To get to the real garden
We were pilgrims, reaching a mecca of sorts. It was July and all eight of us - strangers to each other and to the garden inside the gates - stood beside the bamboo-and-wattle gatehouse in the slanting morning sunlight. The shafts of light were already raising little wisps of steam from recently washed cobbles underfoot.Skip to next paragraph
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This little covey of humans from America, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden ventured only the most banal small talk. We were at once separated by linguistic shyness (Which kind of English does that lady with the sensible shoes speak?) and bound together by enthusiasm for what lay inside the gates. I suspect that each of us felt intensely about our reason for being there but couldn't gauge the degree of intensity of the others. So no emotions were worn on sleeve or tongue.
Promptly at 9:30 our guide popped around the corner. A grave, rather lanky Japanese with just a flicker of amusement in his eyes countermanding the graveness, as his white iris-patterned tie rebuked his funereal black suit.
''Good morning,'' he intoned. With the words came a bow whose depth was cut in half because, I suspect, he knew it would not be returned by the casual Westerners who gathered round.
''My name is Yasushi. Today is your lucky day!''
We looked at each other in puzzlement but rising expectation. Would we meet the Emperor? Was some rare gift about to be be handed out?
''Today is your lucky day!,'' Yasushi repeated, waiting once more.
''Why?'' blurted out the lady wearing sensible shoes, who turned out to have a Dutch accent.
The teacher was satisfied. At least one pupil had responded.
''Because,'' said Yasushi with restrained triumph, ''all the flowers have finished blooming.''
A low groan from somewhere behind me.
''Now you can see the garden,'' our cicerone said. ''When flowers bloom you see the flowers. You cannot see the garden. When flowers are gone, you can see the garden. That is how the Katsura garden was designed. Not for flowers; for garden itself. For shape of plants, for texture of leaves, for shape of pool, for water against rock, for teahouse against tree trunk. For cobbles, and gravel , and stones placed just so.
''Prince Toshihito would like to show you his garden just so. Unfortunately he cannot be here . . . ('he hasn't been here for three hundred years,' someone whispered behind me). . . . So I will show you his garden. Follow me and please stay on the path.''
The gate opened. The prince's stand-in led the eight acolytes into the Katsura garden, hidden just beyond the west bank of Kyoto's Katsura River.
How often since has Yasushi's description of the essence of a garden sprung to mind in some other garden. The idea that blossoms were a distraction - a false scent, so to speak - that one had to go through in order to get to the real garden, the underlying design, was a revelation at the time. It is now a kind of mental tape measure pulled out to measure the success of some landscaper's effort at a spring garden show, of Kew or Longwood, of Sissinghurst or Nymphenburg or of a pocket park in the shadow of a Manhattan skyscraper.
The Katsura concept - the Japanese garden concept - is not, of course, the unchallenged definition of what a garden should be. With gardens, as with food, we like what we eat as much as we eat what we like. The eccentric irregularity of a great English garden out of season is as evocative as the subtle interplay of a Japanese moss and sand garden, or the regimented topiary of Versailles and all the smaller versailleses scattered across the dukedoms of Europe.