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From Kyoto to Canada: The Artistry of Japanese Gardens
by Lesley Reynolds
August 29, 2004

Twisted, exquisitely layered pines, an expanse of meticulously raked gravel punctuated by rough-textured stones, a solitary stone lantern—all these images come to mind when contemplating Japanese gardens. It is a gardening style that more and more Canadians are turning to as they create their own backyard sanctuaries. 
The history of Japanese gardens is complex and fascinating, originating in prehistoric times. The early Japanese people enclosed sacred rocks or trees in straw ropes, believing that native gods called 'kami' manifested themselves in such natural objects or places. Surrounding areas were cleared and often covered with a layer of sand or gravel. These Shinto shrines defined a small portion of nature, the first step to garden making. 
The first documented gardens in Japan were copied from Chinese and Korean models and date from the seventh century. In the Heian period (794-1185), Japan's classical age, the capital was established at Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), recognized as the cradle of Japanese gardens. During this time, grand gardens included many more flowering shrubs and flowers than commonly found in Japanese gardens today. There were also tiny private gardens called tsubo, which were tucked into courtyards between the wings of palaces and other large residences.
The first known gardening manual, the Sakuteiki, was written at the end of the Heian period. It is a compendium of design techniques, taboos, and religious beliefs.
Beginning in the twelfth century, Buddhist symbolism moved from temple gardens into the gardens created by the aristocracy. In some gardens, islands in ponds represented Paradise, or the Pure Land, presided over by the Amida Buddha. Later Zen gardens are austere and simple, characterized by the spare beauty of symbolic sand and rock gardens, miniaturized abstractions of mountains and ocean.
Chinese landscape painting was also influential in Japanese garden design. Monochromatic ink-wash paintings were recreated in the gardens, using dark stones, white sand and green plants. With this development fewer colourful flowering plants were used as the focus shifted to textural qualities. Gardens had become more contemplative, representing not only earthly landscapes, but also the cosmos in miniature.
Evolving in the fifteenth century, tea gardens, settings for the ritualized tea ceremony, led guests along a rustic path through a succession of views designed to banish worldly cares before arriving at the tea house. A water basin, highlighted by a stone lantern, was provided for cleansing before guests entered the tea house through a low door; whether samurai or farmer, all bowed to enter, enforcing the ideal of equality. 
From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries large stroll gardens were designed to entice visitors along a prescribed path to view vistas that often recreated famous Japanese scenery. The merchant classes viewed these gardens as status symbols, but lacking space copied them in miniature. Tsubo gardens also became popular at this time as a means to create functional beauty out of awkward small spaces. 
Enriched by its deep historical roots and enduring motifs, Japanese garden design is a remarkably flexible tool easily applied to a western context. Tsubo gardens can be created in tiny areas, celebrating nature and the cycles of the seasons on a small scale. Evoking a timeless quality, Japanese gardens are designed for all-season interest, not dependent on flowers during a brief growing season.
Garden designer Edzard Teubert of Fuzei Gardens in Millarville, Alberta has recently returned from Kyoto University where he was invited to attend the prestigious Research Center for Japanese Garden Art. Teubert believes that the essence of the Japanese garden lies in the effect it has on those who inhabit the space.
Teubert explains, "The clients identify places where they would rather be—a mountain-side, a rushing stream, or a forest pond, places where they feel 'at home'. This is translated into a metaphorical landscape, or a Paradise land, that they can experience in their living space." Thus, Teubert employs the gardening theory of 'fuzei', written with the characters for wind and emotion, that dates from the Heian period and can be interpreted as an emotional response to nature.
Tamotsu Tongu, a landscape architect with Toko Garden Design in Calgary, apprenticed in Kyoto for several years before emigrating to Canada in 1987. He finds that Canadians show great interest in the strong religious significance of Japanese gardens. Tongu observes, "Most of my clients aren't Japanese, but they read and study about the gardens and become interested in the symbolism." 
A Japanese garden is the essence of simplicity, but all successful Japanese gardens are artistic compositions with an underlying metaphorical content, whether the metaphor is of a journey, the cycle of life or, as in the Nikka Yuko Garden at Lethbridge, friendship. No element is superfluous or placed by accident, no view is left to chance, and even empty space carries a distinct message.
Of the many design principles inherent in Japanese garden design, chief among them is the use of perspective to make small gardens represent larger landscapes. This is achieved by staggering or layering garden elements, for example, using small-leafed plants in the background and larger-leafed plants in the foreground. Each garden has a foreground, a middle plane between near and far, and a background. Borrowed landscapes, those scenes outside of the confines of a garden, are also captured as part of the overall composition. 
In keeping with a deep reverence for nature, only natural materials are used in Japanese gardens. Tongu, who loves working with stone, sees the use of rock as a defining characteristic of the Japanese garden style. He says "The English are plant-collectors, but the Japanese are rock-collectors". Indeed, as we have plant nurseries in Canada, Japan has rock nurseries where prized specimens sell for large sums of money. 
Symbolizing life and plenty, water has always played a central role in the Japanese garden, whether serving as a miniature ocean, cascading over stones to evoke soothing music, or as a part of a purification ceremony. In dry gardens, sand or gravel represent oceans; carefully laid pebbles capture the essence of the rushing water of a stream.
The plants in a Japanese garden are not cultivated for their own sakes, but rather for their role in achieving the overall garden design. Nevertheless, certain plants have symbolic associations; the pine tree is revered for longevity, and an arcing pine branch over a door is a symbol of welcome. Pruned 'palace-style', pines represent clouds; trained into gnarled and twisted shapes they evoke the sense of a windswept landscape and also connote the location of Paradise. Texture, foliage size, the play of light and shadow, and the changing colours of the seasons, are all-important factors in choosing plants for the Japanese garden. Since the objective is the overall composition rather than a collection of individual plants, it is easy to find hardy plants that will achieve the desired effect, even in Alberta. 
After many years of studying the art of the Japanese garden, Teubert draws an analogy to European painting, "The gardens are as varied as all art. You will find a Dali, a Chagall, a Rembrandt, the colours of Matisse. It's all there if you have an open mind."

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