I had a great day out on Thursday at Kew Gardens in south-west London. There was a special offer to get free tickets between 22nd December and 4th January, so I decided to take advantage of the offer and take myself out on a little day trip. I’ve fancied going to Kew for a while because I heard they had a Japanese garden there, but at £16 a ticket I thought it was a bit steep. I haven’t really been on an adventure like that for a long time, but it reminded me when I used to take day trips while living in Japan (except it was much easier to find my way because I could read all the signs!).
As I wandered around Kew I was delighted to find that there was not just a Japanese garden, but other things related to Japan, too. When I arrived at the Victoria Gate, one of the first things I saw was a pair of statues which looked like shisa, looking out across a lake:
Shisa are common statues in Okinawa, and can also be found at temples and shrines all around Japan. I couldn’t find anything in the guidebook about these shisa at Kew, but when I Googled I found this page which refers to them as Chinese lion-dogs, or ‘kylin’. Shisa are a variation of Chinese lion-dogs, so whether these are Chinese or Japanese, they still started my day off on the right foot.
The main Japanese area is called the ‘Japanese Gateway and Landscape’. As you enter, it’s a bit like stepping into Japan. I was really lucky that it was so quiet at Kew yesterday, because I practically had the area to myself, and I found it very calming.
Walking into the Japanese garden, I passed this small water fountain, which reminded me of the kind of thing you might wash your hands at when approaching a small rural shrine.
The main attraction of the Japanese garden is Chukushi-Mon (The Gateway of the Imperial Messenger), which is a four-fifths size replica of the Karamon of Nishi Hongan-ji, a temple in Kyoto. It was built for the Japan-British Exhibition in London in 1910, in the architectural style of the Momoyama period in the late 16th century.
The replica is not nearly as beautiful as the original, but it was still very cool to see something so Japanese here in England.
There are carvings on the gate, depicting flowers and animals, and portraying a Chinese legend about a wise master and his devoted pupil (according to the Kew guidebook).
The Japanese Landscape is split into three areas, says the guidebook:
The main entrance leads into a ‘Garden of Peace’, calming and tranquil, with stone baths and a gently dripping water basin. The slope to the south is a ‘Garden of Activity’, symbolising the natural grandeur of waterfalls, hills and the sea. The third area, the ‘Garden of Harmony, links the other two and represents the mountainous regions of Japan, using stones and rocky outgrops interplanted with a wide variety of Japanese plants.
I don’t know much about Japanese plants, but I was surprised to see some cherry blossom while I was there. Looking at the label on the tree, it said it was a ‘Winter Cherry’ tree, so I guess they must blossom in the winter.
It would be interesting to visit again in spring or autumn and see the different colours.
There were two areas which were like Zen gardens, with signs asking people not to tread on the stones. It was a shame to see that the stones were covered in leaves, but I guess it would be hard work to keep them tidy in the winter.
Tucked away behind some trees I found a stone with a haiku carved into it:
Next to the stone is a translation:
Freed from all fear of man
England in Spring
The haiku is by Kyoshi Takahama (高浜 虚子), and was composed at Kew in 1936. Kyoshi Takahama (1874 – 1959) was a Japanese poet during the Showa period. He was born in Matsuyama, lived in Tokyo during his adult life, and later moved to Kamakura.
Inside the Bamboo Garden is the Japanese Minka.
The Minka was originally a farmhouse, built around 1900 in a suburb of Okazaki City. The house was donated to Kew as part of the Japan 2001 Festival. Ever since I read this I’ve been wondering how on earth one would go about transporting an entire house all the way from Japan to England?! According to the Kew website, the dismantled framework was shipped to England, then a team of Japanese carpenters reinstated the joints on the Minka House, which are constructed without nails, and a team of British builders who worked on the Globe Theatre in London built the mud wall panels. The roof was thatched with Norfolk reeds and wheat straw. The house has a frame of pine logs tied together with rope, wattle and daub walls, and a lime-washed exterior. It stands on a base of large stones, and would not have been cemented down in Japan, to allow it to move during earthquakes.
Quoting again from the guidebook,
Until the middle of the 20th century, many Japanese country people lived in wooden houses called minka. They had sturdy wooden earthquake-resistant frames, mud-plastered walls and thatched roofs. They are uniquely ‘green’ buildings as everything used in their construction comes from plants or directly from Nature.
It was an interesting building to look at, especially the inside of the roof:
Inside the building was some information about Minka houses, bamboo and silk.
The houses were constructed using bamboo, and some houses had gutters and pipes made out of bamboo stems, as well as bamboo blinds and screens. Bamboo was essential for the farmers, as they used it to make baskets and tools, and it was even used when raising silkworms. Silkworms were kept in Minka houses, where they fed on white mulberry leaves, and were generally looked after by the women of the house. Producing silk was an important source of income for farming families. On display inside the house was a silk loom (sorry for the shiny photo!):
Also on inside the house was a display cabinet containing some silk kimono fabric, Japanese dolls wearing silk, and a shamisen.
I didn’t see a sign explaining why the shamisen was there, but I suppose it was just a symbol of the way of life led by the people in the Minka houses.
Minka (民家) translates literally as ‘house of the people’. The houses come in different styles depending on the region, but those which are probably most familiar to people outside of Japan are the gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り), or ‘clasped hands style’, houses in Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture. The raised floor inside the house often included a built-in hearth, called an irori (囲炉裏), like this:
You can just imagine gathering around this space to eat and be warm, can’t you?
One final Japanese connection I found at Kew was the Japanese Pagoda Tree:
The tree is actually originally from China, but was introduced to the UK via Japan, where it was commonly planted in the grounds of Buddhist temples. The species (Styphnolobium japonicum) was introduced to the UK in 1753, and this particular tree was planted around 1760, making it over 250 years old!
My day out at Kew Gardens was even better than I expected, and there was a lot of interesting stuff there, as well as all of the Japanese things I’ve mentioned above. If you’re interested, you can see my whole collection of photos on Flickr. Look out for the peacocks – utterly beautiful! (Incidentally, I just learnt that ‘peacock’ in Japanese is くじゃく (kujyaku), which sounds much cuter than ‘peacock’, and makes me think of the boy’s name ‘Jack’.
Anyway, if you like the look of Kew and fancy going there yourself, it’s easily accessed from the Kew Gardens stop on the District Line (London Underground). For more information, please visit: www.kew.org.