Underfoot, there’s a crunching sound. The air is filled with the scent of moss and moist tree bark.
In Kanazawa, a port town in western Japan, one walks along gravel paths amid groves of pines. The location is Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s three so-called perfect gardens.
“This is one of the prettiest gardens in the country,” says tour guide Tomoko Kawabata.
Behind her, a group of vacationers is huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with her as the way leads past trees to one of the tea houses in the gardens. Lined by streams and lakes, the garden looks tidy. Fat carp are lazily swimming in the water.
The guests are arriving for a typical tea ceremony that can be booked in advance. They take their shoes off and shuffle in their stockings across tatami mats. Women in pastel-coloured kimonos bow before them.
One woman uses a little bamboo broom to mix the matcha green tea powder.
Tomoko Kawabata says that tea ceremonies are now very rare in day-to-day Japanese life.
“If one is thirsty, then one quickly drinks one’s tea, and not in some ceremony,” she says.
Green tea is bitter on the tongue.
After half an hour, a woman opens the doors of the pavilion, providing a dramatic view of a previously unseen small garden.
There, in a field, are plum trees, while a simple wooden bridge leads over a brook. In the quiet, one hears a scratching sound as one walks along the gravel paths. Women wearing blue uniforms and large straw hats are raking the leaves.
Visitors walk past the huge pine trees with trimmed branches. In the winter, ropes must be used to hold the branches up so that they do not break under the weight of the region’s heavy snow.
Christian Tagsold, an expert on Japanese culture, believes that such gardens speak to a need we all feel in our current world – a need for order, for reduction. Tagsold, a scholar at Dusseldorf University, says that Japanese gardens seem to be “as if made by Le Corbusier, but with a natural element.”
After lengthy study of Japanese gardens, he came to the conclusion that what non-Japanese suppose to be a tradition of Japan actually has rather a short history. It is the world’s admiration that makes gardens seem so quintessentially Japanese.
Of course, there have been gardens in Japan for a long time, but they only started to be marketed with the world exhibitions of the 1870s.
“The Japanese weren’t even aware of the fact that they had something that would go over so well,” Tagsold says. It was only in the 1930s that a US author devised the term Zen gardens for them.
Since that time, efforts have grown to make Japan’s gardens live up to those lofty expectations.
Just what does the title “perfect garden” really mean? Tagsold explains that the “three perfect gardens” of Kanazawa, Okayama and Mito were regarded as especially beautiful by the tastes of a specific period of time, but it’s not an eternal, universal standard.
Nowadays, the title is mainly exploited for tourism promotion purposes.
All the same, Kenroku-en is truly beautiful and graceful.