Emperor Naruhito will visit London's Kew Gardens, which has links to Japan

When Emperor Naruhito of Japan visits Kew Gardens on Thursday as part of a state visit to Britain, the ties between its island nation and the famous London landmark will be on full display.

Scattered throughout the botanical garden's 330 acres are constant reminders of that long-standing relationship. In a large greenhouse, bronze sculptures of bonsai trees, some nearly as tall as the room, pay homage to the Japanese horticultural art form. Just a few steps away is the Japanese Gateway, an intricately carved cypress replica of a Kyoto temple. Nearby, neatly raked gravel in waves and swirls surrounded by Japanese plant species evokes a traditional tea garden.

Dignitaries and heads of state from many countries regularly stop at Kew Gardens on official tours, joining the crowds that number around 2.3 million visits each year to one of London's most popular tourist destinations. But for the emperor the site will perhaps have even more relevance.

“We have a close and long-standing relationship with Japan, which can be seen through several beautiful structures in our landscape, but also in our living collections, as well as in our economic botany and art collection,” said Richard Deverell, director of the Royal Botanic. Gardens Kew, the organization that manages the site, is commemorating the monthly garden festival in 2021 to celebrate the relationship.

The 64-year-old emperor's lineage dates back more than 15 centuries, making the Chrysanthemum Throne the world's oldest monarchy. But just like that of the British royal family, the role of the Japanese imperial family is symbolic and separate from the government of the country.

Thursday's tour is part of a week-long visit to Britain by the emperor and his wife, Empress Masako. The couple has long had a personal connection to the country. Both studied at Oxford University in the 1980s: the emperor was crown prince at the time; the empress was part of a Japanese foreign ministry program that sends early-career diplomats abroad to study.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the royal and imperial families of Great Britain and Japan have had a close relationship. In 1902, the two countries signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, an agreement that fostered cooperation and cultural exchange.

As British interest in its new ally grew, Japanese art exhibitions became popular; according to the Japanese Embassy, ​​the 1910 British-Japanese Exhibition in London attracted more than eight million visitors. Among them was Queen Mary, wife of King George V and paternal grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, and an avid collector of Japanese art.

The links between Kew Gardens and Japan have continued for generations. The Japanese Gateway – a scaled-down replica of a gate at the Nishi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto, made of hinoki cypress – was installed in 1911 after being shown at the Japan-British Exhibition in London a year earlier.

After the Japan Gate was restored in 1996, the replica temple and a new traditional landscape were formally inaugurated by the emperor's sister, who was Princess Sayako at the time. She (She lost her title in 2005, when she married and became a private citizen.) At her dedication, she planted a Northern Japanese magnolia, which still grows in Kew Gardens.

The small treasures that form part of Kew Gardens' impressive bonsai collection will be on display during the Emperor's visit to the historic Temperate House, one of the botanical gardens' Victorian-era glasshouses.

Bonsai, growing and shaping miniature trees in containers, often requires years of work by skilled artists. Among the highlights of Kew Gardens' collection of 60 bonsai trees is a tiny specimen only 10 centimeters tall and another that is 180 years old.

Richard Kernick, botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, said that although bonsai are often thought of as dwarf trees, they are actually trees that have been expertly pruned and shaped to prevent them from growing to their maximum size.

“This intricate and precise art form transforms trees into little living treasures,” he said. “A living bonsai is an unfinished work of art that usually outlives its artist. Inheriting a tree is like being a rung on a ladder: there are often many rungs behind and, hopefully, many rungs in front.”

A series of bronze bonsai sculptures created by British artist Marc Quinn are also on display in the greenhouse, along with some of the rarest plants from around the world.

The emperor will meet Masumi Yamanaka, Japan's first residential botanical artist at Kew Gardens, who will talk about her painting of the Miracle Pine, which became a symbol of hope after Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami.

The emperor and empress, who arrived in Britain on Saturday, are also spending time with the British royal family. Prince William met them at their hotel on Tuesday, at the start of their official visit, and King Charles III and Queen Camilla hosted them at a formal state banquet at Buckingham Palace in the evening.

King Charles, 75, and the emperor have much in common, including their sometimes niche interests, public scrutiny of their marriages and obsession with their domestic lives.

Both men are relatively new monarchs. Naruhito became emperor in 2019, when his father, Emperor Akihito, abdicated, and Charles was crowned king in 2022, after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The Japanese royals will visit Oxford on Friday, the last day of their visit.

The emperor and empress visited numerous other sites, including Japan House, a cultural center in London, and the Thames Barrier, one of the world's largest mobile flood barriers. While the barrier might have seemed like a casual stop for a royal, the emperor probably took more interest in it than many visitors.

The title of his memoir about his two years at Oxford is “The Thames and I”, a nod to the waterway's effect on his time there and to his undergraduate thesis, the subject of which was the history of transportation on the river in the 18th century.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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