Woodcut by Hiroshige depcting maple leaves

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

 

Maple Viewing (Momijigari) is the tradition of visiting areas where the maple trees have turned red.  The Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) at Shizuka Ryokan are exploding with colour this month. There are a variety of maple species growing at Shizuka Ryokan, in a range of colours—from blood red through to subtle bronze.

At Shizuka, we have come to realise that the Japanese maple tree is a wonder across all seasons. In winter, the trees have no leaves and the branches are framed against the Hepburn sky. In spring, new growth, flowers and colours appear. In summer, the leaves provide shade for guests (and birds) and in autumn, the fall of the leaves marks the ephemeral nature of existence.

Shizuka Ryokan’s gardens are a place to reflect. Shizuka Ryokan features a tsubo-niwa, or courtyard garden, an essential part of traditional ryokans. The architecture of Shizuka Ryokan is organised around a raked gravel garden that has a maple tree growing out of it. (In Japan, raking gravel took on a symbolic significance for the Buddhist monks–more on that in a future blog post!)

The Japanese maple is native to Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia and Russia, where it grows in mixed and understorey forests.  There are hundreds of varieties, with a wide variation in leaf colour and texture. Maples are prized for their 7-palmed leaves and colours. There are generally two types of tree shape: upright and horizontal.

Botanists have a field day identifying Japanese maples. There are so many different cultivars a system of categorisation has developed. They are divided into 7 groups. 5 of the groups depend on their leaf forms:

  • Amoenum Group: Each leaf is divided up to two-thirds to the leaf base
  • Palmatum Group: Each leaf is divided two-thirds to three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Matsumurae Group: Each leaf is divide more than three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Dissectum Group: Each lead is divided into lobes, which are dissected into sub-lobes
  • Linearilobum Group: Each leaf is divided from the tip to the base into narrow, straplike lobes

(The final 2 groups are dwarf cultivars and cultivars that don’t fit the other groups)

Four leaves from four different species of Japanese maple tree.

Acer palmatum cultivars – From left to right A. palmatum wild type, A. palmatum ‘Amoenum’, and A. palmatum ‘Matsumurae’ (‘Dissectum’ is similar to ‘Matsumurae’) [Photo credit: Abrahami/Creative Commons]

Close up of Iris growing at Shizuka

Irises: Japanese Traditions

A blooming Iris in the gardens of Shizuka RyokanThe ancient art of gardening is alive and well at Shizuka Ryokan. Our gardens display a beautiful selection of traditional Japanese plants such as bamboo, ginkgo, persimmon, sakura (cherry blossom), maple, shiso (a herb used in our kitchen), magnolia, Japanese quince and hibiscus. At dusk, the pine trees fill with sulphur-crested cockatoos, and the fruit trees attract fast moving parrots, leaving streaks of the brightest greens and reds. Kangaroos feed on the grass. A kookaburra sits on the wooden bridge at the ryokan entrance, waiting for chef Akiko-san to appear with sashimi. It is this fusion–of Japanese tradition in an Australian setting–that makes a visit to Shizuka Ryokan potent and unique.

This month, the Irises are in bloom. In Japan, Iris cultivation is considered a high art, and the Japanese have developed more than 2000 cultivated varieties. These cultivars display large, beautifully coloured and patterned flowers, with exceptional wide falls (the petals that hang down) and narrow standards (the upright petals).

The name Iris comes from the Greek word for rainbow, an apt name for a species that blooms in a wide range of colours. There are around 300 species of Iris. They are treasured for their large flowers—in colours of blue, purple, maroon or white—and their contrasting pattterns of dots, stripes, veins and edges. Many Iris have ruffled flowers, with multiple floral parts.

There are three species of Iris commonly grown in Japan—hanashobu (Iris ensata), kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) and ayame (Iris sanguinea). Outside of Japan, Iris ensata is referred to as ‘Japanese iris’. It has a bluish purple colour and references to it in Japanese art and literature date back to the 12th century. Iris ensata is native to Japan, China, Korea and Siberia.  It is believed that farmers would plant irises in or near their rice fields because their blooming coincided with the start of the rainy season—the time for transplanting rice plants from seed beds to the fields.


To learn more we recommend The Japanese Garden, a fantastic book written by Sophie Walker.

Utagawa Hiroshige painting of Iris garden.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s painting of an Iris garden. Hiroshige greatly influenced Van Gogh.

Image: "Shinrin-yoku", a film by Dance Films Association. The film features dance and choreography by Mayumu Minakawa, video by Kenneth Kao, and music by Levi Gershkowitz and Julie Becker. Directed by Tom Weksler.

Forest Bathing: Japanese Traditions

In Japan, there is a tradition known as shinrin-yoku—or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku describes the practice of ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ by spending prolonged periods of time with trees, and engaging with the forest through all of one’s senses.

Shizuka Ryokan is set in the rolling hills of Hepburn Springs, so we are perfectly placed for some time out among the trees. Here at Shizuka Ryokan, we practice shinrin-roku, and encourage our guests to do the same.

Shinrin-yoku: How trees can help you find health and happiness (2018) is a book written by Dr Qing Li which introduces readers to the art and science of forest bathing. Dr Li draws on peer-reviewed studies into the impact of forest bathing on health. With more than 100 colour photographs of forests around the world, the book already holds a treasured place in the Shizuka Ryokan library.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that walking in the forest reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Forest bathing improves sleep, boosts immunity and heart health, and produces a better parasympathetic (rest and recover) response. Essential oils of trees such as Pine (many of which are growing at Shizuka) increase energy levels and induce a state of wellbeing.

The naturalist John Muir once wrote, ‘between every two pine trees is a doorway leading to a new way of life.’ Why not book into Shizuka Ryokan to savour the sounds, smells and sights of the forest? Listen to call of the sulpur-crested cockatoo. Watch the echidna amble past. Feel the breeze on your skin and smell the pine needles underfoot. Feel the trunk of a tree. Sip the mineral springs. Take deep breaths of the restorative Hepburn air…Walking among the trees is a great reset. Don’t even get us started on the benefits of forest bathing followed by a traditional Japanese meal.


The image accompanying this post is a still from Shinrin-yoku, a film which features dance and choreography by Mayumu Minakawa, video by Kenneth Kao, and music by Levi Gershkowitz and Julie Becker. Directed by Tom Weksler.

Shinrin-yoku: How trees can help you find health and happiness  is available from the wonderful Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford. Just a short forest walk away from Shizuka Ryokan.

If you would like to learn more about Forest-Bathing, we recommend this hilariously titled article from Outside magazine: Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.

 

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