Thursday, July 26, 2007


UNLIKE WESTERN gardens, developed as exclusive playgrounds for Europe's aristocrats, Japan's teien were cultivated as sanctuaries where Buddhist priests could share wisdom with their disciples. Even though teien were later co-opted as leisure areas by the Tokugawa family, Japanese gardens remain quite different than their western equivalents because they were developed to fulfill such different needs.

Teien are carefully constructed to exist harmoniously with the natural elements. Sometimes this requires aggressive disruption of nature (relocating hills and trees, diverting streams), sometimes laissez-faire adjustments (working around streams, subtly rotating rocks).

Teien are very peaceful - the calmness hastens up to you like a pleasant, tangible fog. It's hard to describe, and I can only say you need to visit one to understand. Earlier in the summer I reviewed a few gardens for my company, and they were some of my most enjoyable experiences. In Japan, teien aren't just for older citizens carrying half-folded newspapers. Young couples, moms and daughters, the odd college student with a camera - people from all compartments of society make the trip. You don't see many little kids though - gardens are serious business.

tea house, originally a temple, Shinjuku-gyouen, Tokyo

Tokyo gardens have their own special twist - they're usually surrounded by tall skyscrapers.
If I were an ancient Buddhist horticulturalist, reincarnated in 2007 to see my beautiful garden hedged in by these new-fangled, straight-angled posts, I would probably mutter and shake my fist at them. But I think a real Japanese gardener would, upon reflection, accept these new surroundings and enjoy how his creation and the creations of men like him complement and contrast with each other. Japanese gardens were not constructed with discrete boundaries in mind - there were always backdrops. The backdrops used to be mountains and oceans, now they are skyscrapers and monorails. As a gardener you accept that you work with a living, mutable palette - the earth.

Kyu-Hamarikyu with office buildings, Tokyo

I am aware of the cliche, but when you enter a Tokyo garden, the noise of traffic and train-catching fades away surprisingly fast, and the silence is startling. An afternoon vacation.

carp, Shinjuku-Gyouen, Tokyo

Left: Workmen clearing a pond of algae, Hamarikyu, Tokyo

1 comment:

ashleigh said...

I like the juxtaposition of the calm, tranquil garden and the skyscrapers...