Japanese Garden Design
The garden at the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, Japan. The garden uses raked gravel, cloud-pruned pine trees, sheared shrubs, large rocks, and borrowed landscape to great effect. CREDIT: Bernard Gagnon
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The gardens of Japan, a nation of many islands, remained a mystery until the mid-1850s when an American fleet arrived. Right at the start, the Americans were quite smitten by Japanese gardens, which had been evolving for more than 1,200 years. The Japanese esthetic is completely fascinating to many people.
In Japan, a garden is considered a work of Art; Japan’s master gardeners are considered landscaping artists. Nature is highly revered in Japan. So, Japanese gardens are miniature natural landscapes, composed with trees, stones, and water—a homage to Mother Nature. There are no happy accidents in a Japanese garden design; everything is placed with purpose and intent.
In Japan, land is at a premium. Because of Japan’s high population density, many gardens are small or even tiny, situated in an interior courtyard and designed to be viewed from the inside of the house. Some Japanese gardens are just 36 feet square, 6 feet by 6 feet, and tsubo-niwa is an Art by itself. Similarly, there are even Japanese gardens where the main plants are moss—moss gardens—suggesting the garden is ancient. The main feeling exuded by a Japanese garden is one of peace, perfection, and poetry.
There are two over-arching principles in Japanese garden design: the importance of shin, the force that give life, and the importance of yin and yang, that create balance and harmony (male/female).
Interestingly, single flowers or even flower beds do not play a role in Japanese garden design, although flowering shrubs (azaleas, rhododendrons) and trees (cherry, plum) in landscaping are greatly prized.
The stepping stones at the Heian Jingu Shrine Garden, an important historic property in Kyoto, Japan. Visitors can walk across the pond on the stones. CREDIT: Danderot
Lotus: a Buddhist symbol of purity.
The Heian Jingu Shrine Garden in winter, Kyoto, Japan. A garden that is this well designed looks just as good in winter as in summer. CREDIT: Jeffrey Freidl
Key elements of Japanese garden design:
Asymmetry – Respecting that there are no straight lines in nature, Japanese gardens are not laid out on a straight axis. Similarly, there is no garden feature that acts as a single focal point in the vista because the whole is more important. Garden features are usually placed to be seen from a diagonal, and are carefully composed into scenes that contrast at right angles, including vertical features such as rocks, bamboo, or trees, with horizontal features such as water and raked sand or gravel.
Borrowed scenery – Small gardens are made to look larger by “borrowing” nearby scenery such as trees, hills, or temples in the distance.
Concealment – Promenade gardens encouraged the garden visitor to stroll on the designed path, stopping to delight in planned viewpoints and features the garden designer intended: a water basin here, a Japanese lantern hidden behind a clump of bamboo there.
Kare-sansui – The Japanese art of kare-sansui or dry landscaping, replaces trees, plants and water with rocks and sand or gravel, raked into an artistic arrangement, or replicas of famous Japanese landmarks.
Miniaturization – The Japanese garden is a tiny, idealized view of nature. Every element in a miniature garden is placed with great care and thought.
The art of bonsai is another example of Japanese miniaturization, where a decades-old tree remains small with skillful, regular pruning of the roots and branches. The art of bonsai is a metaphor for life itself: a tree thriving in impossible conditions, some living 200 years. The forces that create a bonsai are harmonious, not conflicting: the powe of nature and the Art of the gardener. Many bonsai were highly regarded as family heirlooms and passed from one generation to the next. The art of bonsai is not a hobby, but a lifetime commitment, like having children.
Stone – Large rocks with striations suggesting waterfalls, boulders with indentations for water to accumulate naturally, river stone with rounded edges, pea gravel, and sand are all integral parts of Japanese garden design. Stone is a reminder of permanence whereas human life is fleeting.
Symbolism – Each element in a a Japanese garden is imbued with sympolism. Rocks represent mountains and the permanence; ponds and streams represent seas and the power of water. Certain plants and trees represent the male; others, the female.
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