The centre of Japanese cultural heritage in Australia is showcased in a Japanese styled garden, which is classified by the National Trust Australia “as a place of historical, architectural and cultural significance to be preserved for present and future generations”
This five hectare kaiyu-shiki “stroll garden” is located in Cowra, a town sited in the picturesque Lachlan Valley in central New South Wales, only two hours by car from our nation’s capital Canberra and four hours drive from our largest city, Sydney.
The garden in my experience while revealing enchanting vistas of nature, also induces a desire for internal contemplation.
The architectural form of the garden is balanced by the unifying principals of Japanese garden design in its Australian setting. When I visited, the lines of the garden design were eloquent in the many stories they told.
The garden grew from an original concept by William Donald (Don) Kibbler AM, ORS, (1936-), who today is its Chairman of the Board and CEO.
The aim was to reflect positively and i on Cowra’s most significant historical event, the Cowra Breakout, which happened on the 5th August, 1944 when some 545 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to leave.
Its focus is reconciliation, creating a garden that recognised and developed the relationship between the people of Japan and the people of the Cowra Shire.
The garden symbolizes this connection with its beginnings in the Prisoner of War Camp that housed the Japanese P.O.W. during the Second World War.
Ken Nakajima a renowned garden architect of Japanese gardens both in Japan and across the world was commissioned to design the Garden in 1977.
He created the Garden to reflect a miniature version of the variations of natural attributes within the Japanese landscape.
Ken Nakajima described it as “a piece of Japan where the spirits of the Japanese soldiers reside together with the Australians in order to maintain peace and prosperity and to guard Cowra forever.”
Ken Nakajima oversaw all aspects of the Garden’s design and construction.
He was very proud of the garden and it must have held a very special place in his heart as his ashes were buried within its loveliness.
The Cowra Japanese Garden & Cultural Centre first opened in October 1979, with Stage 2 opening in 1986.
It is the largest Japanese Garden in the southern hemisphere. It was a very special moment when I was introduced to Don Kibbler at the Garden’s entrance.
His passion, dedication, wisdom, intelligence and compassion were woven into his ardent comments about the garden.
He was charismatic and articulate about the background and scenic wonders that awaited me. He inspired enthusiasm and curiosity and so I hired an audio guide, which I would strongly recommend and set off on my adventure.
The pleasures of the garden were coupled with an immersion in a meditative space, serene and tranquil.
“Japanese gardens ask that you go beyond the garden spiritually, that you look at the garden not merely as an object but also as a path into the realms of spirit”*
The traditional principles of excellence permeated this elegant garden and the distinctive qualities reflecting changing seasonal characteristics were evident.
The importance of a limited palette of colours was integral to the garden design.
Textural differences created visual interest and aesthetic appeal.
In the water surrounding the island gardens I discovered the Koi carp with their sparkling variations in colour and inquisitive heads bobbing in and out of the water to retrieve food.
They are symbols of courage, strength and patience.
As I ambled along I was fascinated by the sounds of the waterfalls gurgling and spilling on their downward journeys.
The music of water stilled my thoughts and a wave of calm brushed me gently, soothing and recuperative.
The plants in the garden were carefully selected for their shapes, textures and delicate colour changes both in the shades of their foliage and flowers. Blue, white and yellow were the predominate colours that presented in the Garden.
“In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends.”**
The principle of shakkei or “borrowed scenery” was integral to the garden design.
The panoramas of the landscape beyond the garden boundaries were deliberately incorporated into the views.
This created continuity and connected the inner to the outer scene with the middle ground adapted to link both.
I loved the enigma of the eucalypts retained within the gardens. This deliberate inclusion by Ken Nakajima merged the beauty and majestic form of the gum trees with the Japanese features of the garden.
It was a tribute to respect and the ensuing complimentary nature of differences.
I was following the curved paths that had been constructed to heighten awareness, for as I walked along I was forced to pay attention and the automatic response was to slow down and intensify my observations.
When I reached the Wisteria Pergola it was time to sit under the arbour, absorb the gardens, wash myself in the tranquility and marvel at the harmony of the design.
Leaves like butterfly wings fluttered in the gentle breeze. The shapes of carefully manicured Japanese shrubs and hedges, and Australian gums were silhouetted against a clear blue sky.
The unity was spiritual and the stillness soothing.
Shadows, reclined on the long flowing green lawns, drew my eyes to the timeless forms of rocks. The water rippled casting silver shimmers across the surface.
I admired man’s ingenuity and the beauty of nature where the merging lines were difficult to decipher. I was reminded of the poem by Hosha.
“Quieting the mind,
Deep in the forest
Water drips down.”
Scattered strategically throughout the garden were rocks and stones, common hallmarks of all Japanese gardens.
The first words of the oldest gardening book in the world, the Sakuteki, are Ishi wo taten koto – “the art of setting stones.”
Rocks are grouped according to odd numbers particularly in groups of three.
In this garden a number of granite rocks were already in place and they were incorporated in the design.
This follows the Japanese tradition of where appropriate using features already located on a site.
The Crab Apple Tree was given in 1980 by Don Kibbler to five elderly Japanese gentlemen who came to Cowra to find the grave of their brother, Masao Kojima. He had hung himself during the attempted breakout from the prisoner of war camp in 1944.
Kojima’s fiancée had given the brothers a lock of her hair which she had asked to be buried with him. The lock of hair was buried in a small hole next to Kojima’s grave.
Don’s thoughtful gift was a memorial to their brother. This was a very sad story and I felt the tree was a symbol of life and the black shadow it cast a symbol of death. A relentless cycle!
Nearby was the Bonsho Temple Bell. There is also another bell located outside the Council Chambers in Cowra. This ‘Peace Bell’ is a replica of the World Peace Bell erected in 1952 at the United Nations building in New York.
Because of Cowra’s long standing contribution to world peace and international understanding Cowra was rewarded with the honour of erecting the Australian World Peace Bell in its township.
I have a very personal connection to Japanese gardens as I created a small one in my previous home. Pride of place was a beautiful stone lantern which I managed to install in my present garden.
The ‘snow-scene’ lantern in the Japanese Garden provided a platform for freshly fallen snow and was beautifully positioned on an island in the lake and spoke of a sacred place.
The traditional buildings of Chabana and House Open Air Teahouse provided me the opportunity to explore Japanese architecture. I was inspired by the way the outside and inside fused together in a spirit of coherence.
The garden captured a sense of spirituality that was restorative and uplifting. Don Kibbler’s insight, commitment and tenacity have proven that from a single seed of thought, a garden of understanding can grow and flourish.
Next week I will begin an interview with Don Kibbler from Kibbler’s Corner in the Japanese Garden & Cultural Centre at Cowra.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 02 6341 2233 or from outside Australia +61 2 6341 2233
*Makoto Ooka in The Temple in the House by Anthony Lawlor.