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Edging Toward Japan: A fantasy of Japan revealed in a lavish Japanese garden far away

The Japanese garden at Tatton Hall in northern England. (Damian Flanagan)

By Damian Flanagan

    Passing through the thatched gateway, you enter another world: The torii of an old Shinto shrine sits serenely on an alluring island in a lake festooned with lotus leaves while a delicate arched bridge beckons. Across a stream, a winding path leads you past a stone lantern to a teahouse, while a covering of moss under a canopy of cypress trees gives a sense of transcendence and stillness.

    You have stumbled upon a corner of paradise, but this dream of Japan is not to be found in Japan itself. The astonishingly beautiful sight is in fact some 6,000 miles away, located in a corner of the north of England. This is the Japanese garden in the country house estate of Tatton Park.

    How do you go about creating a fantasy of Japan -- seemingly more Japanese than Japan itself -- in a place so very far away? It helps to be extremely rich. The Egerton family who owned the great house of Tatton Hall and the 2,000 acres surrounding it in the late 19th century -- as well as other estates and houses totalling 251,000 acres -- were said to be so wealthy that they could travel north to Manchester Cathedral, at the centre of the large industrial city of Manchester 14 miles away, without ever leaving their own land.

    This particular garden came about when the third Baron Egerton happened to view an exhibition about Japan in London in 1910 and took it into his head to create a Japanese garden at Tatton Hall, employing Japanese designers and workmen with money seemingly no object.

    I began to think about the meaning of gardens. Once, many years ago, an electrician in England who did some jobs for me and had never before betrayed the slightest interest in Japan, suddenly announced that he was planning on travelling to Japan specifically to see the gardens there. Could I give him any advice on which ones to see? It turned out that, most unexpectedly, Japanese gardens were his obsession.

    I was flummoxed by his question because I had personally never been that interested in gardens, Japanese or otherwise. But of late I've been spending much time and money trying to turn a patch of abandoned ground in England into my own "secret garden" and have discovered a newfound respect for the achievements of those people who create sumptuous gardens.

    The Japanese garden at Tatton Hall in northern England. (Damian Flanagan)

    We don't perhaps often think of gardens as expressions of great wealth and power, but in many ways, they are the ultimate -- albeit understated -- expression of worldly achievement. They represent not just a taming of nature, but a tangible enactment of worldly visions and desires.

    The great gardens of Japan -- such as the Kenrokuen in Kanazawa or Korakuen in Okayama -- were of course the creations of daimyo lords and temples desirous to show off their power and wealth. They are often the velvet glove sitting next to the iron fist of a castle, designed to impose a sense of awe on all who behold them.

    The Japanese garden at Tatton Hall might appear as a place of other worldly retreat, but for the Egerton family, the incredible ability to transform a corner of English fields into an astonishing fantasy of distant Japan was surely an even greater expression of their matchless wealth than the fact that they could walk 14 miles and never leave their own land.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 34 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

    Profile:

    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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