OKUIZUMO, Japan -- The Adachi Museum of Art in Japan's western prefecture of Shimane is little-known, but its garden is something of a superstar -- at least among aficionados of traditional landscaping.
For 16 years running, it has been named the most beautiful Japanese garden by Sukiya Living, a U.S. publication also known as The Journal of Japanese Gardening. Thanks in part to this distinction, the 165,300-sq.-meter grounds attract a steady stream of visitors.
The Adachi Museum estate is hardly the only gem in Shimane. The prefecture is home to eight of the journal's Top 50 gardens, selected from roughly 1,000 around Japan. That is second only to Kyoto's 11.
Kyoto's No. 1 status is hardly surprising. But why Shimane?
A visit reveals a long and proud gardening tradition, including but not limited to a unique landscaping style that emerged in Izumo -- an old province that is now the eastern part of the prefecture.
Nestled in the rural town of Okuizumo is the Itohara Memorial Museum. The garden there has not made the Top 50 list, but that does not make it any less impressive. Visitors catch a glimpse of what awaits through the onarimon, a gate once used only by noblemen. Upon entering the museum, one finds steppingstones arranged in an immaculately kept sea of shikisuna (spreading sand), surrounded by Japanese black pines and lanterns overgrown with moss.
Hemmed in by buildings and fences of what was once the manor of the Itohara samurai clan, the garden offers a soothing sense of seclusion. It was designed according to the Izumo-Ryu, or Izumo school, of gardening, explains Takeshi Itohara, the deputy curator of the museum.
The method has been described as vague and elusive, since there are no clear criteria. Still, a typical Izumo-Ryu garden features a karesansui dry landscape -- a symbolic representation of mountains and water using rocks, sand, gravel and moss -- along with a roji, or dewy path through which one passes to reach a chashitsu tea house.
The use of carved steppingstones is unmistakably playful, as well as practical. The distance from the center of one stone to the next is 60 cm to 70 cm, and most are about 10 cm high. This ensures people can easily walk through the garden even when it is blanketed by snow.
Shimane is dotted with hundreds of Izumo-Ryu gardens of various sizes.
The style gained popularity in the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It owes much to Matsudaira Harusato (1751-1818), an Edo-period feudal lord and the seventh ruler of the Matsue Domain, which occupied Izumo Province. Also known as a master of tea ceremony, he is said to have hired gardeners from Kyoto to build gardens to his tastes.
Wealthy individuals, including iron smelters and gentleman farmers, resided in the domain and absorbed the passion for gardening from the ruling clan. Over time, Izumo-Ryu developed.
The Adachi Museum's garden does not fall into this style, but the garden of the Hirata Honjin Memorial Museum in the city of Izumo -- 46th on the U.S. magazine's list -- embodies it. Many Izumo-Ryu gardens belong to private residences and are not open to the public.
The Itohara garden is also private, but it has been designated a national registered monument and is open to visitors. The complex is maintained by Tokuyasu Itohara, 71, the 15th head of the Itohara family, which built its wealth during the Edo period by manufacturing iron, and his eldest son, Takeshi, the 16th head. They now run the family's forestry business.
Takeshi handles the bulk of the daily garden chores, including caring for the stones and picking up fallen leaves. "In the old times, when our family had many servants, the eldest son would never do the cleaning," he says with a smile.
Private gardens, by nature, are meant to be enjoyed privately. Traditionally, inviting guests into one's garden was considered a special form of hospitality.
Not everyone, for example, has the chance to see another Izumo-Ryu garden which belong to a woman in her 70s, who prefers to be anonymous. It can only be reached by either passing through the onarimon gate or walking through her house.
The drawing room of the home commands the best view, when the sliding doors to the external corridor are opened. On sunny days, the green almost sparkles; in the rain, the steppingstones glisten. In spring, the kobai Japanese apricot trees explode with pink blossoms. In the fall, it is the tsuwabuki leopard plants' turn to bloom.
There is a tea house in one corner, but the woman says it was "built only to give the garden an authentic look."
The garden was most likely created during the Taisho era (1912-1926). The woman imagines the family designed it out of a yearning for an upper-class lifestyle. "Strong winds and heavy rain make me depressed, because I have to clean up the garden afterward," she says, adding that she hires experts to help with cleaning and pruning.
She says she has "no strong desire to show it to others" and is "just doing it to keep the property in good condition." Even so, the woman admits she feels happy when someone praises her garden.
This year, for Japan's annual Doll Festival on March 3, relatives gathered at her home to put up traditional hina dolls and drink matcha green tea while gazing at the landscape.
This is how such gardens were meant to be enjoyed: Hideki Hayashi, a member of the Association of Shimane Professional Engineers who has been studying Izumo-Ryu, says proper hospitality calls for treating guests to the pleasure of looking at a garden while enjoying matcha and sweets for formal occasions, and ordinary sencha green tea with pickles for casual events.
That local custom may help explain the prevalence of top-class gardens in Shimane.
For further information about the Adachi Museum, visit: https://www.adachi-museum.or.jp/en/