One of the best things we did on our most recent trip to Japan was take the bus to Kyoto Botanical Gardens. It was a mixed weather kind of day, but it didn’t matter.
We started the day with a stroll along the Kamo River, taking photographs of cherry blossom. There was a novel moment alongside the canal near Pontocho where an old woman marched up to me and started saying something in very colloquial Japanese about the colour of my coat and how it matched the cherry blossom. All I could say to her was that I was sorry, I didn’t understand, I only spoke a little Japanese. Eventually her grand-daughter came and dragged her away, telling her that I didn’t understand. Bless her, I could have taken her home with me and adopted her as my own grandma, if only there hadn’t been such a language barrier!
We caught the bus outside Maruyama Park. I was like a small child as we waited at the bus stop watching the flip dots flipping over as the bus got closer. I love Japanese bus stops. They often have a list of the buses that stop there, showing a truncated version of their route towards you, and as the bus moves from stage to stage, the dots flip over, so you know how close you are to getting on the bus and heading off on your journey.
We were catching the 206 towards Kitaoji bus terminal. Look at how close the bus is – it’s only one dot flip away! (Ahem)
The bus ride was great. We scooted along past places we had walked and up north into new territory. I always enjoy watching other people on buses. There was a lovely family with a daughter who had cerebral palsy sitting in front of us. The whole trip was geared to her pleasure, with places of interest pointed out to her through the window by her dad, and her mum making sure that her hair was just so. It was lovely to see.
I do get a little anxious on unfamiliar bus routes, though, in case I don’t get off at the right point and then a disaster unfolds, so I spent an equal amount of time during the journey trying to read the signs at each bus stop so that I could match them up to the Bus Navi map. I panicked as we got close to the stop we were supposed to get off at (Shokubutsuenmae, which means in front of the gardens) – I hadn’t realised that the bus navi map doesn’t show all of the stops on the route, so as we went past what I thought was the stop before ours, I rang the bell to stop. As we exited the bus, I realised that the name of the stop wasn’t the right one, but we’d paid and it was too late to turn around and get back onto the bus! It meant that we had a bit of a longer walk to the gardens, but it didn’t matter too much. It wasn’t a multiple mile hike, or anything.
We bought our entry tickets to the gardens at a vending machine, then had the stubs torn off by two people standing at the gate. This is something that interests me about Japan. In the UK, a vending machine replaces the person. In Japan, it augments the person. Through the gate, another person gave us a map of the gardens, and we headed up to the conservatory.
It’s a very attractive building, all sinuous lines, and fortunately for us, half of it was closed for refurbishment so entry was free! Usually it costs 200円 to go in, which doesn’t break the bank, but we thought it was a nice gesture to waive the entrance fee entirely because of the potential inconvenience of not being able to look round all of it.
There was some kind of begonia growers’ day out happening, so the route through the aquatic and carnivorous plants section was lined with displays of begonias with the occasional person on a chair ready to answer all your burning questions about these pretty flowers. I have to say, they were at least double the size of the begonias we have at home.
Maybe I’m showing my ignorance here, and begonias are a tropical plant and that’s why these ones were so big.
In the carnivorous plants section, we encountered a very putrid smelling plant, which my husband foolishly stuck his nose into, egged on by a group of older Japanese women who had been doing the same but not with quite the same commitment as my husband.
I didn’t stick my nose into it, but standing close to it was enough to leave the taste of its stench in my mouth. Yuk!
We enjoyed the jungle zone, with its tall trees, palms, ferns and exotically coloured legumes, but our favourite was the Perennial Useful Plants room. There were mangos, bananas, cacao, lychee and coffee beans, which I hadn’t realised started life as berries.
After we exited the conservatory, we headed for the Bonsai Exhibition Site, where around 40 different types of bonsai were on display. There were some really gnarly ones, growing out of rocks, with scaly bark. There were so many that it was difficult to get a clean shot of them. They started to merge into one!
Close to the Bonsai Exhibition Site was a grove of cherry trees. The cherry blossom had opened early in Kyoto this year, so we were at the tail end of it, but there were still plenty of the later blossoming trees in bloom. There were plenty of people taking photographs of the cherry blossom, including someone in a wedding dress and hoodie. It wasn’t clear whether this was actually her wedding day, or whether a wedding dress was her usual attire.
The Botanical Gardens has a very nice café in the middle, and as it was lunchtime, we headed there for some kitsune udon. I think we ended up queue jumping because we were two gaijin among Japanese people and the staff presumed we didn’t know what we were doing. I’m not complaining, but I would have been happy to take my ticket and wait my turn with the other customers! We sat at a bench and looked out through the large window across a lawn that had plenty of people enjoying the sunshine and eating their bento.
We were due to go to the Kyo Odori later in the afternoon, so we were conscious of time and didn’t manage to see everything on offer, which is a shame. We decided to end our visit with a look at the Japanese Native Plants zone. This was full of plants that we have in our garden at home – azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and other shrubs made popular in the UK during the Victorian era. There were also delicate frilly Japanese irises, which I liked very much. Irises are my favourite flower, and the Japanese variety is particularly pleasing.
Meandering paths and stone bridges led us through the Japanese Style garden, which was my favourite part of the whole trip. I love Japanese gardens, with their hidden view points and winding streams. I could have spent much longer exploring this part of the garden, if we hadn’t needed to make our way back to Miyagawa-cho.
There was a lovely display of Japanese maples (momiji) near to the Hydrangea Garden, as well.
It started to rain as we were heading for the subway station, but I still managed to photograph some papery poppies in the wildflower gardens near the Kitayama gate.
It was very straightforward to get the subway back to Gojo-dori using the Karasuma line. If we’d been more centrally positioned earlier in the day, I think we would have travelled to the gardens by this route, but then we wouldn’t have had the experience of riding the bus through unexplored parts of the city.
I really enjoyed the gardens, and would like to go back to explore the areas we didn’t have time for, like the avenue of camphor trees, the sunken garden, the rose garden, the water mill and the plum grove.
The official website is in Japanese, but this is the link for anyone interested. If you enjoy strolling through formal gardens, looking at a wide variety of plants, then I highly recommend visiting these botanical gardens when you are in Kyoto.