Hiking in Yakushima


I haven’t written about my trip to Japan for a while but when thinking about how I would address the ‘awkward’ photo meme I found myself remembering the hikes we made in the temperate rain forest on Yakushima island.

Yakushima island is 37 miles south of Kyushu, the third largest island of Japan, in the South China Sea.  The island is classed as sub-tropical and on the lower slopes and coast you see a wide range of sub-tropical plants growing such as Dicksonia, Hibiscus, and a range of fruit; in fact the island boasts being able to produce fruit every day of the year.


Whilst the sub-tropical plants are fascinating the island is renowned for its extensive mountainous forests that cover the majority of the island and are home to Japanese cedar trees (Yakusugi), some of which are thousands of years old.


Due to the high rain-fall,  it rains every day apparently, the forests are full of crystal clear mountain streams which run down the slopes creating spectacular waterfalls and rocky rapids.  This atmosphere has led to beautiful and ethereal mossy forests, so magical that they have inspired a Studio Ghibli animation Princess Mononoke .


The island’s unspoilt ecology is so important it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993 and is a mecca for planthunters, particularly those with a weakness for ferns, of which there are apparently some 400 varieties.


There are trails throughout the forests suitable for a variety of abilities and for the keen it was easy to hire a guide to enable you to hike to the highest points.  We undertook a couple of hikes in the forest, which like the hike on Mt Daisen, are among some of my favourite memories of the trip.  You might think from seeing the photo further up of the board-walk that the routes were simple going but you would be mistaken, as were we.  The routes nearest the tourist car parks are generally simple and straightforward but suddenly, and really unexpectedly, you find yourself negotiating some rotting steps – which makes you a little wary.


Then you come to areas of tree roots which you have to pick your way through.  The ones above are nothing unusual but if you imagine these tripled and a drop to your right down to the rocky stream you can see that it gets a little more tricky, or awkward.


You find yourself going down, picking your way from one firm footing to another, waiting for others to catch up, catching hold of a mossy branch to steady yourself.


Then you find yourself climbing upwards, virtually on your hands and knees, holding on to steps which you feel might disintegrate at any moment and who knows how you will pull yourself over the rocks at the top.


Even when you do come across the remains of a path you can’t make speedy progress as you are having to negotiate slippery mossy rocks.


But this is the view you get once you get a reasonable height up the mountain – quite spectacular and on the way you have seen innumerable ferns, lichens, stewartias, arisaema.

The hikes might have been awkward and challenging but the sense of achievement and enjoyment was vast, just like the views.




Naoshima – a modern art interlude


After the temples, culture and tradition of Kyoto, Naoshima was quite a surprise. Situated in the Seto Inland Sea to the south east of Kyoto, Naoshima is a small island known for its modern art museums. The  island, with a population of only around 4000,  has a Mediterranean feel about it with sandy beaches, a sunny climate and feeling more laid back than the mainland.


You reach the island by ferry, the journey is only about 30 minutes, but you quickly feel that you are arriving somewhere just a little bit different; especially when you spot a large red spotted pumpkin on the quay.


The majority of the art on the island was installed by the Benesse Corporation with the art galleries designed by Japanese architect Ando Tadao and the island’s schools and town hall designed by modern architect Ishii Kazuhiro.


The Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum are large low slung concrete buildings; not really to my taste but an interesting counterpoint to the traditional and historic buildings we had seen in Kyoto, and housing a collection of modern art, predominantly sculpture.  Whilst the galleries charge admittance and no photographs are allowed there are also a number of sculptures around the island which any one can walk up to, touch, and photograph and a number of these are included on this post and give an idea of the art we saw in the galleries.


This is a public bike store – you can just see the wooden frame to the acrylic skin.



Me being me, I actually prefer this view to any of the sculptures we saw; apart from the yellow pumpkin which I loved.


Whilst the main galleries and sculptures were not really my thing – too modern, too brutalist, too concrete, I did really enjoy an exhibition which was housed within a selection of old houses in the main town.  On the back of the Benesse art initiative is the Art House Project in the Honmura district of the island.  Through this project vacant houses, some of them up to 400 years old, have been restored and transformed into art works. One of them involves you going into a completely dark space and sitting quietly as a patch of light grows slowly at the far end of the space.  At first you think this is some sort of light installation but actually the effect is created through taking advantage of how your eyes adjust to the light – its very clever and slightly unsettling.


Most of the art installations were inside houses but a few were outside and so we could take photographs.  The Go’o Shrine (above and below) renovates an existing shrine from the Edo period.  The steps are stunning as they look like melting ice, particularly intriguing on a very sunny warm day.


Of course they are made of glass but I thought the sculpting of the glass was just magical.


The other very striking ‘art house’ was Haisha which used to be the home of the local dentist and has been transformed into a work of art. Inside the house each of the rooms is like being in a graphic design, hard to explain, but includes a rather large Statue of Liberty – what everyone needs in their stairwell.


What impressed me most about Naoshima was how the introduction of the art galleries and the ‘Art House’ project had brought tourism to the island leading to cafes, restaurants and guest houses appearing.  We stayed in a lovely guest house with a Japanese/Italian restaurant next door – a strange but wonderful combination.  My favourite place though was a cafe we tracked down tucked up on the side of a hill, the Cafe Salon Naka-Oku which had a wonderful up-cycled retro feel about it – if you ever find yourself on Naoshima I would recommend it.


A Magical Misty Walk


Sometimes the memories you take away from a trip aren’t the ones you expect to  and this is true of our trip to Mt Daisen. The intention had been that we were to hike for some 3 hours up Mt Daisen to the Daisenji Temple, a Buddhist Temple, and then we were going to spend the afternoon on a bike ride on the lower slopes so we got a feel for the rural landscape.


However, as you can see our plans were thwarted by the weather, one of those persistent drizzly days with a heavy mist, and the bike ride was cancelled.  When I say drizzle I mean that fine rain that doesn’t seem much but you end up very damp, and it was chilly. A smaller than expected group of stalwarts set of into the engulfing mist to who knows where.


Mt Daisen, at 1729m high, is the tallest mountain in the volcanic range of Chugoku Region,  located in the Daisen-Oki National Park in the west Tottori Prefecture of Japan. The Japan Guide says it is one of the top 100 mountains of Japan which gives you some idea of just how mountainous Japan actually is.

As you can see the lower slopes are heavily wooded, primarily with beech but also with some forms of conifers or pine (I know not which) and the odd acer and ginkgo around the religious sites.


As with so many high points worldwide it has accumulated religious and spiritual significance. The Daisenji Temple and the Ogamiyama Shrine, above the Temple, are connected by a series of trails along the lower slopes, although these are high enough on a cool damp misty day, at between 800 – 900m.


Whilst we were quite damp and had to shelter a few times of heavy downpours, we convinced ourselves that actually the mist really added to the atmosphere of the place as I think these photographs show.  Due to the conditions we tended to focus on where we were stepping and our immediate surroundings so it was often surprising when shrines and other structures emerged from the mist.



I was particularly taken with these bright red lanterns which line the route just before the Shrine; they looked quite incongruous in the mist.


As you can see the paths and trails to the Shrine and Temple are all paved although quite slippery in the damp.  However, as we discovered on hikes elsewhere on the trip, the popular routes, such as straight up to the temple, are paved but when you go a little of the trail, as our guide liked to do, you find yourself confronted which more precarious terrain


You can just see the plank that was our bridge over this stream which luckily wasn’t that deep but not something you would want to find yourselves falling into. Our hike ended surreally with a walk down a ski slope in the mist, almost blindly, with ski lift chairs emerging in front of us.

Despite the conditions I really enjoyed this day, it was our first non garden visit of the trip and away from the built sprawl and there were few people, unlike the temple gardens we had visited in Kyoto.  The photos are also among my favourite of the trip, I hope you enjoy seeing them.



West Coast of Japan – A threatened beauty


My trip to Japan wasn’t all about the gardens, it was more about experiencing Japan  and trying to get a little insight into its fascinating culture.  As I have said we travelled in a sort of zig-zag south from Kyoto.  A couple of days were spent on the west coast based in a town call Hagi.  Definitely off the western tourist trail but it gave us the opportunity to visit the south-western coastline which was so influential on early Japanese garden design.img_8201-1

It is easy to see how this coastal landscape with rocky outcrops topped with pines (or maybe they are larches?) inspired Japanese gardens.


Being much further south from Kyoto the natural vegetation is more evergreen and lush.  For someone who had struggled with the obsessive tidiness and control of the gardens we had seen I welcomed the opportunity to be in a more natural environment.

However, sadly, this beautiful landscape is not what it seems.  The west coast of Japan suffers from being landfall for a signficant amount of the plastic waste discarded into the ocean by China and its neighbours – its referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch


This photo does not really show very well the volume of the rubbish (it goes much further up out of shot) but we were shocked when we looked down  from the nature trail path to see inlets full of plastic rubbish, and it smelt.  For a country like Japan which is obsessive about cleanliness and where you never ever see rubbish anywhere this must be a real challenge to cope with. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say I have never been to such a tidy country; it was remarkable, considering the Japanese obsession with package, that there seemed to be no rubbish.  If you have a packed lunch, a bento box, you pack up your rubbish and you take it home and dispose of it.  Once home, or in the hotel, or wherever, the bins are all clearly marked with three categories which seem to be the same country-wide. So how annoying and frustrating it must be to have to sort out your neighbour’s rubbish.

I was so surprised by the amount of rubbish that I did some research when I got home to find out where it came from and as this post and this post explain it is a real problem for Japan.  Both posts refer to an initiative by Ocean Cleanup to try to address the problem but you have to feel for Japan when they deal with their own rubbish and end up having to deal with someone else’s as well.  It certainly has made me even more aware of the need to think about what plastics I use and how I dispose of them.

Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)


Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was our first Japanese garden of the tour and delivered on many of the archetypal Japanese garden elements. I’ve already shown you the Golden Pavilion, the garden of Yoshimitsu, and the Silver Pavilion is the garden of his grandson, Yoshimasa (1435-1490).


Ginkaku-ji is home to some early examples of the dry landscape gardens of the late Muromachi era; these symbolise the ocean and the mountain. The ocean (above) is represented by ginshanada which means ‘silver sand open sea’ and you can see that the sand is raked to represent the waves.  I am curious as to how often the sand has to be raked.  Having peered at it and other sand gardens we saw it seems that the sand must be combined with something to keep it in shape, otherwise surely when it rains the patterns would be destroyed.  You can just about see how sharp the edges of the sand platform are and to my simple mind the sand must have been treated in some way to keep this looking good.


Again, looking at the second element of the sand garden – the mountain, kogestsudai, a ‘platform facing the moon’, you can see how precise the shape is especially the flat top. The dry sand elements are based on zen principles and are intended for contemplation.


I have to admit to being left rather cold by the sand gardens we saw, particularly as they are so antiseptic in appearance encouraging no wildlife whatsoever.


I much preferred the garden away from the dry sand garden.  Near the Silver Pavilion you have a strolling garden which is a variation of the gardens, exemplified by the Golden Pavilion and would probably have originally been intended to be viewed from boats on the lake or from within the temples.  The current garden is much diminished in size from Yoshimasa’s time having only two buildings left of the original twelve.


Having done some research since my return this waterfall could well be the ‘sengestsu-sen’ waterfall which means ‘spring in which the moon washes’ and apparently it is intended to capture the reflection of the moon ‘washing’ itself in the waters.  I much prefer the greenness of this part of the garden over the grey of the dry sand.


From the lower part of the garden you traverse steep paths up the slopes to the upper garden from where you have wonderful views out over Kyoto. The upper garden is a moss garden with streams, islands and bridges. The path then brings you back past the Silver Pavilion.


The Silver Pavilion is a bit of an enigma as there are no silver elements so no rationale for it name.  As Ginkaku-ji was not finished before Yoshimasa’s death in 1490 then I suppose its possible that there was an intention to finish the Pavilion along the lines of the Golden Pavilion, other theories are that the name was coined to distinguish it the two Pavilions or alternatively because the moon’s light was reflected off the building’s former dark timber.

The pavilion you see in these photos was reconstructed in 2010; we soon learnt during our travels that few of the buildings we saw were original.  Hardly surprising given the construction is based on timber, prone to fires and earthquake damage.


For me the nicest part of the garden was up in the high garden amongst the trees, which were slowly changing colour for the Autumn, and looking out across Kyoto.


Whilst I was bowled over by the splendour of the Golden Pavilion, I preferred the quieter gentleness of the Silver Pavilion garden.


The Art of Kiku


I was about to write about the Silver Pavilion, a natural progression after the Golden Pavilion in my last post, but I spotted these photos I took of Chrysanthemums on my first day and have ended up researching why they are grown as they are which is very different to the Western approach.

Having arrived in Kyoto after goodness knows how long travelling, starving and suffering from sleep deprivation I wasn’t allowed to check into my hotel room for another 3 hours.  I stumbled into a small restaurant, where no English was spoken and I was the only Westerner and woman, ordered probably the wrong thing, accidentally ate a large and very hot chilli and to be quite honest wanted to go home!.  Anyway, I decided the best thing to do was to get some fresh air so I walked up the main road from the hotel for a while; being Japan I soon came to a large temple, the Higashi-Hongan-ji Temple.  


I wasn’t sure if it was OK to go in but a very nice man with excellent English in a bright yellow T-shirt welcomed me.  He explained that the temple buildings were closed that day to the public as they were inducting a new Head Priest (I think) in and people had travelled from all over Japan to attend.  However, I was welcome to explore the grounds, take photos, and there was a bonsai exhibition to look at.  I can’t tell you how much better I felt after talking to that gentleman – I felt normal again instead of an alien on my own in a strange country.


It turned out that the bonsai were in fact bonsai Chrysanthemums, or Kiku in Japanese.  The display did seem appropriate to my circumstances that day – something else very different and alien!


The kiku is a key symbol in Japan.  It represents longevity and rejuvenation and is the symbol of the Japanese royal family.  We had been due to go to a kiku festival, or kiku matsuri,  when we got to Kyushu but due to the earthquake in this area earlier in the year our itinerary had been changed.


I find these plants fascinating and looking back they were the first example of the extraordinarily controlling approach to horticulture the Japanese have which some of us found a little challenging.  In fact this approach, to me, represents much of Japanese culture which is very ordered and controlled.


I have learnt a little more about kiku and how there are numerous classes of plants which are shown at kiku matsuri throughout Japan in the Autumn. I wish I had known a more when I saw these displays as I think I would have appreciated them more.  Well, maybe ‘appreciate’ is the wrong word as to me the plants were too manipulated but I would have understood better instead of being completely baffled by this exhibit.


As you can imagine I was completely perplexed by these as it seemed that someone had deliberately sat on the flowers.  However, having found a wonderful post about kiku on Botany Boys blog I can tell you that these are ichimonji or komonshoukiku and are meant to represent ‘noble family crests’ like this.

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The flowers are displayed with white discs of paper under to stop them flopping.

Another class can be seen in the top photo – the kudamono, or what we know as the spider chrysanthemum.  You will see that each bloom is held up by a wire disc.


Another class, presumably of one stem – the flowers were very small so I’m not sure what the judging criteria is on these.

There are also cascading chrysanthemums which I saw a few examples of during my travels, especially at various temples but I am unable to locate any photos of.


This is how the kiku are displayed at the festivals and here you have a mix of the spiders, referred to above, plus some atsumono which are the large flowered kiku.

I found these displays fascinating. Whether or not you agree with the approach it is always interesting to see something new as it makes you question and challenge your own preconceptions.

If you are interested in learning more about the Japanese kiku I also found these interesting posts from the New York Botanical Garden where they appear to have had a display and the Japan Times.

Matt Mattus, over at Growing with Plants, appears to be interested in the Japanese approach to Chrysanthemums as well – I might just have to get some advice from him as I have a hankering to have a go at bonsai or the cascades.




The Temple of the Golden Pavilion


Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is the iconic temple of Kyoto. Dating from the late 14th century, the temple was originally the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  After his death in 1408, in accordance with his wishes, it become a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect.


The temple is built over 3 floors with each floor representing a different style of architecture. The first floor, housing statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha, is built in the Shinden style which was used for palace buildings during the Heian Period, which predated the Muromachi era (1336-1573).   The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences.  The samurai, whilst originally warriors, increasingly  became more and more powerful setting up a military government in 1192 and ruling over the country for the next 700 years. The second and third floors are covered in gold leaf – hence the name The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The third floor is built in the style of the Chinese Zen Hall, and is also gilded inside and capped with a golden phoenix.


The Golden Pavilion, built in the early years of the Muromachi era, continues the Heian garden prototype with ponds and islands.  During the Heian period the intention was that the temples and gardens were viewed from boats; and there are contemporary records recording boating parties and festivities.  In the Muromachi era the intention was that the garden was viewed from specific points from within the temple;  at this time the chisen kaiyu teien ‘pond-spring-strolling-garden’ was developed. Contemporary records show that the Golden Pavilion was intended to be viewed from boats, as in the Heian era, although the garden could be admired from the three storeys of the Pavilion whose geometric proportions means that any view was harmoniously framed.


The pond on which the Pavilion is sited has an inner and outer pond; the outer pond has a couple of small islands and in addition there are two larger turtle islands facing in opposite directions.


Having passed the Golden Pavilion the visitor is taken up a windy path past the Anmintaku Pond, which it is claimed never dries up.



The light on the day we visited was extraordinary causing the most wonderful reflections in the pond and the sun really made the pavilion sparkle.  We were grateful that we hadn’t visited two days before when we spent the day under heavy skies and dodging the rain.


A striking feature of the majority of the Japanese gardens we saw was their tidiness.  There was rarely a leaf out of place and as you can see from this photo the moss is being raked for some unknown purpose. We also saw moss and lichen being trimmed and other very labour intensive approaches to horticulture which made our issues with lawn edging seem quite pedestrian.


Being Kyoto we couldn’t avoid encountering a group of young ladies all dressed up in traditional dress who were only too happy to pose for us, subject to a high level of bowing and smiling.


This is the key photo opportunity area and as you can see it is incredibly busy.  However, with their usual efficiency, the Japanese manage the visitors in such a way that you don’t really feel that you have been managed, everyone gets their chance to take any photos they want, and there is no pushing or frayed tempers.

The Golden Pavilion is, in many people’s view, the Taj Mahal of Japan and you can see why this might be so given its opulence and stunning setting. I too thought it was stunning, however, I don’t think I would go as far as saying it was my highlight of the trip – I much preferred the quieter more modern gardens which weren’t so obsessively managed.


Going Japanese


Anyone who follows me on Instagram or Facebook will know I have been travelling around southern Japan for the last two and half weeks and posting regular photos.  I am now home and want to share the things I saw and experienced.  In the past I have done posts on a day to day basis from trips but this time I am planning to theme the posts more.  The trip was planned and led by Noel Kingsbury and its premise was to experience both the gardens and culture of southern Japan. I travelled with a multi-national group of 19, some keen gardeners, some horticulturists and garden designers.

Our trip started in Kyoto and ended in Fukuoka and involved travelling on trains, ferries, planes, and buses.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 for over a 1000 year until the Emperor moved to Tokyo. As such it is a city full of temples with their wonderful temple gardens and oozing in history and culture. So much so that we frequently encountered groups of young Japanese who were visiting the city so they could dress up in traditional costume and in particular visit the historic Higashiyama area.  Our time here was spent visiting a range of temple gardens including the iconic Golden Pavilion.


Moving from Kyoto to Naoshima we discovered a very different mood.  The island, is an art island, with many of the art installations having been installed by the Bennesse Corporation, which oversees the art gallerys and museums on the island in the inland sea. It is the brain child of Ando Tadao.


Back to the mainland and the west coast where we stayed in Matsue for a couple of days. The primary reason for visiting this area was to see the Adachi Museum Garden, said by some to be one of the best gardens in the world.  We also hiked on Mt Daisen on a wet and misty day which for me was quite magical.


From Matsue we went along the coast of the Sea of Japan to Hagi.  Our primary reason for visiting this area was to see the coastline which has influenced much of what we know as the Japanese Garden style.  We also visited a wonderful shrine, a limestone plateau and some caves.


Then after a long day on the bullet train and a ferry we arrived at Yakushima.  

Yakushima is an island in the East China Sea which took up two and half hours to reach on a hydro-foil.  It is one of the most southerly parts of Japan and has the highest rainfall – 10,000mm a year in the mountainous centre. The island is a popular destination for botanists as the forest – which is borderline sub-tropical is almost pristine.

Our final destination, albeit it for one night before we set off on our journeys home, was Fukuoka. I only saw it at night-time due to an early flight home the next day but I was struck by the contrast to Kyoto and how modern Fukuoka is by comparison.  Apparently, this is because it was bombed heavily in World War II and has had to be rebuilt.  It was definitely a city that I and my friend Ines would have liked more time in.

As I indicated above I will no doubt bore you over the coming weeks with more detailed posts on various elements of the trip but aside from the specific amazing places we saw what I really enjoyed about this trip was seeing the real Japan.  It is all too easy to visit a large city such as Tokyo or London and feel that you have a feel for Japan or the UK; but you would be wrong.  By travelling on public transport zig-zagging across the country and staying in towns where I didn’t see any Westerners apart from those in our group, we really experienced Japan and met some wonderfully friendly and helpful people along the way. There is a view that the Japanese don’t have a particular liking for Westerners but we consistently found ourselves in conversations with all sorts of people, often on trains or in lifts, and sometimes through exaggerated sign language – they were curious about  where we were from and going to (and why!).  As with anywhere in the world regardless of who you are and whether you can speak the same language a smile and politeness brings many rewards.