“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”
–Janet Kilburn Phillips
One of the reasons I stopped traveling as much in Europe is that I got completely “churched out.” It’s like Ronald Reagan once said, “A tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” By my fifth trip to Europe, I was feeling the same way about churches and cathedrals. Do I really need to see another apse, another nave, another Pieta? From that point on, I started to focus my attention more on travel in Asia, with all its “exotic” ruins, beaches and temples. And then, wouldn’t you know it, that jaded feeling started to happen to me again on my nth trip to Japan, when I suddenly found myself feeling “gardened out.” I just couldn’t muster up much interest in visiting yet another classical Japanese garden. Until, that is, I stopped by Korakuen in Okayama.
Built over 300 years ago by the local daimyo (domain lord), Korakuen is considered one of the three great gardens of Japan (alongside the ones in Kanazawa and Mito). It includes a Noh stage, ponds, hills, plum groves and a tea plantation. Unlike other famous gardens in the country, Korakuen is arranged with wide lawns, giving the property a certain open-minded feeling. The garden’s back drop is also pretty spectacular, with Okayama Castle and the surrounding mountains visible just over the outside walls. Korakuen a serene, beautiful place, one of the nicer gardens I’ve visited in Japan. But it’s still a garden.
What really does it for me at Korakuen, however, is the Ryuten Rest House in the center of the garden, which features a stream running right through the structure! What a wonderful idea. I want a stream flowing through my apartment in Santa Rosa, California! As I sit on the tatami mats in Ryuten, taking a break after a long day of walking, my mind drifts back in time a few centuries to a hot, sultry summer afternoon in the era of the samurais, when a daimyo might have taken refuge in this same rest house, staring peacefully at the water as it flowed gently by his feet. Ahhhh. If any place is going to get me “gardened-back-in,” Korakuen is the place.
(A familiar proverb proclaims, “familiarity breeds contempt.” This is a pretty harsh statement. I’d prefer “familiarity breeds boredom.” Of course, this is not true for everyone, is it? I have a friend who thrives on routine. He sleeps the same way, showers the same way, eats the same breakfast every morning, and revels in the familiarity. Myself, I like variety – to the extent that I can get bored, at times, with the sameness of meetings, meals, work outs, etc. – even friends and family members. The Ryuten Rest House reminds me that even with something as familiar as a Japanese garden, you can find something unique, something novel, something Wow-worthy if you look closely enough. Keep your mind and your eyes open wide: even in the mundane, there’s probably something fascinating just below the surface.)