What is a Japanese garden?

"Medieval builder's rubbish"...

Ornamental rocksPerhaps one of the most famous Japanese gardens is the rock garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto - no flowers, but a collection of 15 rocks set in a bed of raked gravel. The journalist AA Gill infamously described it as "fundamentally risible, an impracticable joke". More sensitive observers see something completely different - "a gentle, delicate arrangement of rocks [with] such subtle character and texture" (Gouverneur Mosher in "Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide").

...a riot of colour

Purple and white irisesAt the opposite end of the scale are gardens like those at the Heian Shrine, just across the city from Ryoanji. With each season, it changes as its drooping cherry trees, azaleas, irises and water lilies burst into flower one after the other. Then, as the year draws to a close, the maple trees put on a display of fiery autumn colours, contrasting and clashing with the vermillion of the surrounding buildings.

... or something else

In between, are gardens that seek to reproduce nature in miniature - finding its ultimate expression in bonsai. Or gardens that explore the subtleties of moss, stone carvings or bamboo.

Even when Japanese gardens fill with colour, the effect is very different from the western concept of a profusion of different flowers in bloom. The flowering season is usually brief and intense, but even when it is over, the garden retains its beauty and eternal tranquility - a reminder of the fragility and transience of human life.

Japanese gardens in the UK and Ireland

The full range of styles can be found Britain and Ireland. Naturally, each garden is influenced by its location and the individual hands that tend it from day to day. Britain, in general, has a much cooler climate than Japan, and different plants thrive and develop in their own ways. That's what makes each visit so special. No garden is ever the same two days in succession.

A unique heritage

Most of us fail to realize is just how many plants that have an everyday place in our gardens - such as irises, lilies and cherry - were unknown to Europe until plant hunters brought them back from Japan from the 17th century onwards. So, in some sense, most British gardens owe their inspiration in part to Japan.