Defining what constitutes a Japanese garden is difficult, yet we all know one when we see it. One way of approaching a definition is to consider various aspects of the gardens in Japan that differ from those in the West. This enables us to understand better how we can borrow ideas from this different culture in a more successful way in our own country.
Engagement – the Viewer and the Viewed
The central concern when creating a garden in Japan is how the viewer will interact with it. The intention is to draw the viewer, through engaging their imagination, into the scene presented.
Composition and Wholeness
The garden space is seen as a whole, being made up of the interrelation of all the elements, as opposed to the garden being a series of elements simply gathered together to create the whole. It is a subtle but important distinction; each element of the garden has a purpose, justified within the overall concept.
Composing with Views
The Japanese garden can be considered to be a series of interrelated views, at the hub of which is the viewer or visitor to the garden. For example in the Stroll garden much use is made of a technique referred to as ‘hide and reveal’ (meigakure), where subtly controlled views are opened and closed as the viewer progresses around the garden.
Gardens and Landscape Painting
Japanese garden design was strongly influenced by the aesthetics and techniques of Chinese landscape painting, avidly collected and studied in Japan. The painters’ depiction of landscape was not so much to mimic nature, rather to show the essence of landscape. Similarly garden scenery presented to the viewer is a highly refined vision of nature.
Attention to Detail
Attention to detail is of paramount importance in both the creation and maintenance of Japanese gardens. Garden creators pay great attention to detail in seeking an apparent complete ‘naturalness’, by hiding the hand of man in their designs.
Yohaku, the mystery of empty space
In Oriental art empty space is perceived as a positive force, rather than being simply a void. Emptiness or white space (yohaku) is considered to reveal the opposite – form. A contemporary Japanese master gardener likened the creation of a garden “to excavating holes in a solid block of matter, revealing more and more yohaku, until the true nature of things become apparent.”
A Question of Colour
The Japanese garden with an overwhelming preponderance of evergreen plant material presents, at first viewing, a uniform and bland palette. Gradually the subtelty of shades of green and different textures reveal themselves. Bright colours are used in a concentrated, directed manner, in particular to highlight seasonal shifts.
Use of symbolism in the garden
In Japanese gardens it is not uncommon to find symbolism and reference woven into the composition. As representations of an imagined Paradise, and being inspired by poetry and poetic thought, references are made to many mythical ideas.
Shakkei is the technique of incorporating elements from outside the garden as an integral element of the garden composition. It is a way of using an external view or feature to give the illusion that the garden extends well beyond its real boundaries.
Water and Rocks, Yin and Yang
Water and rocks are defining features, indeed the term for ‘landscape’ in both Chinese and Japanese is created by combining the ideograms for san, ‘mountain’ with sui, ‘water’. The Universe is composed of two opposite, but complementary forces (yin and yang) and it is through the interaction of these fundamental forces that energy and movement (thus life itself) are created. In the context of landscape, yin can be recognised in the presence of water, either still or flowing. Rocks or stones are seen as an expression of yang.