Cherry blossom, flourishing in the spring sunshine
By Jon Wilks
It may feel a bit frigid at the moment, but spring will be here soon enough, bringing with it an explosion of life and colour. In the Far East, the season of rebirth is a riotous affair, with fields and gardens across Japan awash with cherry blossom pink. The arrival of the 'sakura' blossoms are heralded and traced across the country on TV reports and Twitter accounts, and spontaneous picnics and saké drinking parties take over any available bit of space beneath the trees.
That all seems a little far away back here in gloomy England, but there are a large handful of Japanese gardens in the UK that might get a little samurai spirit into your cold winter blood. Here, in no particularly order, are our favourites.
Japanese Garden and Bonsai Nursery
Though it's located only a 15 minute walk from the runway at Newquay Airport, Robert Hore's Japanese garden in St Mawgan, Cornwall, is surprisingly tranquil. Hore, a bonsai man since the mid-'70s, began the project as a nursery, expanding it into a full-scale Japanese garden in 1991. It has been open to the public since 1997, and, alongside the prerequisite rock pools and water features, visitors can expect a karesansui (Zen garden), a cha-seki (Japanese teahouse) and a bamboo grove. When the 737s aren't reverse-thrusting down the road, the area is filled with blissful birdsong. Lovely.
Fly direct to Newquay from Gatwick with Flybe. Returns start from around £130, and the flight is a little over an hour.
A double with ensuite can be had at the Falcon Inn, St Mawgan, starting from £90. The four star inn is housed in a gorgeous 16th century building at the centre of the village, a matter of metres from the Bonsai Nursery itself.
Sui Ou Tei
Fans of the Chelsea Flower Show may recall that, back in 2001, Japan was the talk of the town. 'The Real Japanese Garden' won the prestigious Best in Show award, before being carefully relocated to its permanent home at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The award winning patch, designed by Professor Masao Fukuhara of Osaka University, is divided into three gardens – the Stream and Lake Garden, the Gravel Garden, and the Tea Garden – with a traditional teahouse and iori as its centrepiece. According to modern legend, the good professor designed the garden by listening to the 'voice' of each stone he used, taking note of its character and even its 'sexuality', so if you're looking for Extreme Zen, head for the valleys.
Take the 166 bus from Carmarthen station, which can be accessed from London's Paddington, changing at Newport Gwent.
If you can get a reservation, try the Tycanol Lodge, a simple two-bedroom cottage in the Towy Valley with impressive countryside views. It's self-catering, but the isolation only adds to the charm. Prices start from £85 per night.
In 1910, Alan Egerton (a baron who also went by the name of Alan de Tatton) travelled south for the Anglo-Japanese exhibition at London's White City. Sufficiently impressed with what he saw, he promptly returned to his home at Tatton Park, Cheshire, and set about building his own Japanese tea garden, complete with a Shinto shrine. In building what is recognised as one of Europe's finest examples of a Japanese garden, Egerton brought over specialists from Japan, along with artefacts and indigenous plants. Guided tours are given on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, such is the delicacy of Alan de Tatton's horticultural legacy.
Tatton Park is located in Knutsford, Cheshire, which can be accessed from London Euston in a little under three hours, changing once at Stockport.
Book in at the Crosskeys, an 18th century coaching house in Knutsford, with its own small restaurant and traditional pub. Rooms are available from approximately £65.
Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire is one of the few places in the UK where you could indulge in a genuine hanami (cherry blossom viewing party). Its impressive collection of sato-sakura (village cherries), its plots of bamboo and its traditional Japanese bridge are all the result of a previous owner's obsession with the Far East. On returning from extensive travels through Japan, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford began giving his Batsford Park garden a Japanese makeover in 1890, and the results are amongst the most impressive in the country.
The nearest station to Batsford Arboretum is Moreton-in-Marsh, which lies approximately 90 minutes out of London Paddington.
The Redesdale Arms Hotel in Moreton-in-Marsh is a celebrated coaching inn dating from the 18th century. Aside from its log fires and patio gardens, the hotel is notable for its restaurant, specialising in Cornish seafood. Double rooms start from £110 per night.
Pure Land Japanese Garden
This Japanese garden was built and maintained by Koji Takeuchi, a Japanese teacher of meditation who settled in the UK in 1973 under the name Maitreya. As meditation master and head of the Pure Land Meditation Centre, Maitreya began building his garden on two acres of field in 1980, recreating the more hilly and varied terrains of his homeland by hand (and JCB), hollowing out a lake and using the soil to firm up the raised surrounds. 32 years later, it's a lush garden replete with cherry trees, Japanese maples, bamboo thickets, carp and even a fully operational tea house. Despite being part of a private centre, the Japanese garden is open to the public, though opening hours vary according to the season.
Pure Land Meditation Centre is a taxi ride from Saxilby station, Lincolnshire – two hours out of Kings Cross, changing once at Retford.
While it may not have the Zen-like qualities of Pure Land, the DoubleTree Hilton in nearby Lincoln is brand spanking new, comfortably plush and within walking distance of the city's cathedral centre, should you wish to keep the culture coming. Doubles start from £105.
Arguably the best known Japanese garden in England is the 5,000 square metre extravaganza at Kew Gardens. Like Tatton Park, its history dates back to the Anglo-Japanese exhibition in 1910, for which the Chokushi-Mon gate – a replica of the Karamon gate at Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto – was constructed. The structure now dominates the three gardens that make up Kew's Japanese homage, which were laid out in 1996 by the aforementioned Professor Fukuhara of Osaka University – a busy man, apparently. Also worth searching out is Kyoshi Takahama's Kew-inspired haiku, carved into a granite block, reading: 'Even sparrows, freed from all fear of man, England in spring'. Well, quite.
Kew Gardens has its own station on the London Underground. It can be found on the District Line.
Within easy striking distance of central London, there's no lack of choice when it comes to accommodation. However, if you're in the mood for waking up early and strolling on over to Kew Gardens, you might try the nearby Bingham Hotel – an art deco inspired riverside spot with an award-winning restaurant and a good dollop of understated verve.
The tenboudai (viewing platform) at Easton Lodge is the centrepiece for the small Japanese garden created by celebrated landscaper Harold Peto in 1903. In happier times, the platform looked out over a Japanese tea house, but that's long gone. You still get a decent view of the Dark Pool, however, which is known for its attractive reflections and its family of mirror carp. The gardens at Easton Lodge open at varied times through the seasons, so it's best to check the homepage before heading out.
Easton House is a 15-minute taxi ride from Stansted Airport station, located on the edge of Little Easton village. Stansted is a 45 minute journey from London Liverpool Street.
For a picturesque stay, albeit one near a major airport, try the quaint Willows Guest House in nearby Bamber Green – a little under a mile from Easton Lodge, as the crow flies. The guest house is a gorgeous 17th century thatched cottage with lovely gardens and a hearty breakfast, and Bishop's Stortford is a mere ten minutes away should you fancy a trip out on market day. Doubles start from £55.
The Japanese garden at Gatton Park was returned to former glories thanks to 1999 TV show, Lost Gardens. Prior to that, the patch once prized by Sir Jeremiah Colman had been allowed to fall into pitiful decline. The mustard mogul had a passion for the mystic east and his original garden went as far as featuring a minka (traditional Japanese farmhouse). The modern recreation has a 'minka tea house', overlooking glades of bamboo, Japanese yews, plum trees and gingko, as well as an arching bridge that runs over a small serpentine pond.
Gatton Park is just 2.5 miles from Redhill station, just 28 minutes from Victoria station.
For a little bit of countryside luxury, try the Nutfield Priory & Spa, something of a Victorian folly modelled on the Palace of Westminster. Doubles can be had from £112.
They don't come much more spectacular than at Compton Acres in Dorset. The Japanese garden here is crammed full of Buddhist statues, stone lanterns, and more 'authentic' buildings than you'd ever find in any garden other than perhaps at Tokyo's Imperial Palace. Look out for the very beautiful thatched temple, the vivid red tea house and bridge, as well as the traditional torii gates. Check the website before visiting, as times vary according to season.
Compton Acres is located on the Canford Cliffs, just outside Bournemouth. Take the train to Bournemouth station, two hours from Waterloo, and then transfer to the number 50 bus heading for Swanage. Get off at Canford Cliffs.
If the weather is kind, make a weekend of it by pitching up at the Sandbanks Hotel (doubles from £190 per night), which overlooks Poole Harbour, has its own swimming pool and caters to families with its Funsters Kids Club. The watersports academy serves anyone interested in taking up windsurfing, waterskiing or the slightly more adventurous kite surfing – not particularly zen, but fun nonetheless.