March 2019 – In less than a month, it will be hanami, cherry-blossom time, at Europe’s largest Japanese garden. My last visit to the oriental park at Maulévrier, near Cholet, in France’s Anjou region, dates back to mid-November, on the last day of their autumn season. In the woodland, the nearly bare branches of deciduous trees are holding on to the last gasps of fieriness.
On one side of the lake, the beeches still sport a full head of leaves, turning light sepia, while on the other, the large leaning catalpa looks as if it’s trying to shake off its tired-looking yellow leaves into the water.
Here and there, you can still marvel at the deep scarlet leaves of the acers, but further away on the edge of the meadow, the fallen leaves of the gingkos form a thin carpet of gold on the ground.
There is one noticeable touch of red – the small arched bridge in the distance, which connects the north side of the lake to the two small islands of immortality, the turtle and the crane.
Next to it, stretching over the barely moving waters, the green-black blobs of the cloud-clipped yews stand out like a cut-out against the translucent morning mist.
Hummocks of box in various heights and sizes line the paths, carefully positioned in small clusters, like purposeful puffed up pillows, while stone lanterns stand watch on the banks of the lake. There was a sense of imminent sleep.
Dr K isn’t wholly enthusiastic about being dragged there in the unsettled cool weather, but he’s happy enough that the park is a convincing impression of the gardens he saw when he went to Kyoto a few years ago.
The park at Maulevrier is designed around an artificial lake created by damming the river Moine, a minor tributary of the Loire. It nudges between a broad hillock to the south and a steep hill to the north, which softens as it stretches westwards.
From early winter through to early spring, the sluice gates are opened to help rebalance the local ecosystem.
The estate once belonged to the Colbert family. The old chateau which overlooked the Moine valley, was destroyed in the aftermath of the revolution and wasn’t rebuilt until the early part of the 19th century.
It was only at the turn of the 20th century that the property was acquired by local industrialist Eugène Bergère, who appointed his son-in-law, architect Alexandre Marcel, to lay out the gardens in the Japanese style, as was the fashion at the time.
Marcel had made a name for himself by building the Cambodia pavilion at the 1900 international Paris exhibition. The small Khmer temple and the lions, on the north side of the lake, were built using casts of the originals built for the exhibition.
The Japanese tower he designed for the exhibition was bought by the King of Belgium and still stands at the former royal residence in Laeken, just outside Brussels, now in public ownership.
The previous year, Marcel had designed a Japanese-inspired ballroom for the director of the Bon Marché in Paris, which later became La Pagode, the well-known art-house cinema, in the capital’s 7th arrondissement. He had also been commissioned to build the French embassy in Tokyo, but the first world war brought the project to a terminal standstill.
Following Marcel’s death in 1928 and that of the last Bergère family member in 1945, the estate fell into disrepair and was eventually split up. Some of it was turned into farmland and it was eventually put up for sale 1976.
The lot that is now the current gardens was bought by the local authority in 1980 and shortly thereafter listed as a protected site. This marked the beginning of a long revival project. In 1987 experts from the horticultural colleges at Tokyo and Niigata universities officially recognised the restored 12-hectare gardens – now expanded to cover 29 hectares – as a true reflection of the Edo period.
For those of us not wholly conversant with Japanese garden history, this may feel like an unrequited honour. But as casual visitors, there is no escaping the serene atmosphere of the gardens and the intangible power of symbolism.
It’s in the cloud pruning of conifers and in the bauble shapes of the box hedge in the meditation garden on the hillside.
It’s in the stone lanterns and in the gentle ripples of the cascade and in the moss-covered bridge to one of the islets – deliberately disjointed to mislead evil spirits.
On the way out, we notice small white mushrooms growing out of the moss halfway up a tree trunk. Is this intentional too? Maybe it isn’t, but even in the dreich greyness of the day the Japanese garden has made us look at things differently.