Great Gardens of Nara

Japanese gardens are designed for all seasons. Spring brings cherry blossoms, while in late spring and early summer peonies, azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas bloom. In autumn, Nara is ablaze with vivid maple and gingko leaves, and winter is the best time to see plum blossoms and camellias.

giving the illusion of great depth

Borrowed scenery (shakkei) is a popular technique in the gardens of Nara, including the landscape outside the garden into the view, giving the illusion of great depth. Isuien features a strolling garden with meandering mossy paths, “borrowing” three mountains and the Nandaimon of Todaiji Temple.

Right next door to Isuien Garden is Yoshikien Garden, using some of the same borrowed scenery in a more compact design. With its own natural stream and including former monks’ residences with unusual thatched roofs, it is especially stunning in autumn.

man-made hills become mountains and small ponds become oceans

Sometimes the scenery is artificial, rather than borrowed. Using flattened perspective, man-made hills become mountains and small ponds become oceans, dotted with stepping-stone islands and spanned by dramatic lacquered bridges. Meisho Kyudaijoin Teien Garden feels much larger than it really is, thanks to its clever design.

The dramatic cliff faces at Ohnoji Temple are another example of shakkei, and you could even say that the garden borrows the ancient temple gates to enhance its appeal. The cherry blossom trees that once decorated the courtyards have grown to dominate the wooden structures. Is it a garden or a temple? Either way, it is spectacular.

tea ceremony and garden design are closely linked

Tea ceremony and garden design are closely linked. The legendary tea master Rikyu designed the gardens of Chikurin-in 300 years ago. With a small pond lined with weeping cherry trees and a man-made hill offering commanding views over the valley, it is a landscape in miniature.

Another garden designed for tea ceremonies, Jikoin Temple has massive camellia and azalea hedges and topiary clipped into perfectly smooth boulder and cube shapes to contrast with the pale gravel. Inspired by the shapes of tea fields, they have a wonderfully surreal, Dr Zeuss appeal.

A well-designed Japanese garden always has an attractive bloom or special feature, no matter what season. Even in winter, you will find camellia trees in bloom, red berries and stone lanterns, placed to look charming with a snowy cap. In temple gardens, you will often find lotus ponds, which bloom in early summer. The lotus is an important symbol of Buddhist faith; out of the mud, a flower blooms, beautiful and pure.

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