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Parc Oriental (Japanese garden) in Maulévrier

PS: Mom says I've written way too much blah. I guess I don't have shibui in my writing. ☺
That's okay. You can just look at the pictures if you prefer...

 

Yesterday, we (my mom and I) went to the Parc Oriental in Maulévrier (just south-east of Cholet).
Having navigated the many lights and junctions of Cholet, we arrived in Maulévrier and followed the signs for the Parc Oriental. Then there were no more signs. Panic! However as we went around the roundabout, I was like "yeah, that is probably it".

The big red structure is a torii. Written as 鳥居, a literal translation is "where birds live" (, tori, bird; , i, home/dwelling).
It is religious symbolism and marks the transition between the profane everyday world and the sacred space of the Shinto shrine.

Set up by Alexandre Marcel between 1900 and 1913, the garden features many trees and shrubs in a rather sublime setting. It was themed upon the stroll parks in Japan's Edo period (roughly 17th-19th century). Water is the main element of the park, taking up about 3/10ths of the garden area, and it flows from east to west. There is a lot of Zen aesthetic here.

This is a silk tree (Albizia julibrissin) from Japan. It is an ornamental tree known for its rather spectacular silky flowers. It may be, incorrectly, called a mimosa.

This is a view from the Azumaya (a traditional style boat landing platform) looking towards the bridge at the entry to the park. There are two lanterns, a Kasuga-dōrō (stone pedestal lantern) near the bridge, and the wider squat legged lantern in the shadows closer. The squat lantern is called a Yukimi-dōrō and is so-called because its roof collects snow (yuki) and you can look at it (mi) in the winter. Hence, it is a snow-viewing lantern.

Additionally, the kanji symbolising the capital city - , seen as a part of the current capital Tōkyō (東京) and the former capital Kyōto (京都) - so-called because of the stone lantern that stood in the emperors palace.

Looking the other way, across the lake. You can see in the distance a red bridge. We'll get to that shortly.

Here are the lanterns from the bridge:

This part of the park features waterfalls, water pouring out of the rocks, and mazes of streams and ponds that were crossed by stepping stones. No doubt unkind for disabled visitors, but a boon for little children that could get their shoes wet while their parents weren't looking.
The ponds featured plenty of koi carp, as was expected.

Of course, with all this water around, one could not mistake the distinctive noise of the thing that goes "doink". Properly known as a shishi-odoshi (鹿威し, or deer scarer, this simple bamboo device is a sealed tube of bamboo mounted on a pivot. The tube fills up with water, and when it reaches a certain capacity, tips over dumping all the water. The tube then returns to its resting position, hitting the rock that it rests upon, making the characteristic doink sound.

Here is the bonsai aesthetic applied to real sized trees. Enquiring minds might wonder as to how they actually maintain these trees. It's probably something boring like guys on boats with long-arm clippers, but since this is an Asian themed garden, we'll just go with flying monkeys. Yeah. Flying monkeys keep the tree trimmed!

By the way: yes, I know their origin is supposed to be Chinese; for more information, compare "Xiao" (monkey/ape mountain spirit, sort of) with Hsigo, a nonsense word that is usually a winged monkey with a humanoid face that is what happens when you take two millennia of Chinese mythology and put it in a blender with Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is, of course, the latter who take care of the trees.
Well, either that or ninja kittens. But since it was a hot sunny day, they were resting so I didn't get to take any photographs of them at work.

Here is the infamous red bridge. The bridge itself (Guzei) symbolises the crossing between the near shore (where we live) and the far shore (where spirits live). It is, again, symbolic of the crossing between the profane and the sacred. In Zen symbolism, the bright red colour respresents life force and the sacred, thus meaning the purpose of the bridge is enhanced by painting it vivid red; and the act of crossing it is supposed to transform worldliness into wisdom.

Unfortunately it is hard to transform anything into wisdom with other people around, so I shall provide you with a picture of the bridge to contemplate in the comfort of your own bedroom...

(notice, also, there's another torii here)

Since I really like this bridge, here's another look at it. And although they aren't reading this (being French and all), a big thank you to the people that stayed out of the way until I had taken these photographs.

This is looking up the lake from the other side. You can see the impressive Château Colbert standing above the park. The architect Alexandre Marcel married the château owner's daughter and created this park from 1900 to 1913. He died in 1928, and his wife remained in residence until her death in 1945. Following the war, everything fell into disrepair, if not desolation, for four decades. The town of Maulévrier purchased the park in 1980 and began an extensive restoration project in 1987 using photographs and interviews to try to determine where everything was and how it looked. Some parts of the park, such as the boat landing stage, were utterly ruined and had to be recreated using photographs. This, the Japanese Garden Kaiserslautern (Germany) and Hasselt's Japanese Garden (Belgium) all claim to be the largest Japanese garden in Europe. I'm not sure which really is, but with hundreds of trees, bamboo everywhere, and many azaleas and maples, not to mention the obligatory sakura (but not in August!), it is today a very pleasant place to visit. Many of the trees are big, so there is plenty of welcome shade for walking around on a hot day. My only concern would be the number of very young children - I'm not sure that this is a place that a child would like. I think I would have hated it when I was a tweenie, but then I was a brat...

Some lovely reflections from the far side of the lake. Hmmm, am I on the far shore? ☺

A giant maneki-neko pointed the way to what might be the weakest cup of Darjeeling I have ever tasted. I know Japanese flavours like to be subtle, but there's a difference between subtle and non-existent!

The maneki-neko (招き猫) or beckoning cat is a good luck charm. The cat is not waving. In Japanese, holding the hand up, palm down, and repeatedly folding back the fingers is how you indicate "come here". As an alternative, the hand may stay flat and gently wave up and down. Which is the gesture being made by the cat. It's saying "come here". As to the meaning of the gesture, well, good luck. It seems to be commonplace that the left paw indicates money while the right paw indicates luck, but there must be about as many different interpreations as there are maneki-neko.
The cat is holding a representation of an oval gold coin called a koban (小判) which is Edo-era currency. The coin itself is said to have a value of ten million ryō, and a ryō is approximately a thousand dollars. Which means the cat is supposedly holding a coin worth €8,956,962,000 although in real terms the phrase "silly huge wads of cash" would be about the size of it, rather than a literal translation.
The coin says 招福 (shōfuku). Google Translate was no help, so I threw it to Google proper, and several sources tell me that it means "inviting happiness". While I wouldn't turn my nose up at a lottery win, I am reminded of the one thing that money can't buy...

In the gift shop were some adorable ceramic hand painted kimono wearing maneki-nekos. At €31,20 apiece, they sadly remained on the shelf.

Behind the gift shop was another thing that goes doink:

A little bit beyond that was a zen water feature that mom quite liked, which led into a small bamboo grove.

There were more show-offy koi, lots of bamboo, and another stone lantern.

 

In Zen, there is a certain beauty of things that are incomplete or imperfect. This is expressed by the phrase "wabi-sabi" (侘寂). Taken alone, those kanji mean "refinement" and "antique/aged" respectively. The creation of a successful Zen garden to Japanese aesthetics is achieved by understanding seven principles:

  • Kanso (簡素) - simplicity through the elimination of the non-necessary. "less is more".
  • Fukinsei (不均整) - asymmetry. Nature is full of examples of things that are not perfectly symmetrical. Those that are, tend to be artificial. Think of this as "natural beauty" (usually when applied to things, not girls!).
  • Shibui (渋味) - the beauty of something that is exactly what it is without necessary explanation or flashiness. May imply something that is restrained compared to other similar things. "minimalist".
  • Shizen (自然) - naturalness. Something that is non-artificial and free from pretensions. It is interesting to note that a proper Zen garden is supposed to evoke a feeling of spontaneity, while such is actually carefully planned. In a way this is suggesting that while something can be planned, to do so in a neat and regular fashion is incorrect. Don't plant a row of plants, plant a seemingly haphazard clump.
  • Yugen (幽玄) - suggestion rather than revelation. While superficially this can be translated as meaning a subtle sort of grace without shouting in your face, at a deeper level it implies also that things should be symbolic to guide you to find your own answers. This is perhaps best indicated by looking at the differences between, say, Christianity and Buddhism. In Christianity, you have a book. And a man who interprets the book. What is said is said to be the word of God and what is passed on by the interpreter (be he the Pope or any village vicar) is supposed to be The Truth. People preach truth. And the truth is not to be questioned. By contrast, the first thing you're likely to run into if you try taking east-Asian Buddhism seriously is a set of bizarre riddles called Kōans. The purpose of these is to cause you to doubt what you know and to try to guide you towards what you are supposed to understand. Their history is littered with many who climb trees, mountains, cliffs, volcanoes, to sit alone until they are half dead. If they're lucky, they will reach enlightenment. And that's why Yugen is important. It isn't preaching, it isn't saying "I am" or "You are", it is calmly suggesting. The rest? That's for you to discover.
    In terms of a garden, this is often achieved by stands of bamboo. You don't get to see the garden all at once, you get to see it piece by piece through winding pathways.
  • Datsuzoku (脱俗) - this is often translated as "freedom from convention", but in a way this is missing one of the main points; that of otherwordliness or a sense of wonder. Remember when you were a child and everything was "wow", but now you're an adult and everything is just "meh"? Well, a good Zen garden is supposed to invoke a sense of wow. Little things, things you can't quite put your finger on (to be otherwise would not be Shibui). This sits right in with the Zen idea that things are just an illusion.
  • Seijaku (静寂) - tranquillity, stillness, calm, solitude. This is one of the central tenets of Zen. Just above I mentioned blokes climbing trees and mountains for their enlightenment. This is because you will never experience sufficient calm to reach enlightenment in a world of car horns, motorbikes, airplanes, dogs, sirens, and spoilt children. Indeed my visit to the park was somewhat spoilt by barking dogs and wailing children, but then it was a park that anybody could come and visit and reaching a state worthy of Zen is not exactly a group-hug kind of activity. That said, a good Zen garden would bring the landscape to an irregular (Fukinsei) harmony that is suggestive (Yugen) to help you find your own peace.
All of these elements in turn help to create a Zen garden. Was it effective? Partially. I could see some of the ideas in use, but I suspect that a lot of it was simply missed on me. It was calming and relaxing being there, but then I live in a world of chaos.

 

Back to the story: Leaving the gift shop/tea room, we headed back to the reception and out into the car park for the long journey home. Wishing to avoid Cholet's many traffic lights, we headed towards Mauleon and ended up on a new road that took us to... Cholet! This new road wasn't even on our map! Quickly turning left, we headed once more to Mauleon. Around the area were numerous signs for Le Puy de Fou. Apparently it is a sort of historical theme park where people dress up and act out scenes from history. I'm not quite sure what the point is, given the entrance fee. I asked a guy from work who has taken his children (now teenagers) several times. The conversation goes something like this:

Him: It's very interesting.
Me : What exactly is it?
Him: ...
Him: It's very interesting.

We eventually got on the right road and headed back to our favourite town (Clisson). There a giant Big Mac and fries awaited...

...somebody else. We went into the Leclerc and got salad and melon cubes. Keeping with the Japanese theme I got a pack of chicken gyoza (think Asian dumplings) with soy sauce. The gyoza came with chop sticks which I used to eat my entire salad, because the little plastic fork supplied was really crappy; and indeed it must be crappy if eating chicken/pasta/parmesan salad with chopsticks is easier! That was washed down with an Innocent banana and strawberry smoothie. Sorry McDo, it just wasn't burger-o'clock.

The sky was comletely clear all day. The temperature was around 30°C-32°C. It was a little on the hot side, but the cool shade of the park's trees made up for that. All in all, a lovely way to bring my summer holiday to a close.

We left at noon and got home for 9pm. A huge thank you to mom, who must have driven something like 250km in total.

It was a nice day.

 

I shall leave you with a scan of the receipt - it was not expensive to visit. Not when you compare a small zoo wanting nearly €20 a head to enter.

And finally, a scan of one of the promotional postcards:

 

 

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GAVIN WRAITH, 14th August 2016, 11:07
Many thanks, Rick. Wonderful pictures, wonderful blog - a treat.
Reader, 19th August 2016, 03:06
Great blog entry. Thanks for sharing.
David Pilling, 19th August 2016, 03:38
Nice. The thing that goes doink one could call a relaxation oscillator (honest that is the technical term, although in a garden setting I can see another meaning). Those waving cats are quite common in the shops (see ebay) - gold, battery, they wave. I thought they were Chinese.

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