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Take a picnic beneath pink trees this spring as Paris turns Japanese

We explore the rich tradition of Hanami and explores the ongoing ties between Japanese and French gardeners in the capital

Parc Oriental de Maulévrier awash with pastel petals Pic: Mehdi Media

Celebrate Hanami this year with a visit to the largest Japanese garden in Europe, the 29-hectare Parc Oriental de Maulévrier. 

The Japanese festival of ‘Hanami’ means literally ‘to contemplate the flowers’. 

It is a tradition that goes back to the ninth century in Japan, and is strongly linked with the Shinto religion, which believes that the ‘Sakura’ (Cherry Blossom Trees) are inhabited by ‘kami’, deities within, to which offerings should be made. 

In its origin, Hanami was enjoyed primarily by the ‘Japanese Imperial Court’ and it was only during the Edo period (from 1603 to 1867) that it became a public festival and the Japanese, en masse, began to take flight each spring to sit under the cherry trees and picnic. 

Up to 63 million people celebrate the festival

Now, we are told, up to 63 million people move around each year to celebrate the festival.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a ‘Hanami-dedicated’ weather service here in France, as they do in Japan, but we know that the season is coming further and further forward with the change in climate. 

The BBC recorded in 2021 that the peak of Hanami flowering in Japan was recorded on 26 March – earlier than at any time since 812, when records began. 

Incidentally, this record for Hanami is a useful dataset for tracking climate change, since few other meteorological records extend back so far. 

What we do have are the opening times for the Parc Oriental de Maulévrier, originally part of the domain of the Château de Colbert, near Cholet in the Maine-et-Loire. 

The Parc opens at the earliest possible date – 15 March in 2023 – to ensure that visitors do not miss the first of the season’s blooms, which are usually those of Prunus ‘Accolade’, P. x yedoensis, and P. subhirtella ‘Pendula’, followed by ‘Kanzan’ and cultivars of sweet cherry (P. avium). 

Parc Oriental breaks it’s normal ‘no picnicking’ rule

Pic: Hanami

Parc Oriental breaks it’s normal ‘no picnicking’ rule, and Hanami visitors are encouraged to spread their blankets and eat and drink their fill – your blanket does not have to be blue, the colour dictated by Hanami tradition! 

It’s also worth mentioning that modern Japanese Hanami parties are increasingly rowdy and frowned upon by the older generation for excessive alcohol consumption and laughter – behave yourselves! 

The Parc Oriental, created between 1899 and 1913, was designed by Alexandre Marcel, an architect renowned for his Belle Epoque style, who created three pavilions for the Universal Exhibition in Paris of 1900 and worked internationally creating Japanese gardens and garden structures for such clients as the King of Belgium. 

In 1913 he went to Tokyo to work on the French Embassy there, but was recalled because of the outbreak of war. 

Fell into ruin

The Parc Oriental fell into ruin later in the century after the death of its creator, finally being rescued by the commune of Maulévrier, who purchased it in 1980. 

It is now run by an association made up of volunteers, a permanent team of professionals and apprentices. 

It is recognised throughout Europe as a model for the quality of its restoration and enhancement, which was based on photographs and the memories of visitors to the original Marcel garden. 

In 1987, academics from the universities of Tokyo and Niigata visited and officially recognised 12 acres of the Parc Oriental as true evocation of a Japanese ‘stroll’ garden of the Edo period. 

Received ‘Jardin Remarquable’ status

Dan Asaki on unsplash

The park received ‘Jardin Remarquable’ status in 2004. 

The advisory relationship with Japan continues to this day by means of close ties with professors Makoto Suzuki (University of Agriculture, Tokyo) and Eijiro Fujii (University of Chiba). 

The Parc is an ongoing project and, as recently as 2020, with the advice of these experts, a new area was opened called ‘The Island of the Setting Sun’. 

In June 2022, the Parc Oriental saw the birth of the European Association of Japanese gardens, attended by the Japanese ambassador to France, Junichi Ihara. 

Design rich in symbolism

The design of a Japanese garden is always rich in symbolism and the Parc Oriental uses water as a metaphor to describe the story of man’s journey through life, from the small lively stream of childhood to the large, placid lake of old age, complete with its famous reconstruction of Alexandre Marcel’s original red bridge, leading to the Islands of Paradise, representing the after-life. 

Look out for beautiful examples of Japanese topiary: cloud-pruned yews (‘niwaki’) as they float against the backdrop of Prunus ‘Accolade’, and the organic forms of ‘karikomi’, shrubs clipped into billowing shapes to graze or roll like stones upon the slopes of the Hill of Meditations. 

In the Pagoda (restored from the original) you will find a detailed history of the garden and an explanation of the symbolism the visitor encounters (in English and French). 

The Parc specialises in all things Japanese

You can visit a ceramics exhibition and the glasshouse featuring a bonsai display, while in the shop young plants of ornamental cherry, maple and potential bonsai subjects are available, as well as compost and containers for bonsai cultivation. 

The shop is manned by expert staff who can respond to queries on all things Japanese gardening. (www.parc-oriental.com/activites/arts-orientaux). 

Parc Oriental de Maulévrier opens on 15 March 2023: weekdays 11.30 to 18.00 hours; weekends 10.30 to 18.30. 

A visit takes an hour or more and the ticket office shuts an hour before closing time. 

€9.50 for those over 18; students, young people, disabled: €8.00; children less than 12 years: free. 

Do not give up on Hanami after the Parc Oriental. 

Follow up the experience with a stroll under the cherry trees of one of the world’s most remarkable spring cities – Paris. 

Try the Jardins du Trocadéro, with its avenues of Kanzan cherry; the delightful, earlier flowering Prunus cerasifera on the Jardins du Champs de Mars; or the venerable specimens in the Jardins des Plantes (one of France’s oldest botanic gardens). 

And there’s always the joy of coming across one or two cherries in full flood in the delectable small corners of the city, such as the courtyard garden of the Petit Palais (Musée des Beaux-Arts). 

But stroll around the city during the week, for preference, because you won’t be the only visitor enjoying a Parisien Hanami.

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