‘The more I learned about Japan, the more time I was there, the stranger – in a good way – it became,” says Monty Don. Last year, the broadcaster spent nearly six weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun, first during the country’s spring blossom season, before returning to see the maple leaves turn a scorching red in autumn.
He was there to film his new two-part television show, Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens. Watching it summoned an exquisite sense of natsukashii, or nostalgia; in recent years I’ve spent as many weeks pottering around gardens and woodland in Japan, finding myself repeatedly drawn back in an attempt to unravel the innate mystery of these horticultural wonders. Pleasingly, it seems Don and I have trodden similar immaculately kept paths.
In both seasons, we see him visit Kenroku-en, a garden in the city of Kanazawa and a place well visited by Japanese tourists but rarely frequented by Westerners. He put on pristine white socks to observe the living-picture beauty of historic gardens in Kyoto, and discovered contemporary Zen gardens on top of tower blocks in Tokyo. The scenes are saturated in either candyfloss clouds of cherry blossom or sunlight drifting through autumn’s fiery foliage.
Merely visiting the gardens, however, only offers half the education. “In order to understand the gardens, you have to understand the culture and the people behind them,” Don says. And, by interviewing gardeners, florists, geographers and historians, Don tried to make inroads into a culture that, until the mid-19th century, was still decidedly cut off from the rest of the world.
On several occasions, his approach is surprisingly hands-on: he ties up branches of a precious pine with rope ahead of the winter snowfall, he prunes a bonsai tree, he arranges cherry blossom in a vase and makes a hanging moss ball, or kokedama.
“They were incredibly polite, hospitable and good-mannered despite being horrified by this oaf from England coming in and bludgeoning about like the worst bull in a china shop,” he laughs. Of course, Don’s work was roundly praised by his charming Japanese tutors, although he did notice “tiny changes in their body language”.
“We are very slapdash compared with them,” Don says, of British gardeners. “It shames us in many ways.”
We don’t, for instance, have armies of gloved gardeners gently weeding an immaculate carpet of moss, nor trim old pine needles from trees. But this, Don suggests, is the key notion he wants to apply to his own gardening: “I think the idea that no detail is too unimportant to be beautiful is a really good one to have in life,” he says.
“If it’s worth being there, it’s worth being beautiful, whether it’s the rope that ties the tree or the stone that marks the path.”
This perfectionism is partially due to the constancy that is expected of Japanese gardens, Don explains – something that stands in direct opposition to the celebration of seasonal change that defines British gardening.
“That’s really at the heart of the difference between British and Japanese gardens,” he says. “One tries to hold things in stasis and the other tries to encourage change.”
“In Japan you have a world where earthquakes can rip your house in two, so you try to hold things steady. Whereas in a British garden they very quickly become dull and boring.”
It’s interesting to watch Don explore the innate spirituality that imbues all aspects of Japanese life: the creator of a modern Zen garden tells him that a stone is in a certain place because it told him it was right. Even Don, who explored Zen gardens for a previous show, Around the World in 80 Gardens, 12 years ago, raised his eyebrows.
“In Japan, perfectionism represents clarity and enlightenment. Whereas we get rather embarrassed about that kind of thing,” he continues. “There’s a kind of knee-jerk reversion to the right angle to prune your rose or the correct time to do something; we keep it practical as a reaction against spirituality.”
Don makes a point. What I’ve always found so enlivening during my trips to Japan is how, even in the most chaotic urban environments, a respect for and understanding of nature is seemingly folded into everything. It instils a sense of calm that can be difficult to find in other countries, even in far smaller and far more rural cities than Tokyo.
Having said that, I’ll admit I’ve been left cold by the stark, unplanted minimalism of Zen dry gardens, where rocks great and small are arranged to encourage meditation and mental clarity. “I think the modern ones are hard work,” Don concedes, “but so what? It’s quite good to have something that’s hard work.”
Instead, he suggests that the Japanese stroll gardens – such as the heart-achingly dreamy Rikugien in Tokyo, all gently rolling inclines, cloud-pruned trees and trickling water – are a good place to start: “It’s not a million miles from Stourhead or Stowe.”
What we both agreed on was that, much like the traditions of bowing as a greeting or using chopsticks, Japanese gardens don’t translate terribly well to the West, regardless of how many have been tried over the past 150 years.
“Once you take them out of that island culture and bring them to a London garden, it’s tricky,” he says. “I think Tatton Park is a very charming Japanese garden, but it’s not truly Japanese. You would never see it in Japan.”
I suggest that there’s always a faint whiff of Disneyfication about a Japanese garden in a Western plot. Wary of the minimalism necessary to create the real deal, we tend to try to cram in too many symbols of the culture. To which Don makes a compelling argument: “It works incredibly well at Chelsea Flower Show, because you could argue that Chelsea is the British horticultural Disney World.” And it’s true: the best Japanese gardens I’ve seen beyond the Sea of Japan are in the Royal Hospital grounds each May.
“I’m surprised that more [Japanese designers] don’t do it,” he says, “because that kind of painstaking meticulousness that you need for a Chelsea Garden comes naturally to them. It’s just what they expect from a garden.”
Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens did little to assuage my often-present desire to return to Japan; the episodes do well to capture the understated beauty of gardens that put nature’s simplest offerings in the spotlight.
But I was further cheered when Don went beyond the park gates and into Japan’s domestic gardens: to see the poodle-pruned trees in the tiny gardens of Tokyo suburbs and chatted with customers at a garden centre who were all obsessed with buying ordinary Western commodities such as roses, campanula and pansies.
Because it’s the pavement gardens that I’ve always found the most charming in Japan. Whether in the back streets of Tokyo or tiny mountain villages, the Japanese desire to garden can be found – and maybe even understood – in the schmozzle of unruly pots and dubious lawn ornaments that sit alongside the cherry trees.
“You just have to accept that it’s the Japanese way,” says Don, citing the surrounds of The Tree-ness House, an architectural marvel that allows art dealer Taka Ishii to live among nature in the midst of the city.
“It was an extraordinary house, but right outside the front door was this sort of chaotic street with tangles of telephone wires and odd pots. I’m still slightly baffled by that,” Don says. “You can have something immaculate, incredibly refined and exquisite – and right next door, the most tacky thing in the world.”
And with that, I feel, he sums up Japan’s enduring appeal. The vending machine in the Zen garden; the mascots outside a historic garden; the tourists capturing the ephemerality of the blossom season in hundreds of iPhone snaps. It’s the contrast, as Don says, “that is just Japan”.
Where to learn traditional Japanese skills
Jar and Fern, London
Kokedama workshop at Lumberjack Cafe, SE5, 7pm-8.15pm, £30 (jarandfern.co.uk).
Ohara School of Ikebana, Hants
Camellia and iris class, 10.30am-12.45pm, £19 plus materials. Day and residential courses too (ikebanaandwatercolours.com).
London Flower School, N1
Japanese ink painting and Ikebana workshop, £260, 10am-4pm (londonflowerschool.com)
John Hanby Bonsai, West Yorks
Open workshop, £25, 10am-4pm. Bring your own raw material or bonsai for expert advice (johnhanbybonsai.co.uk)
Greenwood Bonsai Studio, Nottingham
Introductory bonsai class, 10am-5pm, £70 (bonsai.co.uk)
Ma-Ke Bonsai, Middlesex
Beginners Bonsai Course (three sessions), £150, 10am-2pm (makebonsai.com)
Alyson Mowat Studio, London E2
“No drama kokedama” group workshop, 3pm, £65 (alyson mowat.com)
Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens airs on BBC Two at 9pm, Friday Feb 15 and Friday Feb 22. Alice Vincent is the author of How to Grow Stuff: Easy, no-stress gardening for beginners.