The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee (photography by Alex Ramsay) is, me and my sis agreed, the perfect coffee table book for our future home. In Japan, garden-making is a traditional art passed on through the eras, generating a rich multitude of styles from the austere karesansui (dry rock-and-sand gardens) to those with complex features such as ponds, bridges and paths.
The effort put into building and maintaining these gardens is absolutely astonishing. First, one has to exercise great care in selecting rocks and plants of suitable character, and have them transported and transplanted in their new environment. Not to mention the actual design of the landscape and placement of elements. Even when the garden is ‘completed’, it remains a work in progress by nature. Stones acquire wear-and-tear which add to their wabi quality, plants and trees continue to grow. Everyday, one must prune the plants, clear away weeds and dead leaves, and rake the sand or gravel (for karesansui gardens). It’s a craft that demands extraordinary dedication, but done right, the effect is that of the highest aesthetic order.
What I admire about many Japanese gardens is that the grounds seem to melt seamlessly into the surroundings, thus appearing perfectly natural. This technique is called shakkei, or ‘borrowed landscape’. For example, the distant peak of a mountain is made the background of a composition when the garden is viewed from inside. This gives the illusion of a large, boundless space.
Gardens in Japan act as the backdrop and location for numerous activities such as hanami (flower appreciation) and the tea ceremony, held in specially-constructed pavillons. They are thus an integral part of Japanese culture. On a more fundamental level, they invite quiet contemplation and are good spots for taking a pleasant stroll. Many in the past, like Basho, were inspired to write poetry in the presence of a magnificent garden. I’m sad to say that I’ve only visited one Japanese garden, that is, the grounds of Kinkakuji. The gleaming gold pavillon reflected in the pond was a wondrous sight to behold indeed.
Hopefully I’ll get the chance to return to Japan when the cherry blossoms are blooming, and attend a hanami in a garden.