Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Bits of Japanese Nature in Rome (and Rome's in Japan!)

The relationship between West and East has always been an intriguing one. Unfortunately for the most of time, it's been about attempts of subjugation and reciprocal misurderstading, but since the time of Marco Polo, without the need to bother Portuguese missionaries or French painters, Westerners tended to be utterly fascinated and charmed by the mystery of the Far East.
Unfortunately (or luckily?), not just because of cultural differences, it's difficult for us to properly understand or feel like a Japanese would, so it's easy to get sidetracked and see hidden meanings in things leading to pointless cogitation-- In a desperate attempt to try to think like Japanese people, we'd get further and further from the actual feeling of an Asian... This thought came to me yesterday, when I took this picture of this sakura tree wrapped in ivy:
We may have the best intentions, but we'll always have the impression of doing "something wrong", or at least I do, when it comes to such an intricate culture that we can't really grasp in full.

That's all, then? Are we doomed to caricaturize Japanese culture, forgetting what we are as we try to become what we are not..?

After some thought, I assumed that probably the secret is NOT TO grasp it in full.
When covered in a shower of glittering sakura petals, we don't need to know about the transiency of life, the bushido or share an aristocratic education with some Japanese Emperor's relative to see its beauty.
During my walks of yesterday, that brought me in the charming Parco Centrale del Lago in the knot of roads, marbles and buses which is the chaotic district of EUR first and in the eco-friendly and self-sustainable experience of the Orti Urbani in the popular district of Garbatella later, I started to develop the impression that we don't need to claim ourselves "Japaneses" or cover ourselves in pretty silk kimono to appreciate the beauty, peace and serenity that Japanese culture can grant us-- Adjusting, interpreting and understanding is the real secret to enjoy it.

--But let's go in order!

The Passeggiata del Giappone is a path that follows the boundary of the artificial lake that names the Parco Centrale del Lago.
It was inaugurated in 1959, when the Japanese First Minister Kishi Nobusuke presented the city of Rome with 2500 Japanese cherry trees (called sakura, and popular because they bloom but don't produce any fruit) of the Somei Yoshino variety, most of which were exactly planted in the park.
So, after work I enjoyed myself with one of my yearly walks under the frail flowers that started to bloom in all their delicate glory in the past week-end, following the tradition of hanami ("flower watching") that in the last years, because of the sponsoring of the Japanese community in Rome and Japanese culture enthusiasts, became an urban habit for many citizens.
Apparently I missed the best moment for its full blooming, but must be said that the absurd weather of this past month didn't really help the lovely sakura to understand what the hell was going on-- I still managed to take some interesting shots though, and I leave you with them without further, useless comments!

That was very nice, but I wasn't satisfied yet.
I took a comfy bus, rode the Cristoforo Colombo street and reached the district of Garbatella for another "romanized" Japanese experience.
At the bus stop I met the author and protagonist of the next subject of this post, the extremely kind and competent mister Antonio.

Our destination is one of the few examples of self-substainity and eco-friendiship in Rome, that contrary to other European examples is a bit slow when it comes to the upgrade of the urban enviroment, the Orti Urbani of Garbatella:
The idea came to the neighbourhood when they decided to convert part of a deserted field, initially used as a car deposit, into a "urban vegetable garden": a way to deal with the terrible economical crisis that plagues Italy, improve the neighbourhood and give some green to a place that is pretty far from what you'd call a delighful scenery.
Some parts of the fields are also owned by elementary schools, so to teach civical, scientific and environmental education in a very practical way-- Here's a space dedicated to the study of insects and their contribution to the environment (set with the contribution of the EUGO), for example:
At first the citizen did everything abusively, without any kind of authorization despite the support of the local ambientalist and the neighbourhood associations-- But later on, as the project started to show its valuability and the media started to buzz around there and report the situation, it looks like the vegetable garden is now not only authorized and perfectly legal, but that it'll also get the support of the authorities, expecially after a shameful act of vandalism that destroyed a good amount of the fruit trees.
The Orti is now a wonderful reality and a chance to improve life in urban areas.

--And now you'll ask "Ok, that's pretty cool and everything, but what's with Japan?"
Well, it's because Antonio is one of the protagonists of the Garbatella's Orti. He was offered to give reality to his dream and build his karesansui right there.
--And again you'll ask "Kare-what?!"
"Karesansui", literally meaning "dry landscape" is nothing but a Japanese rock garden, also known as "Zen Garden" (erroneously!), which represents a stilized and miniaturized landscape, where all its main elements are embodied by stones and the idea of the water is given by gravel or sand.
Antonio in his kindness entertained me about his experience and the explanation of his project-- I'll try to report everything accurately to make up for his willingness.

This lively old boy told me about how he decided to study Japanese gardening in Kyoto after his retirement while planning his first trip to Japan, a country that always charmed him.
Once back, enriched by a great deal of cultural and human experience, he was totally up to put his knowledge in use: he asked for permission to build his karesansui in the unused garden of the condominium building where he lives but-- Well, you can imagine.
It was thanks to the offer of the guys managing the Orti that he had the chance to turn his dream into reality.
Antonio gave me a picture to show me how the place that he was given looked like:
Looking at how he sorted his project out, you can tell by yourself how the area was greatly improved.
The top of the recognition came on October 2011 (before the Orti were "legalized"!) when, with the blessings of the Embassy of Japan and the Institute of Japanese Culture in Rome, local authorities (!!) were attending the inauguration of the garden, which was dedicated to the victims of the Tohoku's earthquake of March.
You can see further pics of the inauguration here.
Antonio laughs while talking because he confesses that he wasn't expecting all that fuss, but obviously you can spot the joy and pride in his eyes.

After all, building and designing a karesansui in such a place was not an easy task.
First of all, Japanese gardens are conceived so that they can be seen from a direction, from the inside to the outside, "framed" by the typical Japanese sliding doors. Also, the garden is supposed to "melt" with the landscape around, as to suggest some stilized continuity-- Here, not only the space is completely open, but the landscape was-- not so delightful, as I said already.

Sure, there's a bench (next to a lovely rose garden and covered with a wysteria which everyone looks forward to see growing and blooming asap) to suggest a favourite point of view, but the general conditions are really unfavourable.
So, Antonio tried to conceive his garden as to let the visitor focus on the "lower part" of it instead of the "surrounding".
Here came the idea of using gravels and stones of different colors, which are an obvious tribute to the ying and yang but also a homage to Italy, since all the stones, pebbles and gravels used come from selected parts of our region (and he had some troubles too, expecially for the white stones coming from the Circeo's park!):

The result is that of a clean, but also extremely colourful and modern karesansui.
Antonio went on, and explained me that the stones are supposed to rapresent islands or boats... He told me the symbolism behind the two "living islands": the one on the left, where a lovely orido nishiki maple surrounded by little bushes of convallaria japonica form the "verdurous island", and the one on the right, featuring a local olive tree enriched by a tiny plant of violets, is the "dry island":

The pick of the Orido Nishiki variant was not a coincidence: Antonio chose this peculiar maple because its leaves are multicoloured in red, white and green nuances, as to symbolize Italy's flag.
Another curious idea was that of the olive tree: it's a tribute to Mediterranean environment, of course, but it's also connected to the curiosity of olive gardens in Japan.
Of course olive trees are not local of Japan, but they were imported by the Portuguese missionaries back in the days and they found a perfect enviroment on Japanese coasts-- A famous example of "Olive park" is that in Shodoshima.

Antonio told me that he's trying to grow a peculiar kind of grass there, called dicondra repens, but it's a hard fight against the local grass!
--A special mention for the background of the garden, painted by a local writer.
The idea was that of sliding doors opening on the symbols of Japan, the rising sun, the Fuji-san and obviously the sakura.
I noted that it was an intriguing idea! Instead of looking at the garden from the doors, you could see the doors opening behind the garden, opening on an even more symbolic garden..!

Then Antonio told me that he was to take care of the garden because the rain of the past days ruined the gravel's design.
I asked if I could take pictures of the work and he agreed!
It was an interesting experience! I loved the fact that since he couldn't find adequate rakes he built them himself, with some assistance from his Japanese teachers!

All that raking inspired me and at a certain point I wanted to ask if I could do that too, but fortunately I was able to show some restraint and I didn't disturb Antonio's "zen" experience.
He didn't mind to tell me that during his gardening lessons in Japan, though, nobody ever taught him how to do that.
"What's that?!" I asked "It's almost a fraud!"

But it was also a chance, after all. Another chance to put something of themselves into an alien tradition, so to make it really "ours", to make it a personal experience.
--Maybe was that the real lesson?

"Well, at least," Antonio said "I can boost about being one of the few Italians who ever pruned the bushes of the Imperial Garden of Kyoto!"

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