The eastern ethos of serenity is taking root in European gardens in new and enlightening ways, as Japanese landscaping traditions cross-pollinate with the west’s take on mindfulness and meditation, says Amy Bradford
Few design watchers can have failed to notice the popularity of Japanese style in recent years – its pared-back sensibility is the yin to modern maximalism’s yang, one might say. Recently, the focus has turned to the country’s impressive garden tradition. Zen is a talking point once again as a book by British landscape designer Sophie Walker, The Japanese Garden, brings its ancient practices to life.
Formal Japanese gardens present a challenge to the western viewer because, while they appear to be perfectly serene, complex layers of meaning are hidden beneath the surface. These gardens do not exist simply to be looked at or sat out in – they are intended to stimulate the mind as well as the eye. “The experience of being in a Japanese garden subtly infuses the viewer with a sense of the processes of change and renewal,” says Robert Ketchell, former chairman of the Japanese Garden Society, which enables British enthusiasts to indulge their passion for oriental horticulture. “Your engagement is key. Many contemporary western gardens have lost sight of this and are more concerned with display.”
One consequence of this philosophical richness is that the Japanese expect gardens to be active all year round. The notion that the gardener should submit to a fallow period in winter is anathema, as is the summer-oriented concept of a lawn edged with flowerbeds. Many different types of garden have been cultivated in Japan over the centuries – notably the tea garden, organised around the teahouse and chado ceremony, and the dry karesansui rock garden, dominated by gravel and carefully placed stones. But most have one thing in common: they have developed alongside Zen Buddhism, from which much of their symbolism and poetic thoughtfulness derives.
The idea of recreating Japanese gardens in the west is, thus, fraught with the risk of cultural blunders; one can so easily mistake a revered object – such as the dimly lit lantern representing a long-departed patriarch – for a mere ornament. However, there is much to gain from seeing nature through Japanese eyes, forearmed with knowledge of why their gardens look the way they do. Japan’s gardens seek to emulate its wild, mountainous landscape in miniature, reflecting the Buddhist ideal of voyaging out into the wilderness and taking solace in nature. A perfect example is the Adachi Museum garden (pictured right), opened in 1970 in the city of Yasugi and featured in Sophie Walker’s book (£49.95, Phaidon). Its ingenious winding vistas and sense of perspective create the illusion of immense space and height. “Relatively small niwaki-pruned pine trees take on stature as wild ancient trees,” writes Walker. “The gently curving hills take on the status of vast landscapes.”
The Japanese way of gardening chimes with current trends for mindfulness, meditation and slow living. “In Japan, people tend to engage in the sustained, lifelong practice of skills known as shugyo,” says Walker. “They dedicate their life to learning an art – be it gardening, ikebana or calligraphy. You never learn it in full, of course, but it’s the experience that counts, and it’s seen as a useful tool for life.” The concept of geomancy, like Chinese feng shui, lso links the habit of gardening to spiritual enlightenment, adds Walker. “It states that by tying Ourselves to the land in a particular way, in alignment with all aspects of nature, people’s wellbeing is enhanced.”
Anyone preparing to populate their plot with manicured trees, rocks and moss might first consider that the Japanese way of gardening involves more than just green fingers, as Walker has learnt from her oriental sojourns. “We need to rethink the potential of gardens, as spaces of discovery and Wwnder. They can reveal something to us about nature that we have lost touch with.”