Read This: The Gardens of Japan

March 03, 2020

As Tokyo’s cherry blossom season approaches, it’s the perfect time to read a book about Japanese gardens: The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee, with photographs by her husband, Alex Ramsay, published by Frances Lincoln in 2017 (a paperback version of a hardback originally published in 2010). The book has been languishing in my to-read pile for a couple of years, but I recently picked it up because my daughter is was planning to study abroad in Japan this summer, until the coronavirus outbreak scuttled it. In fact, a spring or fall tour of Kyoto gardens is at the top of my own bucket list. How splendid would it be to picnic under a blizzard of pale-pink cherry blossoms or soak up the rich hues of autumn in a country where gardening has been an art form for 1,000 years?

Were one to plan such a trip, this book would be a good resource. Author Helena Attlee covers 28 of Japan’s best-known gardens, with the majority (20) located in Kyoto. Each garden gets a 4-to-6-page spread, which includes generously sized photographs and a summary of its history (often centuries old) as well as the author’s own observations. The history can be a little dry, but when Attlee strays into her own contemporary observations, her prose becomes delightfully poetic. Take her description of Ryogen-in:

“There can be no secrets in Ryogen-in, no creeping about at the dead of night, for the nightingale floor overlooking the main garden sings out, its boards creaking and squeaking to advertise every footfall.”

Or her write-up of Katsura Rikyu:

“Never will you have been so manipulated or so happily enslaved as in this garden, where every step you take is still guided and controlled by Prince Toshihito…and his son Prince Toshitada….They lift and turn our heads at will, obliging us to see the beautiful landscape unfolding around us, or to focus our attention on the tiny violets that grow in the mossy carpet at our feet.”

The photographs illustrating each garden include a nice mix of long shots and close-up details, and I especially appreciated the full-page format given to many of the photos. A few gardens, however, were photographed in winter, with bare trees and brown, dormant lawns. Not that gardens should always be photographed in full spring or fall glory, but as an armchair traveler I would have liked at least green-season views or artful snowy landscapes. My only other quibble is the thin, gray font that was chosen for the text, which my middle-aged eyes found hard to read.

Overall, however, I enjoyed the book. Read The Gardens of Japan if you want to learn about the different styles of Japanese gardens and how they came about, or if you’re planning a visit and want to choose a few gardens to tour, or if you just want to page through pretty photos of gardens and imagine picnicking under the cherry blossoms.

Disclosure: Frances Lincoln sent me a copy of The Gardens of Japan for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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Japanese garden and prehistoric garden at Zilker Botanical Garden

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