Perfectly placed rocks, paired back planting and controlled vistas are unique elements to Japanese garden design. Photo - Robin Powell
We love Japanese gardens so much we visit twice a year: in spring to catch the fleeting magic of the cherry blossom season; and again in autumn when the maples and chrysanthemums are at their best. Robin Powell lists a few reasons she keeps going back.
There is a little Zen garden in a not-much visited temple on the outskirts of Kyoto called Renge-ji. A viewing pavilion faces a small garden of trees reflected in a still pond, with some rocks. It’s beautiful, and serene. Being there makes me feel that if only I could arrange to sit on that wooden viewing platform every day I might even learn to meditate! The trees are enveloping and in spring have a shimmering lightness to them that freshens the air; in summer the shade is thicker and its coolness is welcoming; in autumn the brilliance of the maples is reflected in the water; and in winter the bare stems are sometimes etched in snow. The seasonal change is something to ponder, but it is the rocks that continually draw my attention.
While the stones in this and other Zen gardens have an aesthetic value, they also serve a larger purpose. In Zen thought, stones have a spiritual life and individual character; the 11th-century Japanese manual for garden-making recommends the gardener engage in a dialogue with the stone about placement – and follow the stone’s request.
According to Zen designers, it’s possible to represent everything in nature by using different scales of stone. And so the ultimate in Zen gardening is the dry-stone garden, orkeresansui. The best known of these is the one at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, but there is a dry stone garden in most Zen temples in Japan. Zen is not something that can be seen; but it can be expressed. The dry garden embodies Zen, but also trains it, as the priest who rakes the gravel must focus his attention and practise self-discipline.
Okayama Castle isn't part of Koroku-en garden, but clever design makes it look as if it is. Photo - Robin Powell
The love of old things
Judging by some of the herbicides on shelves in hardware stores, we think of moss as nothing but a problem. In traditional Japanese gardens though, moss is a revered inhabitant because it denotes age, experience, and tenacious survival. It gives character to a garden. The most famous use of moss is at Saiho-ji in Kyoto, where a 1200-year history has shaped the garden. It was originally laid out in 729, but after a highpoint under a revered Zen priest in the 14th century, the garden fell into neglect and the mosses began their steady creep. There are now 120 different species of moss growing here, and their physical expression of the antiquity of the garden is revered.
I love the reverence for old things in Japan. It is quite liberating to be not so young and beautiful in a culture that admires the way walls discolour and crack over time, and trees become twisted and shaped by the conditions of their life. The Japanese treasure the imperfect. The aesthetic concept associated with this is called wabi-sabi, and it encompasses impermanence, simplicity, frugality and imperfection. The most sought-after cups for tea ceremony, for instance, express wabi-sabi through an uncultivated, unfinished or slightly wonky appearance.
The moss garden. Photo - Robin Powell
All designers like to control the way you view a garden, but the Japanese are the masters. The incomplete view is part of the tradition of Japanese garden design. Doors and windows and gates are used to block part of the view and leave what remains all the more intriguing. The cherry tree that is the feature of a courtyard might first be seen only as a segment of trunk emerging from the ground. Another view of it might suggest a sliver of branches. Only gradually will the full view be revealed. This theatrical control of a highlight is one aspect of view-trimming; the other is the sleight-of-hand which refocuses attention away from a blight. Bamboo screens might hang from the eaves to shut out the neighbour’s air conditioning unit and focus attention on the perfect bonsai specimen on a single stone bench.
The moss garden. Photo - Robin Powell
The opposite of the trimmed view is the borrowed view. The Japanese word for this is shakkei. The idea is to build the garden in such a way as to link it with distant views so that the outlook is a seamless vista. A view of Okayama Castle at Koroku-en garden, in Okayama, is particularly famous. The black wings of the so-called Crow Caste appear to be a focal point of the garden, thanks to the mounding of hills in the foreground and some clever planting in the mid-ground that frames and partly hides the building. The castle looks as if it is at the far end of the garden, just a pleasant walk away. In fact it’s a long way off, a not-very-pleasant trek over some really busy roads.
Coco Chanel once advised women to get dressed – and then take one thing off. She must have been reading Japanese garden designers. The Japanese garden is all about how to achieve an effect by taking away, not adding. Not too many flowers, not too many showy things, an absence of razzle dazzle. It makes for very peaceful gardens, with quiet reminders about the passage of time in the startling beauty of the cherry blossom or maple.