The comfort of green

What does moss sound like? The answer lies on the mountain slopes of Gora in Japan

Words & Pictures: Andrew Fisher-Tomlin

For many residents of Tokyo an annual pilgrimage to Hakone, spa town and resort is essential.

There’s a whole tour you can take starting in the busiest train station in the world, Shinjuku, by fast private train. Then changing onto a slow switchback railway at Odawara that takes you up the mountain to Gora. Next onto a funicular and then gondola across the mountain and back down to, and I kid you not, pirate ships that if you are really lucky will give you a view of Mt Fuji on a clear day.

Topiary and teahouses

We originally arrived in Hakone drawn to stay at the famous Fujiya Hotel, a grand building below the mountain where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back to another time. It’s all silver service and white gloves, very gentle and the epitome of grand tour calm.

We even had a long conversation with our young waitress about the merits of Jane Austen, she was not to be persuaded that England was anything other than what she had read in Austen’s novels. The air was spicy and humid and with that in mind we ventured out to take possession of our pirate ship.

Below the museum

But before dashing up the mountain we took a moment to stop off on the funicular railway at Koen-kami station because nestled into the slopes by the station is the Hakone Museum of Art, renowned for the most amazing collection of ceramics but surrounded by a sublime series of gardens. The burgeoning collection of bowls was the main attraction until we stepped into the grounds.

The gardens are spread over the slopes of Gora and despite appearances were only built in the 1950s. The founder of the museum, Mokichi Okada (1882~1955), energetically collected works of Oriental art in order to prevent them from being sold abroad, he established the Tomei Art Preservation Society 1952 and strongly believed that “works of art should not be monopolized, but made available to be viewed and enjoyed by as many people as possible, helping to elevate human sentiment and make big contributions towards cultural development”.

On bush clover

The opening of the Hakone Museum of Art was not just about the collection though and Mokichi Okada personally supervised the design and creation of the gardens.

The main gallery of the museum is reached via a valley of bush clover Lespedeza thunbergii, praised in Japanese poetry for its rustic simplicity but in truth an elegant plant whose slender branches droop across the path flowering in autumn with insignificant white or pink flowers. It’s far from insignificant to Japanese culture and you’ll see the bush clover appear on kimonos in the National Museum and at the Kobe Fashion Museum as well as feature in poems even more than the more famous plum blossoms.

Bamboos and buildings

At the top of this path a Chinese-style bamboo garden announces the entrance to the gallery. It is a simple, small garden and perhaps the least significant in the grounds for it prepares you for the collection of ceramics dating back to many earlier dynasties.

Our enthusiasm prompted a very kind volunteer to immediately adopt us and show us around the whole gallery and when we showed even more interest in the garden our tour progressed outside.

Looking for a leaf downstream

Visitors come to admire the Sekirakuen garden featuring enormous decorative rocks and a mountain stream. Not always open, this is also known as the private garden and we were lucky enough not only to be shown around by our guide but also to see the art of the Japanese gardener.

At first it appears that it is all about pruning when in actuality it’s about the attention to the detail of individual plants, rock placement and even the movement of a leaf downstream. In autumn the leaves of maples are left to fall and form patterns. Where we might blow them away the Japanese gardeners’ attention to detail sees beauty in these forms and they are left to form and be admired for several weeks before being swept aside.

Softly does it

Of far the greatest interest to visitors is the moss garden at the bottom of the slope. It’s impossible to relate the sound that comes when walking in a moss garden alone for there is almost no sound because the moss cushions and cancel out any noise. Set beneath a vast swathe of maples the vibrant green of the moss in spring is only matched by the autumn colour of the trees that we were reliably told was quite stunning.

Whilst we were there we followed the progress of a gardener, her feet in slippers, gently brushing the moss and removing any out of place maple leaf that might ruin the overall effect. It was at once immaculate and wild. And, being Brits on tour, we naturally jumped at the chance for a tea break, no ordinary cuppa though as you can watch all this slow ‘action’ from the comfort of the Shinwa-tei teahouse where green tea and cakes are served.

In a cool shade of green

The Hakone Museum of Art and its moss garden are easy to miss but it’s a quiet and unassuming place to stop, take stock and a breather on your way to the gondolas, the hot springs and pirate ships.

The masterly use of levels, rocks and plant placement left me thinking this is the garden I wished I’d designed myself and I suspect I’ve stored a lot of the gardens away in my mind ready for a future project. It’s by far one of the most beautiful moss gardens in Japan with a fab gallery attached.

  • Open daily from 9.30am to 4.00pm.
  • Closed on Thursdays and end December/early January.
  • Admission Yen900
  • 40 minutes from Odawara to Gora by Hakone Tozan Railway and 5 minutes by funicular from Gora to Koen-kami station.