Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Japanese Influence on French Gardens

I didn’t intend for a Japanese theme to my long weekend in France. For vacation my daughter asked to visit her old buddy from Maine who had moved to the Parisian suburbs. I’ve always wanted to see Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and our host, Elizabeth Webb, suggested the Albert-Kahn Gardens (above) in the outskirts of Paris.

In the 1880’s Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny. It was there that he painted his famous lily pads. Although Monet never visited Japan, he collected beautiful Japanese woodblock prints which are displayed in his house and well worth a visit on their own. Local carpenters recreated the Japanese bridge.

The flower beds were as cheerful as Monet’s green-shuttered pink house. The formal grid design of the upper gardens were distinctly French. The bulbs were planted by color type and carefully balanced. The blocks of bright color were reminiscent of the multicolored rooms inside: a sun yellow dining room with 56 Japanese prints, a pastel blue parlor and an azure blue tiled kitchen and many others. It felt more like an artist’s palette than a decorating scheme. I loved it.

The daffodils were fading, but the tulips were out in full force with the blooming fruit trees. The bright colors softened the regimented symmetry.

The lower garden with its serpentine of water, arched bridge, weeping willows and thick groves of waving bamboo felt understated and Japanese. All it seemed to miss was a teahouse to view the splendor. My favorite gardens are in Kyoto where every blossom or stone is carefully chosen, all working together in asymmetric harmony.

But even in Monet’s Japanese-style garden, the colorful plantings, blooming in reckless abandon, felt more extravagantly western . The pansies glowed in the sunlight as did the azaleas. In pockets of peaceful contemplation, I could appreciate how this garden became Monet’s muse.

I was sorry to miss the irises, roses and lilies pads but not the crowds that accompany them. Over a half million visitors come annually to the Giverny gardens that are only open April to October.

We had lunch at the Museum of American Art’s Terra Café. We ordered crostinis with an interesting fruit and vegetable salad and an excellent raspberry tart for dessert. My ten-year-old daughter enjoyed the American style kid’s menu. The service was fast, and the dining room, open to the gardens, was very pleasant.

If Monet’s Giverny is one of the most famous French gardens, the Albert-Kahn Gardens are the most obscure. Albert Kahn was a wealthy banker who dreamt of world peace. The museum houses his early photography collection, but it was closed for renovation. The gardens were designed to reflect his vision of internationalism. Kahn had traveled to Japan in 1909 on business.

The Japanese garden was too busy with layered stones, thick plantings and multi-level vistas to be Asian. There was a gaudy hill of solid azaleas with a spiraling path. It had an almost Disney theme park feel to it, but of course that made it all the more appealing to the children, who raced up the paths and skipped along the stepping stones. There was a delightful, playful quality to the garden.

The huge carp were genuinely Japanese. My daughter and I shared a Zen moment watching scattered rain drops falling on the pond, creating concentric rings. I’d love to return for a tea ceremony in the teahouse.

By the time we made it to the English garden, it was (appropriately enough) raining quite hard. It wasn’t the best example of English gardening, but daffodils blooming along a stream did bring to mind London parks.

We loved the rough, hilly paths winding through a conifer forest. The pines smelled fragrant in the rain and reminded us of hikes in Maine, although it was meant to invoke the Vosges Mountains of Kahn’s childhood. There was even an American meadow but not much was blooming.

It was a bit of a shock to come upon the traditional French garden after the wild forest. Early in the season, one could see how the crab apple trees were twisted and bent into geometric shapes and pinned like torture victims on a rack. Although all the gardens were artificial, it was only in the French garden that one felt keenly aware of man’s hand in shaping nature to his design.

The Albert-Kahn Museum and Gardens
14, rue du Port
92100 Boulogne-Billancourt
Tel: 01 55 19 28 00
Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-7 or 8pm
Metro: Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud (ligne 10)
€1.5 (free for under 12)

For dinner we continued the japonais theme. Elizabeth’s friend Akiko claims that Kunitoraya is the most authentic Japanese restaurant in Paris. It’s a simple noodle shop, and it did indeed feel like I was back in Tokyo.

In Japan restaurants tend to specialize in only one type of food so there are noodle shops, sushi restaurants, yakitori grills, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and even restaurants serving just breaded fried pork cutlets. There are no “Japanese restaurants” in Japan – that’s a western export. As are large servings of meat or deeply battered tempura. Real Japanese tempura comes lightly battered and isn’t greasy so you can really taste the fresh vegetables.

Kunitoraya sells only noodles and a few rice dishes. My daughter ordered plain noodles in broth, and the rest of us had Kamaten-Udon (€15). We watched them prepare our meal from the noodle bar. All the staff appeared to be Japanese as were half of the clients – always a good sign.

I explained to our friends that you have to slurp the long, slippery noodles, the louder the more polite. The thick wheat noodles (udon) were the best I’ve had outside Japan as was the tempura. They came with a warm dipping sauce to which you add fresh ginger, toasted sesame seeds, chopped scallions and a raw quail’s egg (that had to be a French addition – it usually would be a raw chicken’s egg.)

Kunitoraya was in the Asian district that included many Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants. It was at 39 Rue Ste. Anne near Rue des Petits Champs and is open every day from 11:30am to 10:00pm. Great place for an early, inexpensive dinner with kids. You can sit at the bar or in the cave like basement at a table.

I rounded off the evening with a French motif: fine wine and cheese back home with my friends. It was a fun weekend of dual cultures. Like quails eggs on udon, France and Japan are a good pairing.

This post was part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Click on the link to see what else was blooming around the world on April 15th.


Carol Michel said...

Those gardens are beautiful and I enjoyed how you descibed them... what a wonderful day you all must have had, a gardener's dream day. Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Anonymous said...

What wonderful photographs for a grey day. I wonder if those carp are the same vintage as Albert Kahn himself: they live for ages. At least they are having better luck than the poor carp in the moat of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. They are all being eaten by a hyper-aggressive species of fish presented to the Emperor on a visit to Chicago...
Anhyway, thanks for the guided tour!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this special garden visit. I also lived in Japan and so I'm always interested in Western interpretations of Japanese style. Often I find that so-called Japanese gardens tend to ape the ornamentation without understanding the underlying design concepts. So I find especially interesting your analysis of the over-exuberance, the busyness of Monet's version.

Do you think, too, that a problem arises trying to adapt Japanese gardens because most of the famous ones that people visit are at religious sites? Isn't that like my trying to recreate something like Versailles in my back yard?

Sarah Laurence said...

Carol, thanks for organizing another great Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day.

Coy Guy, puns and good anecdotes always welcome.

M, an interesting observation. Japanese gardens are as much an art form as the ritualized tea ceremony. It’s a meditative arrangement more than a formal design. It would be hard for a Westerner to truly understand it, including me.

I felt Monet’s Japanese garden was a better attempt than Kahn’s professionally designed one. Monet was a gifted artist on both canvas and dirt.

Annie in Austin said...

The only Japanese gardens I've seen are in the US [Austin, Chicago, Seattle, St Louis and the bonsai gardens in DC ] so I have no philosophical observations to make, but I enjoyed the tour. It was interesting to see the Monet gardens with tulips - most of the photos must be taken later in the year, because they always seem to be filled with poppies.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

tina said...

Thank you for taking me on a tour of this magnificent garden and in such a thought provoking way! Love those tulips.

tina said...

I think you must miss Maine ALOT. You'll be home soon. Thanks for adding my blog to your sidebar. I am honored.

Katarina said...

Thanks for the tour - i enjoyed reading about those gardens very much! I haven't been to either of them, but would certainly like to go there one day.
Great pictures!

Shady Gardener said...

Ohmygoodness! You must have had a wonderful time. What beautiful flowers and photos. What a great tree!! Thanks for stopping by. When is your year in the UK to end?

Curmudgeon said...

I didn't particularly care for Kahn's garden, but he was a most fascinating man. He gathered quite the international intelligentsia around him and his photographic collectiion the "Archives de la planète" is quite something. --Curmudgeon

Anonymous said...

I really liked the Japanese Garden and the noodle restaurant, Kunitoraya! That was definitely my favorite Japanese meal since we went to Japan! ☺ :-)
The garden I didn't really like as much as the others was the French Garden. I'm not such a fan for tortured trees. I really liked the forest too which reminded me of Maine. The purple tulips and the water lilies were my favorite at Monet's garden. That whole experience was fun!

~Your Daughter☺♡☀♥

Bee said...


Such visual richness! And your lovely warm descriptions of "sun yellow" and "azure blue." England feels so cold and gray today . . . but at least spring can be found on your lovely blog!

You are a wonderful tour guide -- and I wish we could import those noodles. (BTW, what do you rate at Wagamama?)

Sarah Laurence said...

Annie, I’d love to go back to Giverny and see it in all seasons – especially with the wisteria blooming on the bridge in May. Poppies are amazing in English summer fields too.

Tina, I do miss Maine but am enjoying my time here. Thanks for adding me to your sidebar as well. I love your new profile image – the laughing golden. Is that your dog? We have a golden retriever too. We’ve been invited to tea today at the house of 2 golden owners. Dogs too!

Katarina, I’d recommend the Eurostar for travel – so much more relaxing than flying, and you see more countryside.

Shady Gardener, my year in the UK ends in mid July. I have so much more to see and do before then.

WWW, thanks for bringing up Kahn’s intellectual work. He also financed scholarships for students around the world and paid for professional photographers to travel globally (over 50 countries) taking images for his archives. I wish I could have seen them.

Daughter, I always enjoy your comments and company! Those purple tulips were cool but I already had too many images. There was just so much to see.

Bee, welcome back to England! Sadly, the weather has been cold, dank, windy and grey all week. I hear the bluebells are out if you are looking for color – they thrive in wild woods. I recall that you were south of Oxford – which town? We’re in Northern Oxford. I reviewed Wagamama and a more authentic Japanese restaurant in Oxford: Most authentic Japanese food in England is in London– good noodles too:

Bee said...

I will check out Edamame for sure. Thanks for the tip. I live just outside of Newbury . . . it is a 30 minute drive to Oxford.

I've spotted a few bluebells around here . . .oh, I hope we have a sunny May!

tina said...

Hi Sarah, That is indeed my buddy and faithful gardening partner. He is BJ, a 115 pound golden lab. I also have CeCe, a golden mix and Link, a dachsund/chihuahua mix. BJ loves the ball and since goldens always smile and are happy, and especially since he can't complain, I used his photo for my pic. Love goldens. I think I saw a pic of yours on your blog? I think it is awesome you are invited to tea-with the dogs! I know everyone will be on their best behaviors.

I lived in Europe for 10 years and LOVED every minute of it. But for some reason it still wasn't my home and I would long to settle down in my home (United States). I thought England to be similar to Maine and as a bonus, they speak our language-or is it we speak their language?:) My husband and I would love to go back to Germany but it probably isn't in the cards. The quality of life is so much nicer than where I live now. But that is the way it is.

Anyhow, did you fly your golden over there? I hated flying my dog (Link) as it was so stressful for him and us. We got our two goldens once we settled down. Both came from the animal shelter. BJ even came already neutered. Someone had loved him but let him get away. Gotta go. I have to make my rounds on the blogs. Enjoy your tea fellow golden lover!

Sarah Laurence said...

We did fly our golden over - she's very easy going and took it in stride. It cost a fortune, but it really makes our new home feel (and smell?!) like home. I have some dog posts up - under the label "dog."

tina said...

I'll have to check out your dog posts. I talk about my guys sometimes too-mainly a dog who gardens with the ball and is always there with me. Yes, you need all members of your family and I don't notice a smell so much, just the dog hair. We just got our two shaved and what a big change! So much better for them in the heat as BJ can't tolerate it so much. I'll check the dog posts soon...

tina said...

Stella is beautiful. I remember about the quarantine in England. We shipped to Germany and there is no quarantine there (or at least there wasn't), just the health certificate. But it is worth it to have them. My dog always volksmarched with me and it wouldn't have been the same without him. I found dogs in Germany were much more well behaved than dogs here and felt safe taking my dog out amongst the wide variety of dogs walking over there. Most likely because they have better laws and consequences for irresponsible pet ownership, not like here in Tennessee. Maine may be better but remembering all the stray dogs in Harpswell makes me think there are irresponsible pet owners everywhere.

Ki said...

Your meal looks delicious. The French have had a great affinity for all things Japanese especially during the Impressionist period. There's even a coined word for their obsession, Japonisme. I wonder if some of this interest was because of introduced plants from Japan?

Sarah Laurence said...

Ki, an interesting theory about cultural growth. I enjoyed the Japanese trees on your blog post today.

kate smudges said...

This was an interesting tour of the different gardens - great photographs to accompany them as well.

Do you garden when you are at home in Maine? I'd love to see pictures of your garden!

Sarah Laurence said...

Kate, you’ve blown my cover. The protagonist of my novel S.A.D. is a gardener, but I’m not. I did study landscape architecture one summer at Harvard’s GSD. I decided not to follow that career but left with an appreciation for gardens. Non-artists go to art galleries for pleasure and that would be me with gardens.

My backyard in Maine is an old growth forest of towering 100-year-old white pines with interesting indigenous groundcover and lovely wild flowers. We even built a treehouse. Sadly many pines died right before we left for England. It will be interesting watching the re-growth. I’ll post some photos when I return.

Bee said...

I enjoyed reading this again, Sarah. I don't think that I will have the time to take in either of these gardens in my brief three days in Paris, but someday I would really like to visit Giverny. Your photographs of the spring bulbs are gorgeous.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, have fun in Paris!