Japanese Gardens Really Are Different
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
IS YOUR garden a border of spring flowers or summer roses around a well-clipped lawn? If so, you probably live in a Western country, where a garden often consists of flower beds that change in makeup with the seasons. In Japan, however, many gardens are quite different.
What would you think of a garden composed entirely of rocks and sand? A famous dry-landscape garden exists in Kyoto, Japan. It is the rock garden of the Ryoan-ji, a type of garden known as karesan-sui. This expression means “dry mountain water.” The mountains are represented by 15 rocks of various shapes and sizes. These are carefully arranged in the “water,” represented by raked white gravel. No flowers or plants of any kind can be seen in this garden. It is a creation influenced by Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on abstract thought and “nothingness.”
This kind of rock garden is just one form of Japanese landscape gardening. Another is the moss garden at Saiho-ji in Kyoto, where 50 different varieties of moss form a velvet carpet under the ancient trees. Many other beautiful gardens are large enough to have ponds and streams, stone bridges and lanterns, pine trees and flowering shrubs.
History of Landscape Gardening
The earliest account of Japanese gardens is found in the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan) written in the eighth century C.E. There we are told about a bridge and the representation of a mountain made in the southern court of the palace of Empress Suiko in the year 612. This seems to have been one of the first steps toward the development of landscape gardening as we know it today.
Later, from 1185 until the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868, the country was under the rule of successive shoguns, or war lords. These men, though fighting bitter battles with one another, took great interest in landscape gardening. In some gardens the ponds and streams were enlarged to such an extent that the guests could enjoy a boat ride and admire the scenery from various vantage points. Some of these splendid gardens remain to the present day.
One striking example is the garden of the famous Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto. This was built in 1397 by Yoshimitsu, third shogun of the Ashikaga family. Though the pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1950, it has since been restored. The pond and surrounding garden are reminders of the splendor enjoyed by the then-existing ruling class.
One reason for the permanence of these old Japanese gardens is the use of rocks, sand and stone ornaments. Trees grow old, bamboo fences and thatched roofs decay, but the rocks remain in the form of stone bridges, lanterns, water basins and stepping stones along the paths leading to the tea house.
Home Gardens in Small Spaces
Though little is known of the gardens of the common people of early times, we know that the love of “nature” remained strong in the hearts of the Japanese people. Their ancestors, following the Shinto religion, worshiped mountains, trees, rivers and lakes, as well as the sun goddess. Even today one may see a very old tree with a twisted straw rope tied around its trunk, indicating that it was recognized as a sacred tree.
In modern times, the Japanese have utilized the smallest of spaces to make a garden. It may be just a few carefully arranged rocks, a leaning pine tree and a small shrub. But what about people living in huge apartment complexes? How can they enjoy the pleasure of having their own garden? Here is where miniaturization comes into the picture.
Can you imagine some mountain and sea scenery on a small tray measuring about 50 by 30 centimeters (20 by 12 inches)? This is called bonkei, which means “miniature landscape on a tray.” Here we have a small rock, some 10 centimeters (4 inches) high, shaped like a mountain and sloping down to rugged cliffs and an island-dotted sea complete with white-crested waves. There are even boats and fishermen with hair-thin fishing lines. Or, the scene may be Mount Fuji capped with snow, and below it a miniature house with thatched roof and tiny sliding doors. Another model is a garden complete with lantern, shrubs and trees no more than three centimeters (about an inch) high. In these tray gardens the seas, rivers and ponds are made of sand. Yet they are so realistic that the apartment dweller can enjoy an ocean view or a pastoral scene even in his small front entrance.
Bonsai is yet another art in which the Japanese excel. These are living trees and plants kept to miniature proportions by careful pruning of stems and roots. A grove of maples may be growing in a shallow pot small enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand. Or, a gnarled pine tree 50 centimeters (20 inches) high may turn out to be 150 years old. These miniature trees and plants are often handed down from generation to generation and are regarded as family treasures.
A Visit to Gyoen Garden
But, now, why not come with us in November to see the far larger Gyoen garden in Shinjuku? This is a large park covering more than 57 hectares (140 acres) in one of the busiest parts of Tokyo, just a 15-minute walk from Shinjuku station. Nearby are some of Tokyo’s highest skyscrapers, with large department stores and underground shopping centers. What a surprise when we go into the Gyoen park and see wide stretches of green lawns, hundreds of large trees, shrubs and rose gardens! This part of the garden is in Western-style, having been designed by French horticulturist Henri Martinet. We see tulip trees, plane trees, magnolias and beautiful Himalayan cedars. Some of these cedars now reach a height of 50 or 60 meters (165 or 197 feet) and their branches spread out to give shade to the many visitors who come sight-seeing or just to enjoy some recreation with families and friends on the wide expanse of green grass.
Continuing our stroll, we come to a small pond with a bridge leading to an island. The stone lantern in the center of the island makes us realize that we are leaving the Western-style garden and are seeing things that are typically Japanese.
Nearby there is an open booth with walls and a roof of fine bamboo stems plaited together. With its royal purple trimmings, this booth is truly a suitable place to show off chrysanthemums. Just look at that plant! The branches have been trained to make it dome-shaped, and more than 350 lovely yellow flowers come from the one main stem. Farther along the route, we see similar displays—some pure white and others pink or dark red. It is a marvel that one plant can produce so many flowers. Turning a bend in the path, we come to other booths, each one housing a different type of chrysanthemum. Some plants have hundreds of small flowers, falling in cascades about two meters (6 feet) from the top, while others are just about 30 or 40 centimeters (12 to 16 inches) high, looking very dainty in pale pinks, yellows and whites. And here is something quite different—just one beautiful flower crowning a single stem. Each bloom is about the size of a saucer, some with broad curled petals, others with fine spidery petals. Outside flower beds contain medium-size plants with blooms of varying colors. At one time the number of varieties growing here exceeded 800—truly a tribute to the skill of the Japanese gardener.
Now as we cross an arched bridge, the water in the pond below begins to ripple. Look at those fish—red-, gold-, black- and silver-speckled carp. Some of them are 50 centimeters (20 inches) long. When the carp hear people talking, they come to the surface, joined by an inquisitive turtle, and the visitors enjoy feeding them with scraps from their lunch box. No wonder the fish live to a ripe old age! Some of these are said to be over 16 years old.
We have enjoyed our visit to the Gyoen, especially since we were able to compare the beauty of Western and Japanese types of gardens. Both are made possible because of what our Maker has done for us. He has endowed us with a sense of beauty and has provided an abundant variety of plant life to satisfy one aspect of this sense.