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Mathematician Peter Frankl left his native Hungary and traveled the world, eventually coming to Japan for what he assumed would be his first and last visit. He ended up deciding to settle there permanently.
One reason was the beauty he encountered during his first visit to a daimyo teien (a garden formerly belonging to a daimyo lord).
I first came to Japan 30 years ago, at the invitation of the University of Tokyo. Assuming this visit to the country would also be my last, I decided to have a good look around, and with a two-week JR pass in hand, set my sights on Fukuoka. Along the way, I got off at Okayama Station and took a tram to Okayama Korakuen. Autumn was well underway, and there were pots holding a spectacular display of chrysanthemums near the gate. The maple trees were stunning in their scarlet splendor. Every scenic spot in this, my first daimyo teien, was wonderful, and I was entranced by it all.
In the autumn of 1986 I returned to Japan, this time bringing my parents, and spent four weeks showing them around a country I had fallen in love with. We travelled to Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Okayama Korakuen, and Ohori Park in Fukuoka, and my parents were as impressed as I had been by the red of the maples. The Japanese kanji word for momiji (maple) – consisting of the characters for “tree” and “flower” – is a testament to the Japanese ability to create new words.
I subsequently went on to visit other gardens, including Shukkeien in Hiroshima, Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, Suizenji Jojuen in Kumamoto and Senganen (Iso Teien) in Kagoshima.
Every daimyo teien I visited was beautiful. The Japanese are very particular about their work, right down to tightening the last screw. That attention to detail is also evident in how they care for their gardens. Obviously, being gardens, leaves grow and fall from the trees.
Occasionally a typhoon blows through and snaps off branches. Nevertheless, the daimyo teien are always immaculately tended. Even the irises, which put on such a lovely display in the rainy season, only bloom so beautifully because in Japan people spend time looking after them. The gardens maintain a high standard of beauty because people put in so much effort, day after day. This is also one of the reasons I found myself liking Japan.
Non-Japanese with no Interest in Autumn Tints don't Know the Japanese Autumn
Aparently it is often said that non-Japanese have no interest in autumn tints, but if so, it can only be because they have never seen the autumn colors of Japan. When I first arrived here it was early September and the heat was stifling, and when lecturers at the university made comments like “Just wait until mid-October and the autumn tints will begin” or “The color of gingko leaves changes quickly”, I responded with a neutrally polite “Aa so desu ka” (laughs). The thing was, back in Hungary I had seen plenty of leaves turn gold then quickly fall, so at that point I had no interest at all. Then I went to the aforementioned Okayama Korakuen, and found the maples there a fiery red, and moreover, every single leaf beautifully and delicately rendered down to the tiniest detail. Forming a contrast to the surrounding greenery, they make a garden shine, and exude a dignified air. Even travelers from overseas would be excited and intrigued by autumn tints if those tints were the vibrantly-colored, well-proportioned autumn foliage of Japan. The only problem is that Europeans take their holidays in summer, making it hard to take a long break in autumn and come to Japan. It’s a real pity.
Relaxing Meditatively while Contemplating the View
When I first started living in Japan, I didn't realize there were daimyo teien in Tokyo as well. The first one I learned of was Hamarikyu. Part of the attraction was being able to cruise on the Sumida River down to Asakusa after looking at the gardens, and I took various people there, including a German mathematician and a foreign TV crew. Next was Koishikawa Korakuen. A Hungarian friend came to Japan, and one day said he had been out to Koishikawa Korakuen by himself. He was delighted by the place, and amazed that I didn't know about it. So he invited me to go there with him. What an incredible urban oasis. Once I'd succeeded in blocking out the high-rises in the background, the leafy landscape right in front of me became the perfect place for some time out. I can't write waka or haiku poetry, but I do like to sit in a teahouse taking in the view and pondering my life and what I want to do with it. Daimyo teien are marvelous places for young couples to go on a date, and where I invariably sense that singularly Japanese view of beauty.
Obviously there are gardens in other countries too, but they have a slightly different sensibility. The Palace of Versailles, the châteaux of the Loire valley: these places also have well-maintained gardens, but the trees are all pruned into the same shapes, to boost the value of the castle. The trees are not for the garden, but to make the castle look more attractive.
Britain is the part of Europe with the most gardens. In France, Spain and Italy the summer sun is too intense and lawns dry out. In Britain, on the other hand, it rains a lot, keeping things verdant. Being further north however, Britain doesn't have as many varieties of tree or colors of foliage as Japan. Japan has a temperate, wet climate, and so many different varieties of tree, in brilliant colors. The new growth from when the cherry blossoms fall in early summer to the festival of Obon is simply stunning. Because flowers bloom for a long time in Japan, some may find gardens boring without them. But that is not the case. Here at Rikugien, it may be late July, but the different gradations of green are incredibly vivid and a sight to behold.
Daimyo teien are a proud and precious part of Japanese culture, and in my view a must-see for any visitor to Japan.
Peter Frankl (Japanese name: Furan Heita)
Mathematician and street performer. Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Honorary advisor to the Japan Juggling Association.
Born in 1953 in Hungary. In 1979 was exiled to France. In 1982 made his first trip to Japan. Settled in Japan permanently in 1988. Speaks twelve languages, and has visited over 100 countries. Tirelessly gives talks on ways to make life more fun.
Interview / JQR