What’s all this talk about Japanese Gardens?

by Michael N. Hofman

Okay, how many times have you met with a potential (or existing client) and they say they want a “Japanese garden”? I don’t know about you but we get this request all the time. And of course, why not? The aesthetic, when these types of gardens are properly maintained, is amazing. Of course, that’s the rub: “Japanese gardens” are traditionally very labor intensive. In fact, the Japanese government has decided to send garden experts to important Japanese gardens all over the world to renovate them so that it reflects better on the Japanese brand (see this article: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41515512).

When we visited the city of Kanazawa this spring (sometimes called “little Kyoto”) we had the opportunity to see public, private and street gardens along with a most important descriptive poster to help us capture the essence of a Japanese garden. First, what makes a Japanese Garden? Here you see Janet with our wonderful volunteer guide supplied by the local tourist bureau. It outlines the best components. For those of you whose written Japanese is rusty, it


translates into the following six characteristics: spaciousness (the appearance of openness), seclusion (private spaces available), artifice (art objects to direct the eye), antiquity (well – it should look old or timeless), watercourses (always water in these gardens) and panoramas (big views)! As you can see there’s a lot to accomplish and several of these characteristics seem contradictory.

Check out several views of Kenrokuen Garden (in Kanazawa and see if you agree.


The first is an iconic location where all the tourists have their pictures taken, (there’s a photographer there with a very tall tripod to capture pictures of the many groups that come through). Right away you notice the watercourse, the artifice (the interesting 2 legged light), old plants and trees, a huge panorama and of course the feeling of openness/spaciousness.


A bit further on, we stopped at a bridge over a small stream, which captured our attention for the obvious reasons. First look at wonderful combination of ornamental cherries (we were a little late for their bloom), with azaleas at their feet (yes that pink plant is an azalea!, and iris bordering the small stream in the middle. The stream leads your eye past these beautiful plants into the distance, all the while capturing the beautiful simplicity of this combination of three plants. It just about took our breaths away.

In another part of the garden, we came upon this small island. (The Kenrokuen Garden is situated right next to Kanazawa Castle, a replica rebuilt in the traditional style of the Maeda Clan’s castle, which ruled this area in feudal times.) Imagine being on the island in a secluded spot, while enjoying the water and the combination of plants which make up this beautiful view. Even though June isn’t a high point of blooming plants, the garden looked inviting and was obviously well cared for by a highly qualified team.


Several hours later (after having a great lunch of savory Japanese pancakes cooked at our table), we stopped in at one of the famous samuri house gardens. This property was owned by a mid-level samurai, who in addition to fighting for the clan which controlled this area, worked in the castle (seems like they may have been accountants too). This home is not especially large, but the garden, used as a viewing garden, was visible from almost every room and a visual treat. Some of the elements have been added, but you can tell how old some of the plants and trees are. The picture shows how the rooms focus on the garden (and yes there is water in this garden but hard to see in this photo). Also obvious are the carved rocks and the number of multi-leg lanterns in this setting.

One final touch: we also spent time in the D.T. Suzuki museum. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he’s one of the reasons why Zen Buddhism is so well known, as he traveled the world in the mid-20th century training and teaching about this religion. The museum was a treat and not your standard museum, in that it attempted (and succeeded we thought) in presenting the concepts that he shared with millions around the world. Here’s a photo of the exterior “pond” with a small water feature that generated a ripple across the water every several minutes (you can see the ripple if you look closely enough). It was quite a contrast to the traditional Japanese garden style, but a great complement to the building and its purpose. Thinking of going there? We’re happy to give pointers, but at least now you may have an idea of what a “Japanese garden” theme means.