It’s a hectic and bustling city that we live in. On every street corner we are bombarded by billboards and neon signs, and crossing the crowded streets is a challenge only slightly inferior to the average assault course. In a city like Cairo it is not that difficult to lose your Zen. If you want to restore it, head for a visit to the Japanese botanical gardens in Helwan.
At first glance, the Japanese Botanical Garden seems like your average park with a kiosk, a playground for kids and some trees; yet there are some interesting features here. The park was created in 1917 by Zulfiqar Pasha, who was the Grand Chamberlain of Egypt at the time. This honorary role carried with it a symbolic duty to look after the royal household. Back in those days, Helwan was an affluent neighbourhood famous for its hot sulphur springs. For many of Cairo’s aristocrats, including King Farouk, it was the perfect place for weekend getaways.
The park is divided into two parts. The right side from the entrance is situated on a hill whereas the left side is completely flat. The right side is the most interesting part. As soon as you enter and look to your right, you will see a huge Buddha face carved out of a rock. If you walk up from here, you reach a plateau where a fountain with three little elephants is situated. The fountain, as like most waterways in this park, is dry. Right next to it is a Japanese cottage where you can rest on some of the benches.
From here on, keep walking straight up the hill until you come across what used to be a lake surrounded by at least 30 Buddha statues. A little research revealed that this used to be a very nice lake with vegetation all around. However, the dried up spot today makes the place look rather creepy. The abandoned palace-turned-hospital across the park, which is haunted according to urban legend, emphasises this whole image. Above the lake with the Buddha statues is another Japanese cottage functioning as a panorama.
The other side of the park also has a lake, which was half empty at the time of our visit. A collection of paddle boats stacked next to the lake are proof that once upon a time the park might have been in better condition than it is now. Next to a little bamboo forest there is a big smiling Buddha statue. At the end of the park is another Japanese cottage with benches. To the right of that is a children’s playground with swings and a carousel. Apart from the bamboo, there aren’t many typical Japanese flowers or trees to be found.
The garden is easy to reach by public transport. You can take the metro to the last station on the Helwan line. When exiting the station, take a left and walk four blocks down. By car just follow the Maadi Corniche to the end. Take a left at the King Farouk Corner Museum after the second army checkpoint and keep going straight until the roundabout. Take the second exit from the roundabout and then take the fourth left and you’ll arrive at the garden within three minutes. The entrance fee costs only 2LE for Egyptians and foreigners.
Visiting this abandoned garden is definitely recommended. After all, it is the only Japanese botanical garden in the Middle East and that in itself makes this a very unique attraction. The garden also gives a glimpse into Egypt’s rich (though now neglected) cultural past.