In late November last year I took myself to Japan to visit some gardens.

My itinerary was created from three sources: the rather ridiculously titled 1001 Gardens you must see before you die, edited by Rae Spencer Jones, , 100 Japanese Gardens by Stephen Mansfield, and the itinerary of Carolyn Mullet’s Carex tour to Japanese gardens which she was undertaking at more or less the same time as my own visit. I hadn’t at the time, watched Monty Dons two part TV programme (as it turned out I went to four of the gardens he had visited). From these rather inadequate researches I gave myself three locations to explore on my two week stay; Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, taking in thirty two parks and gardens.

Saiho-Ji garden copyright Charles Hawes

Saiho-Ji Temple – many gardens have created views to be seen from inside buildings. Great if it’s raining.

Prior to this visit my experience and knowledge of Japan’s gardens was almost non-existent.

In the UK we have mostly ploughed our own fields when it comes to garden design. The world seems to know what an English Garden is supposed to look like. We do have a few gardens that have been heavily influenced by Italian Renaissance gardens. Our plant collectors have raided Japan (and everywhere else in the world) for countless plants but Japanese style gardens are mostly restricted to tiny pastiches such as that at Dartington Hall, which had left me so unimpressed I didn’t even take a picture of it when I visited. Or concrete reproductions of the Japanese stone lanterns (which are called Ishidoro) that people plonk in a bit of gravel and call a Japanese garden.

Okochi Sanso Garden, Nr Arashiyama, Kyoto, copyright Charles Hawes-24

Almost every Japanese garden had one of these.

Anne thought to whet my appetite by suggesting I read The Inward Garden by Julie Moir Messervy.

I tried but got quickly bogged down with her intention that her book was going to help me make my own garden and, frankly, that horse has bolted. Anyway, I liked the idea that I would visit these gardens with little knowledge of them; I was travelling half way around the world – I wanted to be surprised. Having chosen what I had hoped to be some of the best, I read very little about them and only glanced at some images of my chosen destinations.

Tofuku-Ji Temple Garden, Kyoto, Tokyo-copyright Charles Hawes

Tenryuji -an archetypal Zen garden

When I told my artist friend Paul about my plans he was shocked at how many places I intended to fit in.

“How are you going to absorb or process your visits” (I paraphrase). He understood, as I had not, that one of The Big Things about Japanese gardens is that they are very thought out and controlled. That they are highly intellectual, using the land to represent or invoke the surrounding natural landscapes. Once there, as I read the little leaflets that I received from the gardens as I paid my (usually) very modest entry fee, it was clear that a great deal of thought was behind every one of them, and the level of detail of thought was almost extreme, so that the placing of single rocks or stones was considered and believed to be important.

Ryoan-Ji Temple-copyright Charles Hawes

Ryoan Ji Temple – contemplating the rocks.

So, to my shame, I must admit that my approach to these gardens was almost entirely visual.

I photograph gardens semi-professionally. By that I mean that in the past I supplied images of plants and gardens to magazines to illustrate articles (many written by my wife, Anne Wareham). But I have never earned my living from this and these days my images are sent solely to GAP Gardens library. So when I made these brief (I spent no more than an hour or so in any garden) visits what I was doing was taking pictures the whole time, as if I was going to illustrate an article.

Murin-an, Kyoto-copyright Charles Hawes

Murin –an – indoors.

In every visit I would take views of the entrance, signs and maps of the garden, small details isolated from their context as well as broad views that offer some sense of what the garden was about. Pics of people in the garden were always sought, whether it was gardeners at work, or of other visitors, looking at the garden or taking selfies. And if they were dressed in traditional costumes, so much the better.

Rikugien Garden Tokyo copyright Charles Hawes

Plant portraits were important; I had chosen what I had hoped would be the peak of Autumn colour, so close ups of maples, backlit, were a must. And the Japanese do extraordinary things with Chrysanthemums. Who knew?

Chrysanthemums, Tokyo copyright Charles Hawes-

In Japan this is called Ozukuri. This is one single plant.

In approaching the gardens in this way

I was making it almost impossible to allow what the creators of the gardens would have me do: contemplate, discover what I felt about the place, think about my surroundings. I did have feelings but those were mostly informed by what I was doing. I was visiting these gardens alongside hundreds of other people, all wanting to take pictures of the garden. Much of the time I was simply standing where I knew that I wanted a shot, building frustration as I waited for no one else to be in the picture.

Tenryu-Ji Temple Garden, Kyoto-copyright Charles Hawes5

Crowds like this are not uncommon.

A proper professional photographer of gardens invariably times their visit to coincide with the best light (usually early in the morning or just before dusk). On this trip I had to take what I was given and that ranged from the harshest of bright sun (such as at Muin-an – see above) to pouring rain (at Kenrokuen), and do what I could back at my desk with my processing of the images in Lightroom.

What really lifted my spirits was when I knew that I was making a strong image.

The fabulous, almost plant-less garden at the Canadian Embassy provided this in spades, with the added bonus that I had the place, astonishingly, to myself. Or when I could make a composition that seemed to encapsulate what the garden was about:

The Canadian Embassy, Tokyo

I came back with over 3,000 images. I have just finished editing and processing them and the result is 700 images for licence at Gap Gardens. Though they have been very clear with me that the world appears to have little interest in images from Japanese gardens. Shame.

What did I think about what I saw?

That might have to be another post. But when you visit a garden, I recommend that if you really want to get the spirit of the place, leave your camera behind.

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