They have just finished putting their overcoats on the trees in the Kyoto Garden. No tree in London ever needed to be dressed up for protection in winter, but in Japan it’s part of gardening ritual. Symbolically marking the seasons, picnicking under cherry blossom and marvelling at autumn maples, is something the Japanese do at table too. The ultimate Kaiseki banquet, a succession of tiny exquisite dishes, paints a picture of the garden and farm and seashore in each season in choreographed ingredients – served, traditionally, by girls in kimonos shuffling on their knees.
The tree-coats are made of barley-straw gathered into little skirts and jackets round trunks and lower branches, They complement the bamboo props and struts that provide – or pretend to provide – support to outstretched limbs.
What are practical measures in Japan, where heavy snow is normal, becomes pure affectation in this country. Yet how charming ritual can be. What can our country offer in this way? Stripes on the lawn?
I walk round the Kyoto Garden almost every day when I’m in London, loving its utter detachment from the world around. No wonder it is popular; I try to go early or late in the day, yet have never had it entirely to myself. At weekends there are sometimes queues to cross the stone bridge by the cascade; Kensington’s generous quota of exotic languages seems particularly well represented. But people-pressure is not unknown in Japan; a file of school children in uniform, following a flag, usually blocks every iconic garden view.
Indeed rumour has it that there are plans to double the size of ‘our’ garden to accommodate its fans. What frustrates the designer, I’m told (he visits every year or so from Japan) is not being able to grow proper moss in London. The stuff that turns my stonework green in winter doesn’t count. He’s even considering settling for Soleirolia soleirolii, or Mind-your-own-business, as a substitute.