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The Japanese Garden. Art, symbology and care of details

According to the Japanese culture, the garden goes beyond a simple place for diversion and relaxation, but represents a spiritual place where men can come into contact with gods and reach the purification

The cult of gardens has deep roots in all the Far East and, in particular, in Japan. According to Shintoism, all the components of nature (such as trees, stones, animals, people, rivers and mountains) are endowed with an immortal soul and can offer a stay to deities and spirits. Therefore the Japanese garden, besides representing a place for diversion, relaxation and pleasantness, is a magic ambient that allows the man to come into contact with gods and reach the purification and the interior peace. Such as the English garden, the Japanese garden is wild but Japanese people conceives it more in a religious and spiritual way than from a mere ornamental perspective.
In a Japanese garden the disposition of trees, stones, paving and structures is not random: everything is precisely studied and designed; the purpose is getting a place where very element represents a symbol.
The fundamental elements of every Japanese garden are water, stones and greenery. The water symbolizes life; without life people can’t survive. The water has to flow from east to west, such as the rising and falling of the sun.
The stones represent a peaceful place in the garden. Round objects create the atmosphere and bring the peace. The rock position is very important; the stone should give the impression to be placed in that position from time immemorial. The garden has to be green all over the year and only some blossoming are allowed during the spring (e.g., azalea, rhododendron and camellia).

The composition of many Japanese gardens has the rocky, solid and persistent structural element as foundation. Generally speaking, Japanese people is scarcely inclined to regularity and symmetry and prefers stones characterized by a natural look, shape and color. Therefore, people usually dislikes carved stones, and chooses rocks made smooth by the flow of time, water and wind or partially covered by musk. The latter, in particular, raises the time patina and the decorative function of the stone. As a consequence, intensely colored or highly regular stones, even squared or circular, have to be discharged.
The rocky ensemble grants an impression of stability by bridling the force of minerals. The latter follows the chosen direction and each stone can express in this way its tension and power.

The employment of stony pathways was introduced in the XVI century, that is in the epoch of the introduction of tea plantations. As a matter of fact, the introduction of such a cultures brought the necessity to create comfortable passages for the ceremony guests avoiding them to soak their feet and to spoil the delicate musky surfaces of the garden. Therefore, the paving is, at the same time, decorative but functional. All the same, besides functionality, the employment of stones has to avoid the impression of monotony, regularity or symmetry. It is suggestive the habit to moist stony pathways in the occasion of the visitors arrive in order to clean the paving and to grant a sense of delicate freshness to the garden.

The majority of ancient gardens was characterized by a big navigable lake. In the following centuries the lake, beside maintaining its fundamental constituent role, progressively reduced its dimensions, becoming, sometimes, a tiny pond. During the tea garden tradition period, stony basins were introduced, progressively becoming a stereotyped and indispensable element of the garden design. There are two main type of stony basins. The first one, called Chotsubachi, higher and bigger than the second, is very simple element that is exclusively used for the hand washing. It is generally placed in the neighborhood of the building which it serves its purpose for. The second type of basin, called Tsukubai, is used before accessing the tea ceremony. It is composed by a stony sink and a group of rocks that supports a lantern and a bamboo ladle and that allows the frequenter to kneels down.

The greenery
The vegetable element is endowed with a strong symbolic meaning. Nevertheless, it never prevails over the other elements that constitute the garden but it is integrated among them in order to get the height and the harmony of the composition. Trees and shrubs form an harmonic ensemble where the species are balanced. Each species enjoys particular cares that structure and shape its final form. The concept of the human control over nature is pivotal in Japanese gardening. In particular, it represents the cooperation, and not the control, between the gardener and nature in order to realize the formal perfection that is innate in every natural element.
The human intervention modifies the shape of trees since their sprouting and all over the plant life in the garden. Such a care involves century-old techniques, particularly pruning and fastening.

The relationship between Japanese and Zen gardens
The Japanese and Zen gardens can not coexist one close to the other. The Zen garden represents, in fact, the exasperation of the Japanese garden. Stones, in particular, although holding a central position in both the gardens, are endowed with different roles and functions. Moreover, water and green are strongly reduced or even absent in the Zen garden.
In brief, we can say, the Zen garden is a stylized realization of the Japanese garden and it embodies a representation of nature; an unnatural, artificial and highly symbolic representation. For this reason, the Zen garden is poorly widespread and it can be found in temples but not in private houses. As a matter of fact, the traditional Japanese house was characterized by a place for the Japanese garden and not for Zen gardens.

by Graziano Alderighi
02 february 2009, Food & Fun > Nature