The Japanese Landscape at Kew – the definitive tour

Kew Gardens Japanese Landscape It’s all too easy to visit gardens without knowing much about them and come away still knowing very little. That’s what I’ve often done with the Japanese landscape garden at Kew. But not any more; thanks to a tour led by one of Kew’s specialist horticulturists, I’ve learned a massive amount and I’m going to share it with you now. It’s the expert’s guide, straight from the horse’s mouth. 

The landscape forms a double circle around the Chokushi-mon, the Gateway of the Imperial Messenger, a four-fifths replica of the Gate of Nishi Hongan-ji (Western Temple of the Original Vow) in Kyoto.

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Although it can be approached from any direction, it does have a correct starting point, as shown on the plan. (If you walk up from the temperate house you should arrive at the right place),

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The garden was designed in 1996 by Professor Masao Fukuhara of the Department of Environmental Planning at the Osaka University of Arts, who adapted garden styles from the Momoyama period when the original of the Chokushi-mon was built.

Japanese gardens are designed to reproduce the mountains and rivers of the Japanese countryside on a smaller scale, often using gravel to represent water and clipped plants to represent rocks and boulders. At first gardeners would search out interestingly-shaped pine trees and transplant them, but then they learned how to prune and train trees into the shapes they wanted.

The landscape is made up of three gardens, starting with the garden of peace, which is based on the traditional design of a garden leading to a tea ceremony room. So first there is a lantern to light your way.

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Then a stepping stone path to make you focus on your steps and forget the outside world.

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And a low trough, (low so that you bend down humbly) where  you pour water over your hands and drink to purify yourself.

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There isn’t a tea room at Kew; instead you reach a hinoki tree, planted by the current Emperor of Japan when he was crown prince. (HInoki wood is highly valued and used to build temples. The Chokushi-mon is made of hinoki wood.)

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Then you reach the second garden, the garden of harmony, with its view up a grassy slope, planted with closely-clipped azaleas, to the Chokushi-mon.

Kew Gardens

At the side of the garden of harmony is a granite block engraved with a haiku composed at Kew in 1936 by Kyoshi Takahama, one of Japan’s most gifted haiku poets. It reads Even Sparrows, Freed from all fear of man, England in Spring.

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The garden is planted with typical Japanese flowers. The hydrangeas are in flower now, and so are  these platycodon grandiflorus (balloon flower). There were Japanese anemones too, but they were still in bud.

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The gate of the Chokushi-mon is decorated on one side with paulownia leaves. Paulownia wood has a very high combustion point, and was used to make treasure chests because of its resistance to fire.

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Finally you reach the garden of activity, where raked gravel and pebbles are used to represent flowing water and tumbling waterfalls. Rocks amongst the gravel represent a turtle and a crane, symbols of good luck and long life.

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A second part of the garden of activity uses rough, hillocky plants (called Dragon’s Breath) to represent flowing rivers.

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And that brings you back to the starting point. If you’ve got time, you can go to the nearby Chinese pagoda and climb to the top for wonderful views.

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Kew Gardens is open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm in the summer. Entry is £15 for adults, children go free. You need another ticket to climb the Pagoda, which costs £3.50.

Many thanks to Fran, our knowledgable horticulturalist guide on the tour. We also heard about how easy it is to leave money to support Kew’s work in your will – check here for more information.

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