|Garden at Tenryu-ji monastery, Kyoto. Classic sand garden, pool and borrowed scenery.|
I have a clear memory of a favourite
book in the library at school – it was about traditional Japanese
architecture and included quite an extensive section on gardens. I
remember taking it out again and again – I was utterly fascinated
by those gardens. Like many other western teenagers (including to
some extent my son) I developed something of a passion for Japanese art and design. Finally, after many years, arriving here and
seeing them for the first time feels like meeting someone you have
corresponded with for a long time but never actually met – certain
things are just as you imagined, but much remains unexpected – and
certain things you do not feel comfortable with. Anyone who knows me knows I am interested in naturalistic plant-focused design - so I was interested to see what my reactions would be. I feel a bit
sensitive about critiquing someone else's garden heritage, but there
has been so much unthinking adoration of traditional Japanese gardens
in the west, I think it's fair enough to be a bit more critical.
|Some of the greatest beauty is in the detail and finishing. Paving at the Katsura Palace.|
In many ways I am sorry I have not
visited Japan before, to begin to explore this extraordinarily
creative and complex civilisation at an earlier stage in my life. As
far as gardens are concerned though, I do feel it has been good to
see them 'in the green' after having seen and experienced so much
else in the world of making gardens, growing plants and designing
landscapes. I can look at them as an experienced adult rather than
a naïve youth, too ready to be smitten by the exotic. I was
interested to feel my reactions to the gardens and see them not only
for what they were themselves but what they offered us as garden
practitioners and garden users today. To sum it up, I felt distinctly
underwhelmed by much of what I saw; maybe I just knew these gardens
too well before I saw them; there is plenty to admire and learn
from, but also a lot that I did not respond to. I can imagine that if
I were Japanese I might have been very critical of the garden
|Like many traditional garden styles, plentiful labour is essential.|
|Moss when it works, is wonderful.|
|But very often it doesn't.|
|Good examples of tree pruning at the Katsura Palace.|
I recently spent five days in Kyoto with Juliet Roberts, editor of
Gardens Illustrated magazine. We started out looking at Tenryu-Ji,
like many gardens, created around a monastary on the hillier outer
edges of the city (14th Century). As we came in, a work
crew were bent hands and knees over areas of moss beside and
extensive areas of immaculately raked sand, a reminder that these
gardens are immensely high maintenance. Most of the garden was
however composed of heavily pruned trees growing out of what was for
the most part bare earth. The overall effect reminded me of roses
sprouting out of bare earth in a British municipal rosebed.
Many gardens are built for viewing from a particular point. If however
you get up and walk into the view, what you see is actually rather
uninteresting. The analogy is with a stage set - effective and dramatic when see from
the seats but wander amongst it and all you see is MDF and support struts. Planting is only relevant if it can be seen from the privileged viewpoint. We (and interestingly, the Chinese), expect to be able to wander around our gardens and see them from lots of different angles.
The bare earth
effect we saw in many other places, so it is worth looking at in a
bit more detail. Moss appeared to be growing, and I can imagine that
a moss surface was probably what was desired, or originally intended.
Moss only works as a ground cover if the soil is consistently moist,
and preferably shaded. In sunlight, with regular summer temperatures
of over 30C, it simply does not do, and either bare earth or
algae-stained dried mud is the result. I found myself wondering how
come a garden tradition with access to an incredibly rich woodland
flora had not come up with an alternative ground cover to moss. Even
the moss surrounding the stones in the great Ryoanji was burnt-up and
|View from the sublimely beautiful Katsura Palace. |
hot and sweaty traipse through some rather featureless suburbs
brought us to the Katsura Palace, where the garden was laid out in
century. There was almost no signage and several people who we asked
had never heard of it. It turns out that whereas foreigners can get
in by applying to the Imperial Household Agency a week in advance,
Japanese citizens have to apply for tickets in a lottery. The palace
is a characteristic piece of Japanese understatement with several
acres of grounds dotted with tea houses and small water bodies. It is
how many of us imagine a Japanese garden, as presented to us from
over a century and a half of imagery, from Gilbert and Sullivans
Mikado on. It has the hump-backed bridges, the pines with layered
foliage, rocks and little thatched pavilions we expect. A set of
images which have become so cliched with endless repetition that it
is actually very difficult to see beyond them to get a genuine
|Ryoanji - and its worshippers. Quite rightly. I think this is a masterpiece of understatement.|
morning taxi ride gets us to the most famous of Japanese gardens,
Ryoanji, shortly after opening at 8.00. We have a precious ten
minutes in the company of the famous fifteen stones before the first
tour party. It is really rather special, very condensed, a garden in
the abstract. The nearest thing I have ever seen to it were 'dry tray
landscapes' in China. It is so designed that you can never see all
fifteen stones at once and it is impossible to see the whole thing at
once, although it is not that big. It is the ultimate Zen koan, or
puzzle. All this seemingly modern abstraction is all the more
impressive when you realise this is similar in age to our European
Context is all important. Japan often
feels a claustrophobic country, its population squeezed into a narrow
coastal plain between the mountains (thickly forested) and the sea.
Rice paddies jostle factories and apartment blocks. Most people can
only garden in tiny backyards, on balconies or at the front of their
houses. One of the joys of walking around residential districts is
seeing how gardeners create incredible assemblages of pots and other
containers in front of their houses: bonsai, shrubs, perennials,
annuals, barrels of water with waterlilies. When you have as strip
only half a metre wide, the only way to go is up, so plants get
stacked onto shelves and climbers reach up to the second storey.
Landscape designers do similar tricks – with three-layered shrub
plantings against walls which can stretch for long distances along
walkways, but fit into the narrowest of strips. Courtyard gardens are
created in the tiniest of spaces, wherever a shaft of sunlight
reaches the ground. This use of minimal space is the real miracle of Japanese gardens.
|A tiny courtyard garden in an old Kyoto house. The simple planning of such tiny spaces is perhaps the Japanese garden tradition's greatest contribution to the world.|
The only other
garden that made a similar impact on me was one of the sand gardens
in the Daitokuji temple complex. A not dissimilar size to Ryoanji it
was simple and stark, with a healthy aura of Polytrichum moss around
a group of two stones and neat little tuft of Selaginella,
ferns and sedges around some others. Interesting that it dates to the
1980s when a venerable tree finally fell down, and something had to
replace it. Elsewhere at Daitokuji there is an extensive tea garden
which had good ground cover planting, and a balance between the
clipped elements and naturally-free growing plants. It felt lush,
quite naturalistic, calm and cool, the most relaxed planting we had seen. 'Cool' is important – Kyoto
in summer is very hot and humid – we looked like beetroots for much of the time. It was almost the only garden where I felt at home with the planting.
|Sand garden at Daitokuji|
Thanks for the tour. I have yet to travel in Japan...one of these days. Parts of the Japanese Garden in Portland are truly extraordinary, but they make the most sense in their original context.
I found Japanese gardens stifling. It may have had something to do with the 100 degree temperature, and the near 100% humidity, or it may have seemed so becaue everything,including the "accidents", had been planned.
I adore those tiny courtyard gardens. There is a book I love, Courtyard Gardens of Kyoto's Merchant Class, that I check out from the library about twice a year, just to marvel at the photos.
Thank you for showing private gardens and arrangements of plants. We all have seen pictures of the famous gardens, but it is rare you get to see how ordinary people garden.
Very interesting... I do not think I have ever read a modern-day account of Japanese gardens that is this critical. Those tiny frontyard and courtyard gardens are really cool; they really ought to be given more attention.
Many years ago I saw the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo. In the moat that surrounds the palace there were huge multi colored koi fish. In the adjacent garden were spectacular azalea bushes, shaped from individual bushes of different colors to make one large variegated shrub. It was only when I went back the second time that I made the connection. Japanese gardens are subtle.
I always had a very uncritical view of Japanese garden, so was less than objective when viewing them. Not any more!
I always had a very uncritical view of Japanese garden, so was less than objective when viewing them. Not any more!
I wonder if the similarities in inspiration from the natural world and the ways that the current natural planting movement and the artifice of traditional Japanese interpretation are at odds here. Although I agree completely about overblown adoration of the Japanese style in the west. Just a thought.
Please continue to write more because it’s unusual that someone has something interesting to say about this. Will be waiting for more..
I loved finding this post and especially the street gardens you posted. I have been reading about the origins of Japanese Gardens which comes from Chinese gardens. I am finding that many ideas we use here in the west today are in fact form China not japan. The idea of borrowing a scene, the idea of not seeing a whole garden at once. Nice post!
Very interesting and well written my friend.
I love the japanese gardens, their toughts behind it and the ponds.
Looking to read more of Japan style gardens and ponds...
Greetz from Belgium!
I appreciate your opinion of Japanese gardens. They are not for everyone. My husband thinks they're not colorful enough. I, however, think they are magnificent: serene, cool, disciplined. Every space important, even the empty spaces. For me, a Japanese garden evokes a very special atmosphere. It mimics nature but eliminates the chaos. It renews the tired and the stressed and brings a bit of magic.
Your pictures are wonderful, everything is so green and so many different colors.I would like to go to Ireland one day
Thanks for sharing
Like anyplace gardens as anything vary greatly in quality. I know that Japanese style gardens as any can be very demanding in their maintenance needs. It is amazing how much work it is to keep a garden looking like crisp and neat.
I think this garden style is one of the fastest to deteriorate if not kept up. I suspect you saw some of that.
Travelling in Japan some times now, I have had the same experiences. Some gardens are well kept, and some lacks maintenance. Like here. This can have to do with funds, and support both money wise and missing hands to work on the gardens as volunteers. But when it is done well, it is not beaten by anything for me at least. Great article and good work with the site by the way.
i also have wondered what all the fuss is about japanese gardens i was underwhelmed too by unimaginative planting and always sticking to the same palette this maybe hundreds of years older but i like changing fashions in gardening imagine if we in Britain just stuck to the 1960s style garden of red salvias and dwarf marigolds!
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