Pretending to have a Japanese garden

This photo and the following bulleted paragraph are from my About page, which deconstructs the title of this blog, in this case the middle word “garden”:

    “…garden…” The dry landscape garden (kare-sansui) at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto is the archetypal, austere Japanese garden — carefully raked gravel as a metaphor for water, punctuated by upright stone mountains or islands. All of which is great for the meditative practice of resident monks and visiting tourists, but the rest of us need something closer to home. Literally. More like the small courtyard garden (tsubo-niwa) that we might find in a home or inn. So, during the fall of 2009, I began thinking about how to build something that would at least evoke, if not quite be, a Japanese garden. On an apartment balcony. Outside in an Upstate NY winter….

Over the years, I have been fortunate to see a number of traditional Japanese gardens in Tokyo and Okayama (but alas not Kyoto) and in San Francisco and Seattle. I also read repeatedly my first (and for a long time only) book on the subject, Maggie Oster’s wonderful Reflections of the Spirit: Japanese Gardens in America. It’s one thing to know cognitively, however, that there are stroll, dry landscape, courtyard, and other garden styles; or that there are aesthetic and cultural reasons for placement of stone basins and lanterns; or that the element of surprise is a design principle. It’s another matter entirely to apply that knowledge to a couple of square meters of open-slatted wooden deck. I realized, however, that the phrase “balcony garden” wasn’t an oxymoron when I saw Cecilia Macaulay’s blog, Balcony Garden Dreaming. Even though I was imagining a simulacrum (at best) of a traditional garden, her post about a flower and herb garden inspired me, showed me the value of detailed planning, and reassured me that any mess and upheaval would be worth it in the end. OK, I can do this.

A practical first question was whether it would work to add anything to the field of view from my meditation cushions, or whether it would be too distracting. So I rolled out a stone runner that was otherwise collecting dust and put a hurricane lantern on the far end. It was minimal, but I could see the potential, and so could Molly, our contemplative cat, who joins me from time to time.

It took months of experimenting to reach the configuration in the top photo. The primary consideration, other than the small size of the available footprint, was that phrase “outside in an Upstate NY winter.” That meant nothing could be living, and everything had to hold up to cold and snow, which implied a dry landscape-like style. Or did it?… As I read further, I realized that I could substitute dried grasses and branches for the living grasses and trees common in many gardens in the Western US. That recognition led me to Nettleton Hollow, purveyor of a wide range of “dried botanicals,” a phrase and product category of whose existence I had been unaware. That turned out to be the first of many discoveries of niche products and sellers who made the process much easier.

My trial-and-error purchase and placement of various elements occurred in parallel with pouring over the photos in more books about gardens in both Japan and the US, many of them very contemporary and non-traditional. But what I’m missing is a clear memory of much of my cause-and-effect thinking. Did this photo influence my purchase and placement of that element? Or had I already bought it and then enjoyed the “Aha!” moment of seeing something similar in a real garden? It’s only an idle curiosity, since the end result — even if I still view it as a work in progress — is the important thing. But there are a few instances that stand out on both sides.

For example, this photo (below, left) from the tea-ceremony room of a contemporary house in Okinawa shows an alcove (tokonoma) where a landscape painting would traditionally be displayed, but replaced here by a slit window showing the real landscape beyond.[1] This was my inspiration for preserving one of the existing slits between the laths of the balcony railing, the rest of which I covered with pre-made teak mats as a stand-in for the common bamboo walls in Japanese gardens.








On the unplanned side, I already had the three gray vases for dried grasses and then found the photo of the similarly-arranged, sheet-metal planters (below, right).[2]








Among all the stone elements that I saw in photos — lanterns, bridges, stepping stones, “streams” of river pebbles, and so on — the one that most captivated me was the ultra-modern granite water basin (tsukubai) with an embedded stainless steel bowl (right, top).[3] I can remember thinking, “Wow, if I ever built a real garden, it would be great to have something like that, but I’ll never find a small-scale substitute.” I didn’t think any more about it until I was looking at hanging lanterns on the blomus website… and there was a small, ceramic tabletop fire pit… with a stainless steel bowl in the center. I just stared at the page in amazement.


But, if finding the little fire pit was surprising, there was one other matchup that was almost stupefying. In addition to dune grass, I ordered a couple of other items from Nettleton Hollow after some email exchanges with Justin, the owner, about what items would hold up best during a winter outside — star grass, which has dark stems and seed pods that are almost an exact color match to the slatted teak panels forming the walls; and mitsumata branches, which have a birch-like bark that has a long history of use in Japan to make paper. Although I loved the look of the star grass, it tended to disappear into the corner early and late in the day. So the mitsumata branches got the job, and their off-white color contrasted nicely with the black cylindrical vase (right). Justin noted some of this on the Nettleton Hollow Blog.

That’s where things stood until I got yet another book, Günter Nitschke’s Japanese Gardens, which has a strongly historical and architectural perspective. The last section, ‘The contemporary prototype: gardens as mindscapes’, shows gardens built in Japan from the 1960s through the 1980s with a very modern sensibility but containing some recognizable traditional elements. His final example is Hiroshi Murai’s “Cool Garden” (below) in an inner courtyard of the Longchamp Textile Company in Kyoto.[4] Other than the marble walls and floor, the sole feature is apparently two real, uprooted trees, dried and painted silver, set in one corner of the courtyard. When I turned the page and saw the photo for the first time, I stared with a mixture of incomprehension and disbelief. White branches? Dried? In a corner?… My brain could have played the opening theme from ‘The Twilight Zone’ with a Rod Serling voiceover, and it would have been a perfect fit. Even now, I can’t look at the mitsumata branches in the corner of my garden without remembering that sense of astonishment.

About the title of this post: ‘Pretending to have a Japanese garden’ is homage to a passage in Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by John Tarrant, Roshi, Director of the Pacific Zen Institute, and Ph.D. in psychology. In addition to remarkably lucid, insightful, and encouraging writing about koans, the book also provides a brief description of some of his early experiences as a Zen student: “We had a little cargo cult going in which we had learned how Zen Buddhism was done in a more or less Japanese way…. We were pretending to be Japanese to attract a change of heart. Black robes, incense, bowing, a Berlitz phrasebook of Japanese phrases.” My title is a paraphrase of John’s irreverent characterization, as a reminder to myself that knowing a bunch of words and incorporating some of the forms doesn’t mean I have created a real Japanese garden. It’s more of a placeholder, though its presence offers quiet promise on mornings when I otherwise might not sit on the cushions. Also, the title is a reminder of my ongoing gratitude to John, who gave me my first koan and more.

Photo sources:
[1] Michael Freeman and Michiko Rico Nosé, The Modern Japanese Garden, Tuttle Publishing, 2002.
[2] Jenny Hendy, Zen in Your Garden: Creating Sacred Spaces, Tuttle Publishing, 2001.
[3] Joseph Cali, The New Zen Garden: Designing Quiet Spaces, Kodansha International, 2004.
[4] Günter Nitschke, Japanese Gardens, Taschen, 2007.

Addendum (7/28/12): This post currently gets more traffic than any of my others. So, if you arrived here looking for do-it-yourself tips but find the foregoing too elaborate, here is a post from earlier this week on Curbly about How To: Make a Mini Window Japanese Garden. Simple and minimal. If you don’t want to make your own garden ornament, ‘kioshi99’ offers small-scale lanterns and water basins on eBay, intended for bonsai and aquariums, but perfect for this use as well.

From the Meaningless Coincidence Department: I found the link to this Curbly post with realtime, the new experimental project from bitly. It will be very interesting to see what role this plays in the development and roll-out of “the new bitly” that I wrote about earlier this week in Long day’s journey into bitly.

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2 Responses to Pretending to have a Japanese garden

  1. MegZ4 says:

    The compositions, and your restraint in executing them, are compelling to me. I tremendously enjoyed reading your reflections. You write beautifully.

  2. Pingback: JARDÍN JAPONÉS – Sigeld

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