so you will have to be content with some photos for now…



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