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.

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.

When delphiniums tower like shards of May sky behind lupine and phlox and who knows what combination of poppy and iris, candytuft and arabis, it is easy to think that Yasushi was wrong; that when the flowers bloom you see the only garden there ever is - a few spring days of profligate glory. Pure palette, not shape and texture, reminding one of light - and the spectrum Newton wrested from it in a country house beside just such a garden.

But, then, even the English garden can be subjected to the Katsura test. That Anglo-Saxon garden is usually a scene painted in a frame. It is contained within a wall or a hedge, a bit away from the shrubbery helping to shape the house. And the flower garden is a separate entity from ''the park'' in which great specimen trees and fields and bushes and hedgerows provide the British version of what the Japanese do to reproduce, miniaturize, simplify, and subtly improve on nature.

Where a Japanese garden designer will suggest mountains and lakes and islands and gravel beaches - re-creating a national landscape that is 95 percent mountains, sea and islands - a British designer tends to re-create in the flower garden a more gently rolling land of open fields and wildflowers. The latter grow in nature, as in the English garden, in a lush and haphazard array that comes to seem just right. There is as much an aptness about one style of garden as the other. The same aptness that in the culinary field leads magically to the presence of wild marjoram and thyme alongside basil on Mediterranean hillsides where tomatoes and eggplant are cultivated.

If shape and abstract mimicry of nature exist in both nations' gardens, why do Yasushi and his compatriots not get as much pleasure out of those brief bursts of floral glory as do the gardeners of that other island nation anchored off the coast of France?

They do. But usually in a different way.

As the eight Katsura pilgrims approached the famous Detached Palace built by the prince's successor, overlooking the garden, we saw the answer.

There, in the palace's Moon-viewing Pavilion, sat an austere, earthen vase - low, horizontal, a patch of earth made to contain a shallow lake of water. And out of the miniature lake rose three sky-blue Japanese irises, each a different height. One gray-green hosta leaf rose part way up their ankles. That was all.

Yasushi said not a word. But I imagined each of our European visitors re-running his opening words with a new twist: ''When the flowers bloom in the garden you cannot see the flowers. You see the bloom but not the flowers; the bloom but not the garden. Today we see the garden outside, and now we see these three flowers. Nothing else in this room.''

For a moment the feeling of connection was very strong. Three hundred and fifty years fell away, and we were close to the two princes who had commissioned this quintessential Japanese garden and its extraordinary ageless white-panel-and-beam house that Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius both credited as the fountainhead of modern architecture. We, the pilgrims, were also suddenly closer to each other in our love of the beauty that man not so much creates as reflects in a garden.

Not a word was spoken as we stared at the iris and out the door at the garden. Sensible Shoes and the Danish businessman and all the rest of us had discovered a more meaningful common tongue than English.

A few minutes later, back at the gate, we thanked Yasushi. Someone blurted out: ''I'm so glad it wasn't May.'' Yasushi bowed. As his head came up, I thought I saw a faint smile disappearing. It may have been a trick of the noonday sun.

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