Japanese storm in a tea cup

Land of the Rising Sun it may be, says Caroline Donald, but there's no better way to see the elegant temple gardens of Japan than through a haze of rain
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The Independent Culture
Perhaps it was a collective sense of national hardship that had inspired the surliness of the booking clerk at the Imperial Palace booking office in Kyoto. After all, it does seem rather unfair that, as as a tourist in Japan, you can blithely turn up and book in for a tour of the royal gardens the next day, while those who actually live there and pay the taxes have to wait for months to gain a place. Whatever the reason for the woman's grumpiness (a rare encounter in a country which places so much emphasis on politeness), I was allowed a place on two out of the three Imperial gardens open to the public in Kyoto.

The long wait, coupled with the rush-hour expedition to the foothills at the outskirts of Kyoto, was almost certainly the motive behind the grim determination of the 9am group I joined to carry on with a tour of the Imperial villa of Shugakuin, despite the approaching rumbles of a thunderstorm and the hopeful offer from an umbrella-less guide to postpone to the next day.

Shugakuin is a 133-acre site on the northern edge of Kyoto. Built at the foot of Mount Hiei, it is one of the best examples of a Syakkei garden - a borrowed-landscape garden which incorporates the mountain backdrop in order to make it look larger than it actually is. There should also be a fine view over the city but, as we arrived at the same time as the thick clouds tumbled in over the hills, I had to take the guide's word for it. We set off to tour the garden's three levels, established round villas built for imperial rest and recreation, and the thunderstorm started in earnest.

Like so many Japanese gardens, Shugakuin seems almost designed to be seen in the rain, the wetness bringing out the three-dimensional effect of the contrasting shapes and greens of the trees and shrubs. The occasional colour accent was provided, in May, by a flowering azalea bush - an abiding memory of Japan will be this shrub's sweet ubiquitous perfume. In the calm after the storm, the Upper Villa's pond, built on, and hidden by, a giant artificial shrub-covered dam, reflected the trees and shrubs of the mountain behind. From the villa above the lake, the view was stunning. It was, indeed, impossible to tell where the garden ended and the wilderness began - enough to make an emperor feel very big in his boots.

The next stop was across town at Katsura, another Imperial Villa, where artifice has much more obviously triumphed over nature to produce an idealised portrayal of the Japanese landscape. The pond is dotted with stone ''islands'' and edged by pine trees that have had their lower branches trained out horizontally to represent the twisted contortions of trees bent by seaside winds - a common site in a Japanese garden is a man in a hard hat up a ladder, tweaking and pruning the branches to achieve this effect.

Unlike the open views of Shugakuin, Katsura is a "stroll" garden, each vista designed to appear as you gradually progress round it, rather than all at once. It is like a series of rooms that you do not know you are approaching until you have got there, and the teahouses dotted around the garden are rooms at the end of the corridor. The highly formalised Japanese tea ceremony is all about purity: the participants concentrating only on what they have right there in front of them, with all worldly concerns left behind.

For some reason, the guide leaflet asked us only to take photographs in front of the teahouses. Asking a Japanese person not to take photographs is like asking a Pole not to smoke and, in a rare moment of refreshing disobedience (this is a country where even taxis stop at amber), this request was completely ignored.

Two stops down the private Hankyu line was the garden I had really been looking forward to, Saihoji, or Korakuen, the moss temple. One of the oldest and most famous temple gardens in Japan, it is closed to the general public, as the 100 or so species of moss were being destroyed by exhaust fumes from tour buses. One now has to go through the rigmarole of writing for permission to visit it, and this I had done from England, receiving an ominous postcard saying that I would have to participate in a Buddhist ceremony and write a prayer. Oh yes, and the entrance fee was Y3,000, about 10 times that of any other garden in Japan.

On arrival, the rows of neatly placed shoes outside the temple indicated that about 80 other people had had the same idea. Tracing a prayer with brush and ink while kneeling on a tatami mat (women are not supposed to sit cross-legged) may be an uplifting Zen experience for those with plenty of time and a knowledge of Japanese calligraphy - I had started at a cracking pace until a helpful Japanese lady pointed out that I was doing it inside out and upside down, and I had to start all over again - but Western considerations such as agonisingly cramped legs and a train to catch that evening can bring distinctly un-Christian, let alone un-Buddhist, thoughts into one's head. The calligraphic squiggles got more and more slapdash and I'm not sure that the Buddha, to whose altar I finally presented them, would have understood them any more than I did. Perhaps it was the bad mood brought on by this experience, but Saihoji garden seemed rather flat after that, though it was a cloudy day which dulled the contrasts between the infinite variety of greens in the garden.

With over 160 temples and shrines, Kyoto is, understandably, one of the top tourist destinations in Japan. However, it comes as rather a shock when one leaves the main station to discover an ugly, bustling conglomerate in much the same sort of unplanned chaos as any other major Japanese city. Most of the temples are, in fact, scattered in groups on the outskirts, and much of one's time can be taken up with getting from A to B. As all the guidebooks warn, Japanese maps are notoriously misleading, listing only points of major interest between sites, so all question of scale is thrown out of the window. The best part of a short visit can be spent traipsing from one side of the city to the other, so it was a joy to discover the Daitokuji temple complex in the north west; a compilation of smash- hit temple garden styles.

The guidebook had, again, warned about the swarming crowds at the most famous Zen garden, Ryoanji, a little further out, but at Daitokuji, with judicious timing between swarms of chattering junior-high-school parties, you can have the Ryogen-in, a dry-landscape Zen garden built in 1502, all to yourself. Stones called "A-un" apparently represent the truth of the universe - inhale and exhale, heaven and earth, positive and negative, male and female - but if this is rather too much on which to meditate, contemplating how the monks managed to rake the gravel without showing their footprints will do on a baser level.

There is little chance for meditation at Daisen-in, famed as a masterpiece of dry-landscape gardening, as the monks there are so commercially minded that the place is a clatter of book-signings, photo-opportunities with your favourite monk, drink-your-own tea ceremony, and loudspeakers. Even the guide leaflet has an advertisement at the back for fish seasoning. All this was completely at odds with the still beauty of the temple's gardens.

The sub-temple of Koto-in is a lovely, almost secret garden, tucked away at the side of Daitokuji, although it is very popular in autumn for its variety of leaf colours. You enter through a large wooden gateway into a shaded green avenue of maples and bamboos, growing from a bed of moss. Behind the sub-temple is a tea garden of delicious tranquillity and a famous teahouse, Shokoken. At the back of the garden are the remains of Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1645) and his wife, Gracia, who became a Catholic in 1587, against great odds. Unfortunately, she had to kill herself to escape capture when under a siege, but this does not spoil the peacefulness of the temple. I shared a quiet hour there with two Japanese men who were sitting cross-legged on the verandah, sipping tea and smoking cigarettes while the city roared far away from our haven.

The Japan National Tourist Organisation provides information about Kyoto and recommended gardens. The British office is at Heathcoat House, 20 Savile Row, London WlX 1AE. Telephone: 0171 734 9638.