Letters From The Country

The Japanese garden is a microcosm of the landscape

Tommy reviews ‘The Gardens of Japan’ by Teiji Roh, where the finest gardens are 700-years-old
Most people may have come across the old chestnut about the Japanese ambassador who, invited to inspect a newly created Japanese garden in a Western country, congratulated his host and added, ‘There is nothing like it in Japan’.
I have heard tell of a scheme proposed for the eastern suburbs of Melbourne whereby a string of 11 ethnic gardens will be strung along a ridge in a public park; one of these would be a Japanese garden. The idea fills me with foreboding, and this magnificent (but difficult) book lends substance to that foreboding.
"To understand the Japanese garden,’ writes the author, who is head of Kogakuin University, ‘it is essential to understand the Japanese view of nature, since the two are inter-related’. And to understand something about Japanese history and the growth of social organisation; and about Japanese religion and Zen Buddhism; and, above all, to have an intimate understanding of the tea-ceremony. There is a whole chapter entitled ‘Townhouse Tea-ceremony Garden’, in which the author recalls both the boredom and the magic of attendance, as a child, at such a ceremony, where every detail of timing, garden and furniture construction, of the ritual three garden-waterings, of the behaviour of host and guests, was prescribed. Dawn ceremonies, held mostly in winter, began at four in the morning and might last more than three hours.

The book is imaginatively designed and beautifully produced. The captions for the illustrations of each chapter are grouped alongside miniature reproductions of the splendid photographs at the beginning. This means that there is nothing to disturb contemplation of those photographs, some of which occupy the full spread of two big pages.

Having turned the pages for the first time, your recollection may be that none of the photographs were taken while the sun was shining. This is not so; but the mistake draws attention to the difference of the light from that in Australia, a difference which is the result of the climate.

The garden of Koko-dera, which gets a chapter to itself, is now made up entirely of trees, rock, water and moss, something which would be difficult, if not wholly impossible, to reproduce away from the climate of Kyoto, which has always been the centre of Japanese gardening. The original was made in 1339 by the Zen priest, Musa Soseki, but nothing of the original remains. It is now a tourist attraction visited by both sexes, a practice which would have horrified its creator. It is called simply The Moss Garden.

Even the chapter on modern Japanese gardens contains illustrations of three gardens built, respectively, under the supervision of Seisai, the 12th-generation head of the Uraseki tea-schoolby Ogawa Jihei, a student of tea’; and by Iwaki Sentaro based on ‘typical themes of
an outdoor tea-garden’ (this last on the 7th floor of a luxury hotel). The other two chapters are entitled ‘Stones, Water, Plants: A history of the Japanese garden’ and ‘Elements of Design: the materials of creation’. The history goes back a very long way to the 6th Century AD. The first book on gardening was written in the 11th Century by a half-brother to the Regent. He introduced from China a geomantic philosophy called feng shui, which laid down criteria for the selection of palace sites. These should have a river on the east, a pond on the south, a highway on the west and a hill to the north, each successively corresponding to an auspicious beast – a blue dragon, a crimson bird, a white tiger, and a black turtle.

For these, in Japan where they were hard to come by, it was permissible to substitute – again successively – nine willows, nine Judas-trees,  seven maples and three cypresses. Numbers matter: to plant four trees of the same kind together is most inauspicious. Gardens then grew out of religious beliefs, which in earliest times were animistic. The great sweeps of gravel at Kyoto were places into which the gods could descend. The gods also lived in trees and it is still customary to tie a purifying rope round a particularly venerable tree.

A garden was to be a microcosm of the universe, depicting an idealised landscape in which rocks represented mountains and gravel (or water), the sea. Questions of moral and aesthetic awareness must take precedence over gardening techniques and skills. In other words,a beautiful mind is essential to the creation of a beautiful garden. They (the Japanese) have never shown any interest in flowers in geometrically-plotted beds.

Anyone who has visualised a Japanese garden as a riot of double pink cherries and Kurume azaleas bordered with Iris kaempferi againsta backdrop of Mount Fuji, will get a shock if he looks at this book. (If that is what he craves, he is unlikely to read it.) It demands concentrated study by anyone organising a trip to visit Japanese gardens and, if he does not wish to commit one solecism after another, by anyone who has ambitions to make a ‘Japanese garden’ in Australia.

He is more likely to be able to make one inside a building than where it can become the plaything of the Australian sun.

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