A remarkable number of travellers admit to particular fondness for a single country, visiting it over and over, neglecting other destinations. Don Kibbler’s flown from Australia to Japan 93 times, and he’s not an airline pilot.
A successful builder for 20 years, turned newsagent and hotelier, the trips sent him nearly broke, thanks to a building project of a different kind: Cowra’s Japanese Gardens. Now the Gardens, and the town’s associated Japanese attractions, constitute a year-round tourist drawcard to this Lachlan Valley enclave of just 10,000 that’s worthy of a population ten times its size. Kibbler, born in Cowra, turns 80 next year. Asked if he’s spent his entire life in the town he quips: “Not yet!” Barely three when World War II broke out, he was just seven when over a thousand Japanese tried to break out of Cowra’s POW camp in 1944. He’s spent more than half his years dedicated to the Gardens cause, since the germ of the idea to create them struggled into a sprout in the ’70s. It’s said he surrendered five years with no income to make the Gardens happen. He has an OAM for his work, while many others too, from the Australian Government and Japanese corporations to local community leaders, played a part in completing the hands-of-peace masterpiece, which spent several periods on its knees before coming to fruition.
What an outstanding showpiece it is today, symbolising the landscape of Japan in miniature. Five amazing hectares of a precision-manicured gardens, designed by a Japanese master craftsman, sweep out in a remarkable vista from an elevated site on the edge of town, contrasting sharply with the natural Australian landscape beyond. They flow from an authentic representation of soaring rocky mountain ranges at the peak, winding downhill by flowering shrubs tumbling across the slopes, wandering beside cascading streams and tranquil lakes where ducks glide and koi dart relentlessly. The stunning display’s accessible via 3km of gentle pathways (electric buggies for hire), passing by a bonsai grove and examples of traditional built-form design: tea rooms and an Edo cottage.
Talented horticulturists tend the grounds. A fresh light lunch at the terrific Gardens Cafe, coffee on the terrace (or picnic on the grass), fish feeding, bird spotting, photos in remarkable settings and a tour of its cultural centre’s artefacts and souvenir shop make for a soothing experience occupying the best part of our day.
It’s something of a contrast then when we set out the following morning for the Japanese War Cemetery and Cowra POW Camp site, travelling from the Gardens via an avenue of cherry trees linking the three locations. In bloom in spring, they’re the highlight of September’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The neat-tended cemetery and adjacent Aussie war graves carry us back in time, a sobering reflection. Nearby, the excellent POW site and numerous installations, with imposing guard tower, are a fascinating audio-visual historical experience, beautifully realised, a genuine worthwhile “reality show”. Ditto an enchanting diorama chronicling the town’s unique past, at the Visitors Centre, one of the best around. Here we found wonderful local wines and produce displays, stimulating us to tour the district, to Canowindra, 15 minutes north, with its heritage-listed main street, art gallery, museum and country-town architectural appeal. The countryside’s some of NSW’s most appealing – hosting vineyards, cellar doors, foodie delights – no wonder it’s the hot-air ballooning “capital”. Annually in April balloons are lit at dusk for night markets, an awesome sight.
Just 300km from Sydney, Cowra’s an ideal short break. Its slogan: Cowra, the Great Escape!
Susie Boswell was a guest of Destination NSW, Cowra Tourism and Cowra Country Gardens Motor Inn.