I perceive Japanese gardens as three-dimensional pictures of subtle beauty. Their origins are of a spiritual nature, influenced primarily by Shintoism and Buddhism, which is believed to have reached Japan from China via Korea by the 5th century B.C. It wasn’t until the 12th century that a particular strain of Buddhism arrived in Japan from India via China: Zen Buddhism. This yielded Japan’s most beautiful and best-known garden, the so-called Zen garden or Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui, and 涸山水, “dry/dried out landscape”). The Riyoan-ji in Kyoto is the most famous example of this type of garden.
Japanese Gardens by Terza Natura
The following pictures show my own creations, my personal response to the Far East. Ostensibly it is Japan with its gardens and landscapes that has inspired my designs, but ultimately I assign equal importance to Chinese landscapes, which are, in my opinion, the source of numerous Far Eastern art forms. (Two clips on this topic: Shan Shui – Cathedrals in China and Shan Shui in the World) (Text continued below)
Naturalism in Japanese gardens
“The most important tenet of Japanese gardening, held since the Heian period (794-1185), stipulated that a garden should follow nature, always in harmony with the forces of nature and their influences, and never disturbing their balance.” (Hrdlicka, The Art of Japanese Gardening, Hamlyn, 1989).
Along with Japanese promenade gardens, Zen gardens in particular have become famous throughout the world. Due to their spiritual nature, they are also fascinating to us in the West as timeless, abstract works of art. The Japanese were inspired by their natural environment – the magnificent mountain and coastal landscapes – whose essence they then tried to portray in their gardens in miniature form. Central to this is the “mountain” (either Mount Fuji or the mythical Mount Horai) and the “island”, both recurring elements in Japanese gardens. Consequently, stones are of tremendous importance in this type of garden. In keeping with their perfectionist tendencies, the Japanese search for stones with particular “charisma”. These distinguish themselves through an unusual shape or special surface. The vital consideration, however, is their positioning in the garden. They are often placed on end, attracting attention for this very reason.
Plant varieties in Japanese gardens
The vegetation in Japanese gardens is also very idiosyncratic. It consists of plants that change their colour with the season, for example the Japanese maple (acer palmatum) with its bright Autumn hues, and also evergreens, such as the Japanese azalea, which save the garden from seeming bare and desolate in the winter. No other culture celebrates its different plant species throughout the year quite like the Japanese, from the Cherry Blossom Festival in Spring to the Iris Festival in May, and the Maple Festival in Autumn (eg. the Arashiyama Momiji Festival outside Kyoto) with all its vibrant splendour, both cultivated and wild. More mystical still than Japanese rock gardens are perhaps moss gardens, such as the “Kokedera” in the eastern part of Kyoto’s Saiho-ji temple. Moss gardens thrive in Japan due to the humidity, which is especially high in Summer.
Fusion – the mutual influence between Japan and the West
When we talk about artistic fusion, we might think of Japanese cuisine, which does not hesitate to integrate Italian and French elements into its own style. The same also applies in reverse, with French chefs taking inspiration from Chinese or Japanese cuisine. Fusion as an aspect of art, where stylistic boundaries are blurred and foreign influences are absorbed, was already common practice hundreds of years ago and constantly gave rise to new styles. Today, fusion is part of every day life thanks to globalisation.
Even in their gardens, the Japanese are increasingly willing to mix their own cultural heritage with ours, blending gardening styles across continents and allowing something new to evolve. Of course, here in Europe we do exactly the same thing. Japanese style, or what we perceive as such, is hugely popular and we tend to create gardens that whilst not strictly Japanese, can at least be said to be inspired by the Far East.
Japanese cuisine vs. Japanese gardens
The following consideration is fundamentally important to Japanese gardens, although it tends to be denied by many Japanese, quite understandably given their history. Over the course of the last 1500 years, Japanese culture, especially garden culture, has been hugely influenced by Chinese culture. As an outside observer, I would be so bold as to say that Japan, with all its sophistication, would be simply unimaginable without China. The Japanese are ingenious at copying, creating in the process something entirely new and idiosyncratic. It is never a cheap copy, quite the opposite, and even more perfect than in the country of origin. An ideal example of this was experienced by my brother, who claims to have eaten the most perfect French croissant in a Tokyo Hotel, better than any he’d ever tasted in France. This is, of course, a very subjective experience. It can be demonstrated more objectively by the number of Michelin starred restaurants worldwide. In no one place is that number greater than in Tokyo, where a total of 225 restaurants share 304 stars. In second place comes Kyoto, the ultimate garden city, with 135 stars, and in third place Paris, a city which set the tone for gardens for centuries, with 134 stars (July 2017). Interestingly, this comparison shows that cities and countries with outstanding cuisine are also real garden connoisseurs. In line with this, many of the world’s most beautiful gardens, especially those of historical interest, can be found in Tokyo, Kyoto and Paris.