The skies open up as we enter Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en stroll gardens, soaking the already sodden moss and restocking the puddles that greet us at the Mayumizaka entrance. The path is flanked by brittle trees and bamboo-fenced beds, bordered with cobbled stone that meets the sunken drains and pebbled path. There’s nothing out of the ordinary so far, but something feels different.
It’s February, more specifically early February, and this garden does not look dormant. We’ve picked a weekday to visit, and we’re outnumbered 10-1 by gardeners who are clearly working to such an aggressive schedule that they seldom communicate with one another, other than to exchange brooms, rakes and baskets of trimmings. This garden has been here since the 1620s, and not a single season has passed without a significant undertaking of pruning, plucking and precision planning, all in aid of the gardens year-round opening hours.
We round the first corner and find ourselves swimming against a tide of sightseers, who despite their padded winter wear and umbrellas, have clearly taken the brooding clouds as an appropriate juncture to make a dash for the exit. Unperturbed by the exodus, we make our way towards the cherry blossom orchards where the wide pebbled path transitions abruptly into a series of well trodden tracks that meander beneath the thin canopy.
It’s here where we first notice one of the gardens most revered features – an abundant verdure of lush bottle-green moss, a creeper often dismissed by Western gardeners as a good-for-nothing gardener’s foe, found growing only in the forgotten shadows. But moss plays a crucial role in Japan’s garden architecture and with it Kenroku-en, one of the country’s Three Great Gardens, is an exemplar of the nation’s horticultural identity.
As far as formal composition is concerned, Kenroku-en is certainly more organic than other central city municipal parks and gardens. Its expansive moss carpeting maps the contours of the terrain below, padded like an unevenly stuffed quilt, the duvet you put on a 60° wash only to later discover that the label states “dry clean only”. Its placement throughout the garden is confident, beautiful, and with some lesser-known advantages.
Its ability to grow on vertical and horizontal surfaces and across all sorts of garden debris makes moss the ideal alternative to the conventional and somewhat limiting grass, with far fewer maintenance and soil-conditioning requirements. It acts as a sponge, absorbing and purifying water. It’s drought-resistant and can secrete an organic antifreeze, enabling it to withstand prolonged scorching and freezing temperatures. In this way, moss contributes to the verdant endurance of Kenroku-en, regardless of the season. Debris and leaves are easily swept away from a mossy surface, and with little else by way of maintenance, it provides the resident horticulturists with minimal distraction from their bounteous list.
The moss accompanies us throughout the garden, creeping amongst the exposed roots of the Neagari Pine to the winding stairs of the Sazaeyama hill, as we make our way towards a better view of the Kasumi-ga-ike Pond. As the rain bears down we retreat back towards the entrance, leaving behind a garden both peaceful in its repose, and energetically evolving as if winter were spring.