Japanese Gardens – what are we actually looking at?

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Still mulling over our recent trip to Japan, leading a privately-organised tour. It was my second trip, and the first for most of the people in the group – and probably their last – not, I hasten to add, because we had a bad time, but because the country is so far away for most of us, that it is one of those places that we probably won’t go to again unless we have a special interest. This has a distorting effect on the way people see a country. Think of it the other way round – if you were a Japanese person coming to visit Britain, and interested in gardens, what would you do. Visit Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, London, maybe Oxford and Stratford on Avon, and of course Edinburgh, and leave the rest of the country unvisited. I once had a look at a Japanese book on visiting British gardens – several swathes of the map in the front were empty! Part of the thinking behind organising this tour was to try to avoid this effect, so after all the must-see Kyoto garden masterpieces we set off on a backroads tour, to visit places tourists don’t normally get to (Matsue and Hagi for those who really want to know). 
Yuko Nagamura, my co-guide on the tour, at Kinkakuji
Here I would like to explore the theme of ‘looking at Japanese gardens’ a bit more, in particular the problems that those of us who are interested in garden and planting design can actually learn from them. The trouble with looking at gardens in Japan on a first trip, is that it can be very difficult to concentrate – Japan is so overwhelming in its cultural depth that the mind (and body) is constantly distracted, “have you seen that paper shop, ohmygod, it is amazing, I never knew…… was that really octopus ice cream in there? …… ohmygod, I’ve just found a cat café, they really exist” etc, etc, etc.
The garden at the Kikuya house in Hagi, Yamaguchi province, a lovely little-known garden
The visitor also needs to ‘get their eye in’, to know what to look for, to know what not to look at. An art form like the Japanese garden is so profoundly alien to much of our experience of gardens, that we tend to focus on the surface, the immediate impact, and not be able to look deeper. We can also be quite undiscriminating. Kyoto is so full of gardens that it can be difficult to choose which to go to, or in what order. They also vary a lot – some are definitely ‘also-rans’; maintenance can also vary, depending on who runs them; some I was alarmed to see have gone down the “let’s get the punters in with some night time illuminations” road which results in obtrusive chunky lights and cabling, or even moss lawns being covered in a web of wiring for LED lights.
The Kinkakuji (Golden Temple). Incomparable, just because its gold doesn’t make it flashy, its proportions and poistioning are perfect
My Little Kitty likes Kinkajui too
I have a tendency to react against the sticking of certain cultural highlights on a pedestal – I carefully avoided the Taj on my first visit to India, and on my first time in Paris (many years ago) I never saw the Eiffel Tower in a whole week! Icons are icons however for very good reasons. The Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji) is a good example I had not been to on my first trip: perfectly proportioned, with an unspoilt backdrop of wooded hills. It really is a breathtaking sight. However it is one of those places where you are liable to take your partner’s/friend’s photograph with the temple in the background and walk on. The people-watching has to be seen as part of the pleasure. The vast numbers of people who go there though prevent a real exploration of what is actually quite a complex garden, as many paths are closed off; so it cannot really be fully appreciated as a garden – its subtle interplay of water, islands and pines. Instead the garden and view become relegated to being a backdrop.
Appreciating Ryoan-ji
Amongst garden cognoscenti, it is the rock and sand landscape of Ryoan-ji which is the most famous of all, an abstract composition which has always fascinated western artists and commentators, who tend to see in it the essence of Zen, and of Japan, or of their idea of Japan. That Japan is more than abstract conundrums is shown by posters showing My Little Kitty in her kimono standing in front of the Golden Temple, a reminder that this country is actually more interested in colourful cuddly kitsch than conundrums and koans. At Ryoan-ji MLK makes no appearance and indeed this garden is nothing like as crowded as you might think. No-one is having their photograph taken posing in front of it, and no-one is waving a selfie-stick. Either this most intellectual of gardens attracts a different clientele, or the garden has a powerful effect on its visitors. It has to be viewed from a raised verandah type structure which somehow focuses everyone’s attention on to the garden, and there are tiered steps to sit on, so it is possible to experience the garden one-to-one as it were.
The Daitako-ji temple complex in Kyoto is the best ‘one-stop’ place to see some of the very best gardens
I had agonised for ages, and I don’t think my group quite appreciated how much agonising went into this planning, about what gardens to go to, in what order, and on what day. Three days in Kyoto is hardly enough to even begin realising just how much this extraordinary city can offer. Last time I came, I spotted a guide to its art and craft galleries, it was the size of an old-fashioned telephone directory. Beyond the city, our attempts to ‘get off the beaten track’ led to some very complex train journeys. Since the trains run like clockwork, and there is a very comprehensive rail network, this can mean some terrifyingly tight connections – six minutes to get from platform two to platform seven etc. – 18 people, including one 86 year old. Every connection worked though.
The Okoji-senso villa in Kyoto is a relatively modern, more naturalistic, little gem
We do face a problem in how we look at Japanese gardens I think.We tend to see sand, stones, pine trees and not beyond. We also, inevitably, see them through a veil of our experiences of western copies of them. In the case of British visitors this is particularly unfortunate, as our historical experience of Japanese gardens is rather a kitsch one. Long ago I remember listening to a lecture by Jill Raggett who has made a study of the Japanese garden in Britain – her doctoral thesis and the study ‘Shadowy Figures’ Japanese Garden Designers in Early Twentieth Century Britain, is unfortunately not published, but is available through the Japan Society’s e-library. There is some information from her here. It seems that many British examples were built by Japanese people in Britain who had no particular knowledge of traditional garden building, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think one early 20th century garden builder had come off a ship and found himself at a loose end and got into it that way! Modern versions are mostly amateur built and are very kitsch, to the extent that they actually have a negative impact on how Japanese gardens are seen.
My belief about why Japanese gardens work, is that they encapsulate certain spatial relations which go directly to our sub-consciously hard-wired sense of aesthetics – a bit like the best abstract art. Because of their simplicity, the very best classical gardens, appeal to this directly. I bet if you were able to boil down the formal relations between plants in a Piet Oudolf border, the trees in a Capability Brown landscape or the entire space of a Russell Page garden, you would uncover the same basic relations. In fact there is a whole study available here which shows just this. and here is a news item summarising another study  Put people in front of a model of Ryoan-ji apparently, move the stones, and people will find it less ‘attractive’.
The Ensui-ji temple in Hagi, its relaxed style is more typical of many smaller temples

Trouble is, actually appreciating any of this requires a lot of Zen emptying of the mind, trying to put aside the concerns of being a first-time traveller in this extraordinary country and seeing through and beyond the mere physicality of what is directly in front of us, the memory of the last green tea macha latté with a cat drawn in the foam on top, the complexity of this morning’s breakfast (what do I eat first?) or fretting about whether you will be able to catch the next train. But, I firmly believe, that if we understood this most sophisticated of art forms a bit better, it would help all of us as designers.

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