Category Archives: Japanese Gardens

Japanese poets in the garden

For centuries Japanese poets have been influenced by the beauty, magnitude and mysterious quality of gardens from their country. Their is an evocative yet subtle quality to Japanese gardens, that are usually depicted in an ideal landscape with a very stylized aesthetic and a precise perspective. Both in terms of the form and beauty, one can see the influence of these gardens on poets from Japan.

In general, nature has been a profound influence on Japanese poetry. Particularly, the rich and delicate landscape of Japan mixed with their ever changing climate. However, in a Japanese garden, nature is depicted in a highly stylized way without the intention of being artificial. On the contrary, a Japanese garden is supposed to appear real and an authentic landscape, as if it has grown there, organically on its own. The Zen monk, Kokan Shiren wrote about Japanese gardens. Most of Shiren’s writing depicted the connection and relationship man had with nature and the landscape. Further, Shiren was interested in how the garden could actually purify or cleanse the senses and soul of a man. So, in this sense, the effect the garden produced on this poet was of a spiritual quality which evokes a more imaginative and mysterious quality of influence.

One form of poetry that has been linked to the work of gardens is Haiku. Haiku’s specific structural form and precise historical context makes it an easy target for comparison with the Japanese garden. Many Japanese poets have used the influence of Japanese gardens within the realm of the poetic form of the Haiku. The 20th Century Japanese Haiku poet, Shuoshi Mizuhara was preoccupied with gardens and their effects to man. It is obvious how much Japanese gardens played a role in the poetical works of the past few centuries. Like sculpture or painting, Japanese gardens became a type of natural artwork that become an influential source of inspiration for many poets, architects, musicians, and teachers.

Japanese gardens not only influenced the poets of Japan but poets from other countries as well. The influence was international and widespread. It has also dominated in the works of architecture and other art forms both in Western and Asian cultures. Above all, Japanese garden making is a tradition built on centuries of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation, very much like Japanese poetry.



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:

[bullet_list icon=”check” indent=”10px” style=””]


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!


New Orleans Japanese Haven

City Park in New Orleans has nestled in its midst the New Orleans Japanese Gardens, known formally as Yakumo Nihon Teien. Yakumo is the assumed Japanese name of the prominent New Orleans writer, Lafcadio Hearn. Lafcadio was deeply stirred and inspired by the Japanese culture in his visits to Japan, and brought much of what he saw and learned back to Louisiana through his prose and poetry. Nihon Teien translates to Japanese Garden. For beauty and the opportunity to enjoy quiet meditation in a natural setting, this is a place to visit when in New Orleans.

Japanese gardens date as far back as 500 A.D. when they were designed to replicate mountainous landscapes of China. Around 700 A.D. they began to be used as places for ceremonies and meditation. Tea houses were introduced to the gardens around the 1500’s. Tea houses are used as a place to teach the culture of Japanese and Confucian virtues.

The garden design acknowledges the importance of stones in Japanese gardens. Robin Tanner, a landscape architectural expert, and Vaughn Banting, a bonsai and horticultural expert, drove to Crossville, Tennessee to personally select stones for this garden, loaded them on their own truck and delivered them. They installed them in the garden where they became a permanent and central part of the landscape design. The garden was conceptualized in 1985 and realized in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. Many plants suffered or were lost completely in the flood, but the core landscape of the garden survived. In its restoration a tea house was added.

Upon entering the garden, the attention is drawn to the bamboo fence surrounding it. The garden design uses trees, bushes, and flowers native to Louisiana and incorporates them into the Garden with Asian plants, stone lanterns, and bamboo. The use of Stone lanterns in the Japanese garden dates back to the 1600’s when they were first used to light the pathways in Buddhist tea gardens.

The garden lends itself as a natural setting for bonsai, ikebana, and sado. Bonsai is the ancient art of growing miniature trees in trays and pots. Ikebana is a high art form of floral arrangement involving shape, line, and form and incorporating leaf and stem into the arrangement. It uses a technique called minimalism, which is the minimal use of blooms dispersed among the leaves and stalks of the arrangement. Sado is Japanese tea ceremony.

Words and pictures will never describe accurately the beauty of the garden. It simply must be experienced personally. The quiet time for meditation is a much needed commodity in any city, large or small, and the New Orleans Japanese Garden offers residents and visitors just such a place.

Thinking of Spring!

When it comes time to plan a spring garden, there are many designs from which to choose. One of the serenest and most enjoyable garden designs is a Japanese garden design. A Japanese garden is a simple garden design that creates a space that fosters calm and is perfect for meditation. The following is a guide to the elementary principles to understand to make your Japanese garden a reality.

One idea that is hard to understand at first is that everything in this style of garden needs to emulate nature to the best of its ability. That means no sharp angles can be used. You cannot use things that wouldn’t exist in nature, like a fountain for instance. Another idea essential to the design of a Japanese meditation garden is a sense of balance. These gardens are essentially efforts to recreate a natural landscape in a small space. Therefore, everything is magnified. Rocks, for instance, take on the role of mountains. Therefore, you need to take care in the size of the elements that become a part of your garden design. Perhaps the hardest element for the Western mind to grasp when designing Japanese gardens is the emptiness that they require. This empty space is known as ma. Ma defines all of the elements that surround it, and is defined by all of the things around it. Ma is one of the most important elements in this kind of Zen garden, and it is one of the most important elements to include in your design in order to create a space that encourages meditation.

A final key to the design of this style of garden is to create a sense of enclosure. This garden is meant to be a separate space that is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Therefore, it is necessary to surround it with something that shelters it. This is often a bamboo fence, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be surrounded by pine trees or other natural elements that will give it a feeling of enclosure. The most important elements to include in a Japanese garden design are rocks, sand, and water. The plants are secondary. Remember, you want this space to be minimalist with harmony and balance. Decide where to place your rocks first, and then layout the sand and water around them. This is the best way to create the most harmonious space. Everything else is secondary.

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.

Zen and three friends of winter

In Japan, rock gardens were created by Zen Buddhist priests to offer a place for quiet reflection near Japanese temples. Several features are essential to these gardens; a typical garden will contain a water element, boulders, a gravel sand area reminiscent of the seashore, and plantings – often a combination of bamboo, plums and pine, called the “three friends of winter.”

Pine (shou) showing brilliant green in the bleakest of winter. Pine have been as a symbol of long life in China since ancient times.

Pine (shou) showing brilliant green in the bleakest of winter. Pine have been as a symbol of long life in China since ancient times.

Bamboo (chiku) another plant that stays mostly green throughout the winter. The stalk of the bamboo is hollow, that symbolizes tolerance and open-mindedness.

Plum (bai) show a beautiful elegance during the bleakness of a hostile winter. The character of the plum tree serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display under these extreme conditions.

If you don’t have space for a full-sized Japanese garden, you can create one in miniature: bonsai ponds can be made to fit a very small space. A water garden following Zen design principles is a simple do-it-yourself project, as any watertight containers can be made into bonsai ponds. Start with one container large enough to house all the elements of your project and a smaller container for the pond. You will also need a small aquarium pump to aerate the water. Ready-grown “three friends of winter” bonsai and the supplies and instructions to maintain them are available online. You can buy rocks, sand, and gravel at your local aquarium or home improvement store.

Arrange your garden according to the following Zen aesthetic principles: kanso, or simplicity; fukinsei, or asymmetry; shibui, or minimalism; shizen, natural materials; yugen, surprise or revelation; datsuzoku, or a sense of wonder; and seijaku, or tranquility. Fill your small container with water and place it on one side of the garden container; this will be your pond. To prevent the water from stagnating, conceal the aquarium pump in the garden to aerate the water – you can even arrange the pump outlet to create a waterfall over your rocks, if you like. To satisfy the principle of shizen, make sure any artificial elements are well hidden, for example you can use natural stone and gravel both to hide the edges of the water container and to create a shoreline around the water’s edge. Opposite the pond, arrange the “three friends of winter” bonsai with the larger rocks, surrounded by more gravel and sand: this balance between the pond and plantings will create asymmetry, or fukinsei. Make sure to place a few rocks in such a way that they may be hidden or may hide other elements that to offer surprises, or yugen.

No matter the size, a Japanese Zen garden will offer a peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Edo, Japanese Garden Transformation

The strategically situated castle town of Edo, destined to become modern day Tokyo, was the seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 to 1868.  Following nearly a century and a half of war known as the Sengoku period, the Edo period welcomed a much needed period of social harmony.

This change in mental attitude also signified change in the purpose of the many castles that dotted the Japanese landscape.  Rather than having a primary purpose of defence, these elaborately built structures became luxurious homes for the daimyo, or feudal lords and more attention could be paid to aesthetics. Elaborate Japanese gardens became a must have for residents of these lavishly furnished homes that became symbols of power and wealth.

Gardens constructed in the Edo period often centered around the Japanese tea ceremony which became an important part of local culture during this era.  Known as Chianwa gardens, they usually consisted of a water feature, either a stream or pond, crossed by small bridges or stepping stones that would lead to a simply constructed tea house.  Stone basins would be provided for guests to purify themselves before participating in the ceremony.  Gardens would also be constructed in the waterless Karesausui style, of Zen Buddhist origins and the Tsukiyami garden style which creates, with great accuracy, depictions of actual landscapes found throughout Japan and China.

zen © marilyn barbone

One of the surviving Tokyo gardens from this period is the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, created in 1629 by Yorifusa Mita, the Daimyo of the Mito Tokugawa family of that time period.  Meticulously tended and expanded over the years, the current garden consists of wandering pathways through gates, across stone and wooded bridges and around a central pond studded with islands.  The Cultural Properties Protection Law of Japan has listed the garden as a Special Historic Site.

Though the capital of Edo was the center of this societal evolution, the influence of the Edo period expanded beyond its borders. The city of Kyoto is home to Manshu-in, a Tendai temple in the north eastern sector of the city.  The temple’s main hall dates from the early Edo period and features a Waterfall Room decorated with slides by Kano Tanyu (1602-1674).   The same artist also created a Mont Fuji Room, a Snowy Scenes Room, a tea room and a Twilight Room, complete with royal throne.  All are decorated with an assortment of screens, prints and paintings. The garden is done in the Karesausui, or waterless style and features an island bound 400 year old Japanese white pine.

Another Kyoto treasure is the Shisen-do Buddhist temple.  The temple was established in 1641 by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) and is also registered as a historic site of Japan. The main temple has a room displaying portraits of thirty six Chinese poets, painted by Kano Tanyu. This room is part of the original structure.

The gardens reflect the Tsukiyami style.  It makes use of an ingenious water feature known as a sozu, designed to scare off wild animals.  Using a simple bamboo tube, the device gradually fills with water and then tips when the liquid reaches a preset level.  The water is discharged and the tube pivots upright to strike a strategically placed rock that makes a loud clapping noise.  Such creativity is a reflection of the Japan’s cultural growth that has its beginnings in the post war, relatively peaceful Edo period of this country’s rich and varied history.

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.