I’ve been re-reading parts of the book Robert Irwin Getty Garden, and discovered this passage in which Irwin, an “artist who isn’t a gardener” describes walking in the garden with Jim Duggan, a “gardener who isn’t an artist” (that's a quotation from the San Diego Union Tribune).
Irwin says, “Well, one thing that Jim’s been doing as we go through the year (the book was published 2002) is, he lists every single plant. We’ve been walking through the garden together on an average once every two weeks, and he takes notes, giving each plant a rating, like one star, two stars, up to five stars. In January, a plant might get one star, then it’s a two star and then it’s a three star and then it’s a four star and then it’s a five star – it stays five stars for whatever, and then it becomes a four and a three and a two and we plan its replacement, and then we take it out.”
Well, what a very singular way of walking through a garden, and what a formidable display of ruthlessness. It must make you feel like a god, or perhaps like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as he appears in the novel You Only Live Twice.
I first read it a long time ago, when I was barely a teenager, and I’m really not sure I ever saw the movie, but I gather that book and film resemble each other only in passing. What has stayed with me from the book for all these years is the Garden of Death, a place in the grounds of a castle on a Japanese island, a place full of deadly plants where people go to commit suicide. There’s a pool of piranhas in there too. The whole thing moved my thirteen year old’s heart in ways I don’t understand even now.
So I just reread You Only Live Twice, and frankly it’s a bit ropey, Fleming’s eleventh and penultimate novel, written at a time when he was ailing. Bond is in Japan for one reason or another. Blofeld has disguised himself as Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, a man internationally praised for his knowledge of plants but the Japanese authorities find his Garden of Death a bit of an embarrassment (which sounds extremely unlike the Japanese, to me) and so Bond’s mission is to disguise himself as a Japanese deaf mute (!?), get inside the castle and kill Shatterhand. Spoiler alert - he succeeds.
Walking in the garden is considered a bit of a liability, but Bond’s Japanese connection, Tiger Tanaka, tells him the garden is full of hiding places.
“Thanks very much,” says Bond. “In one of those poison bushes or up one of those trees. I don’t want to blind myself or go mad.”
“The ninja clothing will give you complete protection. You will have a black suit for night and a camouflage one for the day. You will wear the swimming goggles to protect your eyes.”
Actually it’s not all that easy to see how deadly this garden is. Sure, Fleming gives us a list of the deadly plants growing there, including castor bean, ipecacuahana, and Mexican wild potato, all of which are certainly dangerous, but it’s not as if a wild potato is going to leap from the ground and force you to eat it, is it now?
It makes you wonder who the gardeners were, and whether they went around giving plants star ratings. I’m guessing not.
In recent years the Aokigahara Forest, also known as Yukai forest “the Sea of Trees,” has been getting a lot of publicity and there are some truly gruesome pictures online. Like Blofeld’s garden, it’s a place where people go to commit suicide; somewhere between 70 and a 100 per year is the accepted number. People walk in and never walk out, and of course they take their fate in their own hands without having to rely on deadly plants or any Bond villain. Hanging is the most frequently used suicide method, followed by poisoning and overdose.
I can’t make up my mind whether this is a good or a bad thing. In general, I think people have every right to kill themselves, not that “rights” come into it much. I don’t claim to have any expertise in the matter, but of the friends I’ve known who’ve killed themselves, at least two of them did it while out walking.
There are no gardeners in the Aokigahara Forest as far as I know, though there are volunteer counselors who position themselves in the forest and try to talk potential suicides into changing their mind. The photographs above and below are by Pieter ten Hoopen who has documented the place in a less grisly fashion that many. The picture below shows Azusa Hayano, a geologist who has apparently talked hundreds of people out of ending it all. Of course he’s also found a certain number of bodies.
Well there was none of that a few days ago when I went to the James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in downtown LA, one of those places that’s always on lists of “LA’s best kept secrets” thereby ensuring it’s no longer secret. James Irvine, or at least his foundation, was the major sponsor, and it was designed by Takeo Uesugi, who for several decades was the go-to guy if you wanted a Japanese garden in southern California: he died in January 2016
You can see into the garden from the street, just about, but it’s sunk down into the earth and there are locked and forbidding gates. It’s open to the public, but they don’t exactly beckon you in. You have to go into the community center, and confront a stern Japanese woman who will quite literally look you up and down to make sure you’re worthy, and if you are (it seemed touch and go in my own case, but I just made it), then you sign in, and are allowed go down in a elevator, thread your way along corridors between office doors, and there you are in a Japanese garden surrounded on all sides by the skyscrapers of LA..
It’s not large but it has most of what you want and need in a Japanese garden – there’s a stream, footbridges, some ferns, some redwoods, and a very great number of plants I couldn’t tell you the name of. I don’t believe any of them were overtly deadly. There wasn’t a lot going, which is want you want in a Japanese garden. A few people came and went while I was there – but for much of the time I was the only one.
Interestingly there are no benches in the garden, which may have been another attempt to make sure the riffraff don’t linger too long, and it meant that if you wanted to sit you had to find a rock to accommodate your buttocks, or, as in my own choice, you could keep on walking around the paths.