Sankeien Garden

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The Inspiration of Sankeien Garden

by Burritt Sabin

In the mail came an invitation to plum-blossom viewing at Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. I decided to go.

In a city that takes pride in having introduced things Western to Japan in Meiji (1868 -1912), Sankeien is an anachronism, for its spirit is of medieval Japan.

The garden was the achievement of Tomitaro Hara. He had moved from Noge, in central Yokohama, to the family estate in Honmoku, on the coast to the south, in 1902. The city's leading silk merchant, he began spinning his own vision in Honmoku's third valley, San-no-tani, a variant of the name, "Sankei," he took as his own and for his garden.

Sankei Hara's inspiration was the pagoda-studded Nara countryside. From Nara he brought huge stones. Next he scoured the country for buildings. One was a three-story pagoda, built at Tomyo-ji temple in Kyoto in 1457 and brought to the garden in 1914. On high ground, across the pond, it rises as the symbol of Sankeien.

I followed the path around the pond to where the ume, Japanese plum trees, were in bloom.

Cherry trees bloom in thick clouds of pink blossom that draw the eyes upward and inspire Dionysian revels of song and drink, but the ume wears fleecy wisps of tiny white or pink blossoms at eye level. It does not ravish like the cherry. It invites contemplation.

I joined other blossom-viewers at the Hatsunejaya gazebo. Clutching cups of steaming barley tea, they were huddling on benches or warming themselves at the sunken hearth over which hissed an old kettle. The wind shifted and woodsmoke stung our eyes. The open walls framed the garyobai, "dragon plum tree," so called because its trunk resembles a crawling dragon. The tree inspired Shimomura Kanzan's masterpiece Yoroboshi, now in the Tokyo National Museum.

A copy of Yoroboshi went to India through the medium of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and mystic.

Tagore sojourned at Sankeien in 1916. He had come to Japan to prepare for lectures he would give in the United States. He lodged at the Shofukaku, "Tower of Windswept Pines," where he delighted in the sea breeze and drank in the seascape. There he wrote "Stray Birds," the epigrammatic poem that thrilled ladies in America.

Tagore believed Japan surpassed all other Asian nations in art and he extolled the Japanese effort to advance art in the context of Asian tradition. The poet frequently viewed Sankei's collection. Finally, he asked Sankei to make a replica of a superlative piece of Japanese art he could bring back to India.

Sankei selected Yoroboshi as the best new Nihonga, Japanese-style painting, since the 1870s. Sankei commissioned Hirokata Arai to make a copy. Arai relocated to Sankeien and spent several months copying the painting onto a screen with gold background. Tagore frequently dropped by to observe Arai at work. He was deeply impressed by the technique of the artist. Now he had a fresh idea. Bring a Japanese artist to India to teach at his school. Arai agreed to go. Then there came a further request, from Tokyo Imperial University: Since the artist was going to India, would he make copies of the frescoes on the walls of the caves at Ajanta? The frescoes depict the life of ancient India and provide an uninterrupted survey of the evolution of Buddhist art.

Arai made copies of the frescoes and he taught for two years at Tagore's Shantinketan, near Bolpur, Bengal, an institution blending Indian and Western methods of education. In consequence, modern Indian art took on a Nihonga accent visible in works on exhibit in Tokyo in 1957. Arai returned, his own art indelibly stamped by India, as were the works of other young Japanese who had followed him to India.

Sankei's passion for ancient art shaped his garden. Tetsuro Watsuji, a brilliant student at Tokyo University and a friend of Hara's son Zen'ichiro, was a frequent visitor. At Sankeien Watsuji absorbed the piney atmosphere of Nara and joined bull sessions about art. These influences coalesced into a passion for the ancient art of Nara. He decided to visit its temples and shrines.

On the eve of his trip Watsuji visited Sankeien to see Arai's copy of an Ajunta fresco. The brilliance and harmony of its colors remained in his mind's eye as he headed on a train for Nara.

He described his travels through Nara in Koji Junrei (Pilgrimage to Old Temples and Shrines). When released in 1919, it had the effect of awakening the Japanese to the wonders of their ancient art and architecture. The seed of such awakening had been planted at Sankeien

There arrived another invitation, for nighttime cherry blossom viewing. I will return to Sankei Hara's Narascape in spring.

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