All posts by Moni

Summer Walks in a Japanese Garden

When my soul is in need of quiet reflection, I know where to ease the anxious mood that keeps sweet calm from my restive condition. Before I even pass the alluring doors guarded by statuesque lions, my pace slows and the garden begins to whisper…

A Japanese garden is my intermediary to peace, connecting with that part of me designed to find in nature what I cannot find in myself, to lift my spirit upward so my thoughts might glide mindfully amid things above. I am charmed and even stunned by its beauty, in love with an art form that is the Japanese garden–pathways, stones, ponds and bridges that are all so familiar, and yet all so decidedly unique.

Trees and shrubbery, cedar, hemlock, barberry and yew, play with scale and perspective to create illusions that become realities in a universe of complex simplicity, a world extended beyond the space that would be its boundary, engendering an experience of peace and feeling of rest I know will stay with me after I leave. A pond dotted with small islands is home to rocks emerging to hold in place life in constant motion. Nearby, vivid colors of flowering greenery glow like modern mosaics, with irises and azaleas offsetting low growing companions with muted-colored blossoms.  In leaving an elegant structure, I slide back delicate frames to reveal, not water, but a substitute of pebbles in curved lines bathed in broken light. Rocks, gravel and sand playfully integrate elements of design to bring fun and lightness to austerity.

On a platform suspended above uncertain currents I study the koi and then follow the restorative sound of falling crystal water. Trees with weeping canopies bend low to cast shadows that lightly touch the rippling surface beneath, and I notice a warm breeze playing with my hair, feather touches like falling petals caressing the air. A pathway circles the pond, mimicking the path of life, or perhaps, the path of enlightened existence: left to right, diagonally, but seldom in a straight line. Walking up the path, my eyes are drawn to textured surfaces, sweet flag, baby’s tears, spurge and mosses on and around artfully place boulders.

This is my meditative sanctuary, where I come to walk, or sit, and let my soul relax as I wonder how I might coax my life to blend with this landscape. This is the Japanese garden.

Bonsai, the silent garden

Life is hectic and perhaps stressful at times. Everyone needs an outlet to discharge those struggles and anxieties of the day and growing Bonsai can help you achieve this much-needed balance in one’s life.

Bonsai’s offer a uniqueness to the grower. They allow you to feel liberated as you release your creativity in designing your tree to be natural, mimicking nature from a wind-swept tree that could be found in West Cork to a cascade hanging off a cliff in the Mourne mountains. The benefits of growing a Bonsai tree continue farther than the realms of imagination alone. Bonsai gardeners feel an immense reduction in stress as this silent garden grows.

Growing this intricate plant takes time and patience. It is not a request but a requirement. This amazing plant will grow, develop, and thrive with each passing year. A sturdy plant that necessitates a patient set of hands to cultivate, trim, and water, it is what this particular plant appreciates. Be kind and gentle to the serene plant, and it will recompense the care with the progress of a relaxing silent garden. This is a garden that evokes tranquility by its mere presence.

Growing and caring for plants is directly related to caring for Mother Nature, and a sense of peace and serenity is most often felt by gardeners. The trimming and caring compels gardeners to relax and feel at peace. The time and patience involved with gardening creates the idyllic Zen atmosphere as one becomes a single entity with the plant. When one cares for a plant, they are focused, disregarding the materialistic world that surrounds them, and taking pleasure in the most basic forms of life. To be Zen is to be a part of the evolving universe. This plant allows one to take part in the evolution of life by caring for a living thing.

The silent garden also silently works hard to purify the air that surrounds it. As with most plants, Bonsai strive to rid the atmosphere of dangerous pollutants and toxins in the air. The better care the plant receives, the stronger it will be to filter the air. Cleaner air, decreased stress, and a real sense of achievement as the plant flourishes is only the beginning of the many rewards one will receive as the begin this life-changing hobby.

To learn more about bonsai, take a look at one of the following links:

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Japanese Gardens, Tranquility Personified

Japanese Gardens have been a treasured art form in Japan for centuries, and are very much influenced by the ancient and intricate garden designs of China.

The exacting tradition, linked to the related and equally disciplined arts of calligraphy and Japanese ink brush painting, is historically passed down from sensei, or master, to apprentice.

Even though Japanese Gardens have been influenced by the West since the late 19th century, there are some elements that are considered typical, and in some respects, necessary to the art form.  Water, either real or symbolic is a must.  Bridges or stepping stones frequently cross a pond or stream element to an island, or perhaps to a tea house or pavilion. Rocks or stone arrangements create waterfalls, dry or wet.  Hedges, fences or traditionally styled walls create an enclosure around the miniature landscape.

There are three basic traditional styles of Japanese gardens.  The Karesausui gardens are dry landscapes in which different shades and shapes of rocks and gravel, as well as exactingly placed mosses and shrubs are used to represent ponds, islands, rivers, seas, boats and mountains in abstract form.  Raking stretches of gravel or sand creates the illusion of moving water.  This type of garden is for meditation and is frequently found at Zen temples.

The Tsukiyami garden style recreates features from famous landscapes in China or Japan. The clever placing of shrubs to block views of surrounding houses or structures is effective in creating the illusion of a much larger garden area. Footpaths may wander past ponds, streams, stones and hills and may lead the visitor across intricately carved bridges.  Bonsai trees, scaled down versions of their full sized cousins, are an important part of these miniature landscapes.

water © Michael Shake -

Chianwa gardens were created for holding tea ceremonies, another exacting and quite lovely Japanese tradition.  A simple tea house is the usual focal point, and the gardens themselves are equally simplistic in their elegance. Traditionally stepping stones across a quiet pond lead to the tea house and an assortment of stone lanterns and basins dot the garden landscape. The stone basins, known as Tuskubai, are where guests are invited to purify themselves before taking part in the tea ceremony.

In addition to these three basic styles, Kanshoh style gardens are popular in private residences and are meant to be viewed from inside.  Pond gardens, built along quiet shorelines, are designed to be viewed from a boat. Strolling gardens take visitors along winding pathways, offering a sequence of views as one navigates the gentle curves.

stones © N.PARNEIX -

From the hundred year old Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the Japanese Gardens at the Irish National Stud in Kildare in Ireland, these peaceful, creative nods to the art of tranquility now circle the globe. Bamboo plants, Japanese black pines and colorful maples share space with native plant species in the most unlikely of climates. Even in the town of Ronneby, Sweden, almost at the top of the world, it is possible to find an authentically created Japanese Garden.  Enjoy!


Kepaniwai Park Heritage Gardens

It is hard to believe that the dense rainforests and jagged peaks of Maui’s Iao Valley were once the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in King Kamehameha the Great’s quest to unify the Hawaiian Islands. In the 1790s, during the height of the conflict, there were so many warriors slain that their bodies blocked the stream. That battle was called Kepaniwai, which in English means “damming of the waters.”

The history of Iao Valley goes back more than 1,000 years. Ancient Hawaiians gathered in the valley for their annual makahiki festival. This celebration honoured Lono, the God of agriculture. Before Captain Cook put Hawaii on the European map, the valley was a major population center and the largest farming area in the islands. Taro farmers had their hales, or cottages on the slopes and along the valley floor. Fishermen lived along the shores of marine rich Kahului Bay. That all changed by the late 1800s. By then sugar was king and the water that was once used to irrigate island crops was diverted to nourish the cane fields. Iao Valley became the Hawaiian equivalent of a ghost town.

Today Iao Valley is a State Park. Hiking trails wind through the valley’s floors. Visitors are asked to stay on the trails, as the Iao Valley is a burial ground for many of Hawaii’s ali’i, or royalty. Steps lead you up to the top of the Iao Valley Needle. The needle, a pointed spire made of volcanic basalt, was once used as a lookout for warriors during times of war but now offers a panoramic view of the valley and beyond.

Just outside the park, the Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens, taking its name from the battle described above, is a memorial to those ancient Hawaiians as well as the many cultures that followed. Stroll the pathways past a New England Salt Box house complete with white picket fence and flagstone patio. Visit a restored ancient Hawaiian hale with its lava rock walls and thatched roof and a Portuguese outdoor oven surrounded by a European style garden complete with Virgin Mary statue. A Chinese Moon Gate graces one of the entryways, and a bold aqua and pink Korean Pavilion overlooks its own garden, graced by a statue of the God Haitai. Explore a replica of a bamboo walled Filipino Nipa Hut.

The Japanese Gardens, representing those from that nation that came in the mid 1800s to work the cane fields, include an authentic tea house and two Japanese temples, one of them large enough to walk through. Pathways lead over arched stone bridges spanning koi filled ponds and past carved stone pagodas and lanterns. A life size bronze statue of two Japanese field workers greets visitors to the collection of tropical flowers and carefully sculptured trees. Designed by garden architect Richard Tongg, Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens is just off of Highway 32 in Central Maui.

Bonsai Beautiful Journey

Have you ever wondered what went into creating that piece of living art known as a bonsai? How the precise cutting and trimming and tying kept a tiny tree, just that, tiny?

Craig Coussins has travelled to many countries teaching the art of bonsai. In between these journeys he has managed to find time to write a series of practical books, among them “Bonsai for Beginners”, “Bonsai Master Class”, “Bonsai School and the “Practical Guide to Growing Bonsai: A Guide to the Art of Shaping, Growing and Caring for Miniature Trees and Shrubs”.

Bonsai for Beginners
Bonsai for Beginners

Combining photos and text, Mr. Coussins covers such topics as proper watering, soil requirements, how to repot bonsai trees and how to prune both the branches and the in some cases delicate root structure.

In “Bonsai for Beginners” there is also a step by step section, including photos, on how to turn a cascade style bonsai, where the branches and leaves grow down and below the lip of the pot, into an upright tree by carefully turning the tree upside down. This is more for advanced growers, but it is something to work up to. Other parts of the book focus on the more elementary steps of bonsai. This particular book has over 450 photos throughout its pages, covering a variety of plant species. Some are inspirational photographs of finished bonsais; others are to lead you in your step by step journey through the process.
“Bonsai School” is equally endowed with hundreds of photos along with instructions and a calendar to help you keep track of what needs done when on your bonsai. Various bonsai tree artists from around the world are included in the book, each sharing techniques and pointers of the craft.

Whether you choose “Bonsai for Beginners” or “Bonsai School”, or any of Craig Coussins’ other books, you will gain an in-depth knowledge of the elegantly fascinating art of bonsai gardening. Through his photos and his novel like, easy flowing text, you just might find that trying to turn a tiny tree into a living, breathing, sculptured work of art is something you just can’t wait to try. Go for it, and bring a little bit of cultivated Mother Nature into your world.

A Stroll through French Gardens

Paris has often been referred to as the “city of lights” but it could very well deserve the title “city of gardens.”   From the much visited Jardin du Luxembourg to the understated elegance of UNESCO’s Japanese Gardens, the city of Paris displays a very versatile green thumb.

jardin_de_luxembourg - © Vit Kovalcik -

The Jardin de Luxembourg is one of Paris’ most visited parks. It is located in the 6th Arrondissement (Metro stop: Odeon; RER: Luxeumborg). Created in the 1600s, it was not open to the public until the 19th century. The garden was a favorite haunt of the then starving writer Ernest Hemingway not only because of its beauty but because it was known for its extremely well fed pigeons.  More than a few ended up on his dinner table during his leaner years.

The gardens follow the classic French tradition of being formally laid out with plants and trees set out in precise patterns.  There is a central water feature leading up to the Medici Fountain, named after the garden’s founder Marie de Medicis, widow of Henry IV.  Urns and statuary, many on pedestals, frame the walkways on either side of the water basin. The garden is both adult and kid friendly. Children are encouraged to sail toy boats on the water, take pony rides and watch puppet shows.

The most famous sculpture sits at the southern tip of the Jardin du Luxembourg in a part also known as the Jardin Marco Polo.  The “Fountain of the Observatory” or “Fountain of the Four Corners of the World” is an elaborate structure that combined the talents of four artists in its creation.  The bronze fountain features the carved pedestal by Louis Vuillemot, the globe and its zodiac designed equator from Pierre Legrain and the horses, fish and turtles by Emmanuel Fremiet. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux crafted the four nude ladies.

Now we travel from the beautifully elaborate to the simplistically divine. UNESCO’s Japanese Gardens are located at the United Nations’ headquarters in the 7th Arrondissement (METRO stop: Segur/Ecole Militaire).  The gardens were designed in 1958 by Isamu Nogushi and are known as the “Garden of Peace.”  Refurbished in 1999 -2000 by Toemon Sano who stayed true to the original layout, the gardens cover 1,700 square metres. The garden features cherry and plum trees, bamboo, magnolias, a pond and stream and a sunken centre garden area done in the dry Karesausui traditional form.

Other countries are represented by gifts or with memorials within the garden. The Canadian government made a gift of a bench carved from one giant cedar tree from British Columbia.  Recently an olive tree was planted as part of memorial to Yitzak Rabin, the assassinated prime minister of Israel. One of the garden’s treasures is a carved angel’s head that was brought over from Nagasaki, Japan.  It survived the atomic bomb dropped in 1945.

These are but two of the many green spaces found throughout Paris. It is fitting that a city so vibrant, so alive and so culturally diverse should show equal diversity in the design of its gardens.  They are inviting locales for impromptu picnics, rendezvous with smiling lovers or just getting out and taking a walk in the sun. Parisians enjoy their open spaces and visitors are encouraged to join them.

The Japanese Gardens of Canada

When one hears the word “Canada” the mind usually moves towards thoughts of red-coated Mounties on sleek horses, or the snow kissed peaks of the Canadian Rockies, or even the cobblestone streets and 400 year old buildings in Old Quebec. But Canada is also a nation of immigrants, among them the Japanese. It is not surprising that these enterprising individuals from the Far East brought their gardening traditions along with them.

One of the most extensive Japanese gardens in all of Canada is at the Montreal Botanical Gardens in Quebec. Opening on June 28, 1988 the 2.5 hectare property features a variety of Japanese gardening styles. Designed by Ken Nakajima, the traditional Tsukiyama garden greets visitors with pathways leading past azaleas, peonies, a mini forest of crab-apple trees, carp filled ponds, stone lanterns and cascading waterfalls.

The pathway leads to a Pavilion housing a tea room and, along one of the outside walls, the Bonsai Garden. Thirty tiny trees, including Japanese maples, the Maidenhair tree, azaleas and junipers are on display, some almost 350 years old. On the other side of the Pavilion, a Zen garden, done in the abstract Karesansui style, features eleven stones of blue-green peridotite carefully placed in a sea of white sand

Moving west, we travel to Lethbridge, Alberta to the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden. The gardens were founded in 1967, the year of the Canadian centennial. The name Nikka is actually taken from the Japanese words for Japan (Nihon) and Canada (Kanada). Designed by Tadashi Kubo, of the Prefecture University in Osaka, the garden uses Japanese methods and local materials to create a miniature model of the Alberta landscape. Kubo took time to travel throughout the province before putting his design to paper.

Rocks, some of them weighing more than a ton, were taken from the Canadian Rockies to line the tranquil ponds and create tumbling waterfalls. One boulder that had the shape of a turtle was placed in the middle of the largest pond. This mini island is a Japanese symbol for long life. Other rocks were used in creating a Karesansui dry garden next to the teahouse.

The cypress wood teahouse, bridges, gates and azumaya shelter were all crafted in Kyoto and shipped to Canada. Hand carved stone lanterns and a bell tower equipped with a bronze Friendship bell were also crafted in Kyoto and imported. Open from May until October, the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens are especially lovely in early spring when the azaleas blossom and again in autumn when the maples turn into fiery visions of red and gold.


To visit these gardens, see above map.

Zen Gardens, Imagination in the Making


By their very nature Zen gardens encourage you to use your imagination.  Using carefully placed rocks and stones and open spaces filled with sand or gravel these gardens tend to capture the eye and the mind and hold both. Soon one can see the waves undulating in the sand ponds as they push around the rock islands that break their flow. The carefully placed rocks along the shoreline become craggy mountain ranges. Perhaps a bit of moss adds a hint of color and the impression of a hidden valley between those ranges. As you sit deep in thought and relaxed, you realize the garden has indeed captured you.

Zen gardens are done in the Japanese dry gardening style of Karesansui. It was developed in the 13th century by a Japanese priest in Kyoto, the site of one of the world’s most famous Zen meditative gardens. Created over 500 years ago, the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the most visited sites in Japan. It contains no plants at all within its 30 metre by 10 metre design. Fifteen rocks are cleverly arranged on a bed of gravel and sand in such a fashion that one can only see fourteen of them at one time.

Kyoto is also home to Nanzenji, a Zen temple located at the foot of the city’s eastern hills. It is the head temple for the Rinzai sect’s Nanzenji Zen Buddhism school of thought and is famous not only for its contemplative Zen garden but for its artwork and rich history that dates back to 1291. The Seiryo-den is the main building, where hand painted sliding doors, called fusuma, open to the rock garden. The entrance gate, called the Sanmon, was completed in 1628.

Zen gardens have found their way to other parts of the world as well. In Portland, Oregon, sister city to Sapporo, Japan, the popular Japanese Gardens have included a Zen garden in their design. The creator, Professor Takuma Tono based his layout on a 2,000 year old legend that tells of Buddha saving a starving tiger and cubs that were trapped in a ravine. The expanse of combed gravel is accented by four smaller stones and one upright, all covered with a patina of moss after standing for fifty years.

Zen gardens may one day invite contemplation on the moon, or beyond. The National Space Society held a design contest for lunar space station layouts. Artist Ayako Ono from Japan entered her “Lunar Zen Garden” painting. It features a lunar layout with several domed buildings, solar panels and all else you would expect to find in a space colony. What was not expected was the groomed circles around the domed buildings and strategically placed rocks that seem to have no other function than to capture the imagination. Of course on the moon, limiting your gardening materials to rocks, sands and gravels isn’t much of an issue.

Why not try to sculpt your own Japanese Garden or create a Japanese Water Garden.

Ryoan-ji Temple, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon.

San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is home to world class museums, a pair of Dutch style windmills, its own herd of bison and the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.


Originally built as part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the exhibit was transformed into an intricately designed garden by a Japanese immigrant, Makoto Hagiwara.  He imported native plants, including one thousand flowering cherry trees, birds and goldfish from his native Japan and personally oversaw the creation of this San Francisco treasure.

Much of the original garden remains, including the intricately carved Hagiwara Gate which once framed the entrance to Makoto Hagiwara’s in park residence.  The house was demolished in 1942 and has been replaced with the Sunken Garden designed to create the illusion of a landscape as seen from far away.  A brilliant red Buddhist Pagoda sits where a Shinto Shrine was also dismantled that same year.

The Tea House pavilion is also part of the 1894 original garden design.  It is said that Mr. Hagiwara is credited to have served the first fortune cookies in America at this tea garden sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. The cookies were made by Benkyodo, a San Francisco bakery.

The tea house is also the site of one of the garden’s oldest trees, a rare Japanese umbrella pine. A smaller version grows close to the great bronze Buddha (circa 1790) in the Circle Lawn.  Sharing space with the umbrella pine in the Circle Lawn is an ancient black pine.  The roughened bark, thick trunk and relatively low height is reminiscent of a roughly manicured bonsai, but this tree has been naturally shaped by time and the elements.

The meandering pathways lead you past another tribute to Mr. Hagiwara, the landscaped Mt. Fuji hedge, dedicated in 1979.   Along side sits the elegantly trimmed Dragon Hedge, its curved back fronting a curtain of bamboo.  The Drum or Moon Bridge, another remnant of the original garden, is not only scenic, but rather a challenge to cross. Thin steps have been added to make the climb easier (think ladder) but though the view and the bragging rights are excellent, some folks do decide to go around.

More than anything this is a garden of peace. There can be no greater symbol of this than the Lantern of Peace donated by the Japanese government in 1953.  Given as a gesture of reconciliation after the horrors of World War II, it is the ultimate olive branch extended by a people who value serenity above all else.

Rikugien – Garden of Waka

The word “waka” translates into “Japanese poem.” The term dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185) when Japanese culture was being heavily influenced by Chinese traditions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. Poetry and literature were respected art forms during this period. Purists of the time came up with the word waka to describe poetry written in Japanese by Japanese artists. This was to distinguish these 31 syllable texts from the same style verse Japanese poets were writing in the Chinese language.

The Rikugien Garden in Tokyo was constructed during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). This was the time when the Tokugawa shogunate was in power and when the mistrust of outsiders was at its peak. The first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu saw the value of foreign trade and did indeed encourage it. But he did have a fear of foreigners, their customs and religions and set about turning Japan into a closed society.

The fifth shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi gave permission for the construction of Rikugien Garden. Built by Yanagisaw Yoshiyasu, a daimyo, or territorial lord under the shogun, construction began in 1695. The gardens were designed to emulate the original six forms of waka poetry.

The gardens opened in 1702 and originally featured 88 landscaped scenes taken from actual poems. After Yoshiyasu died in 1714, the garden was largely forgotten until 1877 when it was purchased by the founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, Iwasaki Yataro, who revived 18 of those scenes. Today it is the property of the city of Tokyo, Japan.

Visitors pass through the Naitei-Daimon gate and are greeted by a large cherry tree, which in season sports a cascade of pink blossoms. The pathway takes you to the Deshio-no-minato, a spot on the edge of the pond that gives you an overview of the garden including the islands in the middle. The two hills on the main island represent Izanagi and Izanami, man and woman, from the myth of Japan’s ancient origins. Another smaller island, made of strategically placed stones, is called Horaijima. It represents the home of the immortals.

As you follow the pathway around the pond, artfully placed azaleas and tiny bonsai trees seem to appear out of hidden pockets. Nearing the Tsutsuji-no-chaya teahouse, you find yourself standing in a grove of maples. In fall they will be clothed in bright reds, yellows and oranges. Take a walk through the Sasakani-no-michi, a pathway lined with greenery that is so narrow it is named for a spider’s web. Cross the Togetsukyo stone bridge, built in remembrance of a romantic poem about the moon, cranes and a rice paddy.

End your visit with a traditional tea ceremony at Takimi-no-chaya, another teahouse that sits next to a stream with cascading waterfalls, bonsai trees and stone lanterns. From here you can watch the Sleeping Dragon Rock and listen to the gentle flow of the waters.