Traveller’s Tales: Japan

When I started out in gardening I was lucky to have the opportunity to work at different gardens and with various people whose methods and styles of gardening were as varied as them. From the ‘old boy’ on our village allotments who taught me about growing leeks and Chrysanthemums through to starting with the National Trust in 1990 at Bodnant Garden and working with Martin Puddle, the third generation of a gardening dynasty- (Head Gardeners at Bodnant since 1927).

As a novice gardener there is no better way to learn your trade than to work alongside skilled and experienced craftspeople in a range of garden settings. I’ve carried this philosophy through my career and have worked with great designers and plantsmen such as Christopher Bradley Hole whilst at Hyde Hall and currently Dan Pearson at Sissinghurst.

Growing as a gardener through my experiences I encourage and support my team of gardeners at Sissinghurst to also seek out opportunities to widen and deepen their interest and experience whether that is spending one day working at a neighbouring National Trust garden or an expedition looking at native flora in some far flung corner of the world.

Over the following few weeks, starting with my recent trip to Japan, you can read on our blog some of the adventures we have had on our trips this year to places such as America, Italy (twice), Slovenia and closer to home, Gravetye Manor, Great Dixter, Hidcote and Waterperry.

It should be said these trips are not all fun and not all one way, our tool-shed is always open to those who want to come and learn from Sissinghurst and this year we have hosted gardeners from Sydney Botanic Garden, Hidcote, America, Switzerland, Japan, Kew, Wisley, and students from Longwood, National Trust for Scotland, School of Heritage Gardening and The English Gardening School.

This international cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices provides such a rich and inspiring base note for which we and the garden can flourish.

So how could my work at Sissinghurst take me to Japan?

Traveller's Tales: Japan

Osaka; the view from my hotel room

Sissinghurst is an iconic garden whose reach and influence is wide. There is a fascination in both the history and creation of the garden but also the specific planting combinations and arrangements. For many years we have welcomed visitors from overseas, still today over 40% of our visitors are from the continent and I would argue that outside of Europe nowhere else is the interest in Sissinghurst and the National Trust greater than in Japan.

Since 1984 in support of this interest Hankyu department store (the Harrods of Japan) have sold National Trust merchandise under license with a percentage of the sales profit donated to the National Trust. Also during that period Hankyu have organised a British Fair (supported by the British Consulate and UK Trade and Investment) which the National Trust were invited to attend this year.

Sissinghurst was asked to create a ‘show garden’, which we would build and use as a draw to engage with customers and talk to them about the breadth and importance of our work and how they could help support us.

I quite quickly decided that the design of the show garden should be based on the White Garden here at Sissinghurst and once agreed the materials and plants were sourced and I was on a plane. Once in Japan I met with Miyu, my interpreter and Mr Fugimoto, the Head Gardener for Hankyu. That night we made the garden in readiness for the show opening at 10am the following morning. On the sound of the bells the crowds rushed in and didn’t seem to abate until the close of the show 7 days later.

There was a lot on interest in the garden, as well as chatting with customers I also gave scheduled talks several times a day about the National Trust.  In addition, I visited National Trust retail outlets (distinct and separate to Hankyu) in other parts of Japan to talk about our work and I was also was invited to address the Japan/British Society at an evening event.

With all of this to do I found I had little time for much else, but I did manage to finish at 7pm one evening and not start until 1pm the following day and so I had a fascinating trip to Ryoan-ji – a Japanese stone garden in Kyoto about 45 minutes away by train. Interesting not only for its beauty, but also the garden receives 3,000 visitors every day and so perhaps some useful lessons could be learned for Sissinghurst.

Ryoan-ji garden

Ryoan-ji garden

The garden is a rectangle twenty-five meters by ten meters. Placed within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, carefully composed in five groups; one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day. The only vegetation in the garden is some moss around the stones.

The stones are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.

The wall behind the garden is an important element of the garden. It is made of clay, which has been stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones. When the garden was rebuilt in 1799, it came up higher than before providing a view over the wall to the mountain scenery behind.

Apart from Ryoan-ji I saw interesting modern roof gardens in Osaka and great modern design at the train station from the architect Tadao Ando.

Overall, a rather hectic 10 days but with many memorable experiences, not only the good design and gardens that I saw, but also the immense warmth of the Japanese people and the opportunity I had of talking to them about our work.

And how could I almost forget to mention the food, which often looked like a work of art on the plate and tasted amazing – well mostly!

Troy Smith, Head Gardener