Japanese formal gardens can take most of a lifetime to create and then many lives thereafter to maintain. Nothing has been done without the greatest amount of thought and respect for the environment in which the garden exists. The landscape around the garden is considered and then emulated, where possible, within the composition of the garden. Light and dark and shade and sun all feature and are carefully thought out when the gardens are planned – no detail is too small to be disregarded in the planning or the interminable maintenance.
No gardener would let a branch grow in a direction that did not sit well with the garden. Just as the Japanese culture as a whole does not encourage diversions from the planned social order. Each tree, bush, shrub flower is carefully planned and then trained as if they were children to ‘behave’ within the garden. There are brutal moments where trees and shrubs are clipped into unreal shapes and angles to imitate other forms of nature. So, a tree, with its small tufts of leaves on outstretched branches that have been carefully supported and trained, can look like an animal, clouds in the sky or a small group of tree-covered hills. To this end, the Japanese gardener will go to any lengths to do what he or she has to to create the exact shape and design.
The ‘torture’ of Japanese plants is well known to all of the world. How many of us love and admire the intricate detail of a bonsai and usually the smaller the better. Few of us think about the nurturing of the plant with wires for controlled angles of growth and the severe pruning to maintain its size. No aspect of the plant is ignored and has always been planned to the last detail. Will the trunk be slanted? Will it be curved? Or will the trunk be curved but form a straight line from top to bottom? This is all decided early in the plant’s life using the basic building blocks of shape and size as a starting point. It’s hard to imagine anything more Japanese and more like Japanese culture than a bonsai – keep the constraints tight and only allow life to proceed in a defined way but, all the time, the bonsai is healthy and well-loved.
The element of water which always appears in Japanese gardens is the life blood of the garden: focussing the mind and the garden itself. Neither garden nor man can live without it. It brings us peace and serenity on viewing it, hearing it. It brings us and the plants the ability to live. Whether the water is running or still it always captures our imagination: the light tinkling sounds of falling water or the gentle lapping of still water on the shores of a well-shaped lake, both are pleasing and musical – a gentle lullaby of lapping and the gorgeous monotony of either fast or slow falling water – minims through to hemidemisemiquavers and anything in between. Of course, the water interacts and lives with the rest of the garden. It takes beautiful pinky white blooms in spring and provides a carriage for them to the end of the waterway. Or, it becomes the matrix on which the blooms can form a delicate pink carpet that appears deceptively solid. Autumn sees the water strewn with gold and vermillion leaves – the glorious end of summer and a rest from the burden of leaves for the trees across winter.
Rocks and gravel are often used in the garden being used as hills, waterfalls, beaches and ornaments. The use of gravel, particularly, is intriguing. Not only is the gravel shaped and moulded to become all many of patterns and shapes but so is the caretaker. The gardener has to carefully rake and reshape day in and day out. He uses this as a means of meditation, of mental focus, and an exercise in self-control. All the admirers of the garden can view these works of art in gravel but the caretaker garners joy from this as well. Truly the way nature (and society) is meant to work: one giving and another taking but the donor receives too.
The enthralling part of Japanese gardens as art is that they are constantly changing: plants get bigger; leaves come and go; flowers bloom and then they are lost. The seasons make the artwork dynamic and ever-changing and there is no human interaction that can stop that force. The seasons change the colours and the light and dark of the palette – there can be no greater canvas! The gardens can go from deep green and lush to snow covered and white to ablaze in colour and then gilded as autumn settles.
The overwhelming experience of seeing 1500 different tiny mosses planted out to resemble a super verdant carpet is a sight never to be forgotten as is the sound of nothing but drop drop drop of water as you sit and admire green. The view of one perfect autumnal tree that has been shaped to fit an aperture through which only you can see it is breathtaking. And all this said, the true joy of this art form is that you are drawn into the culture from which it has developed and are closely knitted into the fabric of nature itself.