Japanese Gardens, Poetry in Motion

The Japanese people have always been in tune with nature and accepting of the concepts of change and the passage of time. This harmony is expressed through many artistic mediums, but none so evident, nor so pleasing, as the Japanese Garden. Just as Japan’s delicately crafted poetry demands structure, Japanese Gardens have their own Aesthetic Markers, as steeped in tradition as the 17 syllable haiku.

Delicate branches
Roots caress a simple pot
White blossoms shimmer
The essence of all forests
Lives here in one small tree.
– Mastuyama Mokurai

One of the most cherished aspects of any Japanese Garden is the preservation of “shizen” or naturalness.  An bonsai forme du lettréexample would be in the use of cement or brick; they look more pleasing in their natural tones rather than painted. Another example is by complementing the natural surroundings with the selection of simple objects such as a single bonsai on the edge of a quiet pond.

Natural asymmetry or “fukensei” is preserved by placing elements in compositions using odd numbers, one, three or five. A solitary object can create a bigger impact on the senses than small groupings. An imaginary drawing of a triangle between the trained branches of a tree or the placement of stones also insures that the element of “fukensei” has been met.

The Japanese concept of “kanso” or simplicity is most evident in gardens of the Zen tradition.  Just as the haiku creates powerful images by its element of simplicity, a solitary stone may represent an entire mountain or island by its simple yet precise placement.

The concept of “ma” or space used in a Japanese garden is a direct reflection of how the Japanese have viewed life through the generations. The concept that all objects interact within a given space and that nothing exists alone plays a big part in all aspects of Japanese culture. Even that single stone island is surrounded by water, real or imagined and the point at which they meet is the transition from the liquid to the solid; neither can exist without the other.

The Japanese love of things miniature and their capacity for patience is fully expressed in the art of bonsai. Whether the trees are trained to represent the oldest form of bonsai, the “informal upright” or more modern versions such as the “sharimiki”  (resembles dry wood with live branches) these tiny creations are believed to represent all of nature “in one small tree”.

That does not mean that the Japanese were and are not without a sense of humor. In Nijo Castle in Kyoto, which was the center of military power in the ancient capital, the shoguns had their own way of enjoying their gardens. They would mix their love of poetry and saki by holding a poetry writing contest in the midst of the formal display garden.  Poets of note would sit on large rocks at the edges of garden streams.  Their task was to compose a poem before cups of saki, set afloat upstream, reached their particular rock. If the poem was not complete before the saki reached the poet, the poet must drink the saki before the contest could continue. In that vein:

vision of beauty
nature encapsulated
within your branches

Now, where’s the saki?

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