The Adachi Museum of Art garden was crowned the best Japanese garden by the American magazine Sukiya Living Magazine: The Journal of Japanese Gardening. It has now received this honor for 20 years in a row. The sheer amount of effort and detail that goes into maintaining the garden has been described as "divine management." The museum resides in Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture.
When the rankings were released in December 2022, the head of the Garden Department retired after many years of service at the museum. A man in his forties has taken over as head gardener.
Zenko Adachi (1899-1990), the museum's founder, believed that "gardens are a form of painting." His philosophy lives on through the new head gardener, who hopes to achieve another consecutive win.
No Flowers on the Japanese Andromeda Trees
On January 6, gardeners are busy picking red flower buds growing in clusters on Japanese andromeda trees. They are working in the Welcome Garden at the museum's entrance.
Tatsuji Nagashima, the new head gardener, explains: "Allowing the flowers to bloom will weaken the tree. We prevent the buds from blooming because we prioritize the shape of the trees at the Adachi Museum of Art." As he speaks, his hands never stop moving.
In early spring, the Japanese andromeda usually produces white or pink bell-shaped blossoms. However, they are never allowed to bloom in this garden.
The Founder's Philosophy
Zenko Adachi was a local entrepreneur. In 1968, he began landscaping the Adachi Museum gardens, which have a total surface area is about 165,000 square meters (1,776,045 square feet). The main garden is the Dry Landscape Garden, and the White Gravel and Pine Garden was also inspired by Yokoyama Taikan's paintings. Everything in these gardens is based on Zenko's philosophy, from the shape of the tree branches to the placement of the rocks.
Nagashima graduated from a local high school that specialized in agriculture and forestry. Since then, he has worked continuously for the Adachi Museum of Art for 30 years. For him, picking the Japanese andromeda buds has become a New Year's tradition. The gliding motions of his hands indicate that the task is ingrained in his muscle memory.
His gardening team, however, is the smallest it has ever been, with only five members. "Just because there are a few of us doesn't mean we can cut corners," Nagashima says, his hands working tirelessly.
'A Heavy Baton'
Douglas Roth founded Sukiya Living Magazine in 1998 to introduce Japanese gardening to the world. The bimonthly publication has subscribers in 37 countries, the majority of which are English-speaking.
The magazine began ranking Japanese gardens in 2003. Thereafter, every year, 30 experts from various countries select the 50 best Japanese gardens from among 1000 candidates in Japan. They are judged solely on their beauty and quality, such as their harmony with the surrounding buildings, rather than their size or fame.
On December 15, 2022, Adachi Museum announced its twentieth consecutive win, which also happened to be the last day for the previous head gardener, Nobuhiko Kobayashi. He was the longest-serving head gardener since the rankings began.
He was also one of the gardeners who worked under the late Hiroichi Sugihara, the head gardener before him. Sugihara received direct training from Zenko before his death.
Nagashima says, "Although I have become the department head, I will continue to do what needs to be done every year. As a result, I hope we can keep extending our record."
In a firm voice, he adds, "A heavy baton has been handed to me [from Sugihara and Kobayashi]."
Guardians of an Unchanging Scenery
The magazine describes some of the garden's most prominent features, such as the "divine management" of the plants and landscape. This includes the gardeners' ability to grow spare plants in the same size and shape as the plants in the garden in case they need replacing.
Needless to say, the Adachi Museum gardeners take rigorous care of their plants. When it snows, they enter the garden from the back to avoid leaving visible footprints. Then, using handmade rakes, they carefully dust the snow off the azaleas.
For the taller red pine trees, they use a kagikko, a special tool around five meters (16 feet) long with a curved end. They shake the snow off gently, without breaking a single branch.
Furthermore, the gardeners grow hundreds of plants, including 400 red pines, in a temporary plant nursery near the museum. When a pine tree in the garden grows too big, it is replaced by a new pine that is more suited to its surroundings. Through these efforts, the gardeners are able to preserve an unchanging scenery.
Raising Young Gardeners to Surpass Veterans
"It's easy to create a new garden, but we don't make any changes to the existing ones. Because the current garden is the face of the Adachi Museum of Art, it's our job to make sure no one notices that we've planted a new tree," Nagashima explains.
The youngest gardener on the team is 22-year-old Yusuke Yamamoto, for whom Nagashima has a special vision. "I'm very optimistic about the future. I want to raise young gardeners who will outperform veterans like me."
When asked about the expectations placed on him, Yamamoto responds, "We have a small team right now, which gives me a great opportunity. My skills will improve if I work hard."
The Adachi Museum of Art, with its new head gardener, will strive to be the top Japanese garden for the 21st year in a row this year.
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