Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Power and Beauty of a Japanese Garden

Nate and I visited "Gardens of The World" in Thousand Oaks, CA, with his history of landscape architecture class the other day.  I was immediately drawn to the last garden we saw, the Japanese Garden.

picture from
I was drawn to the organic lines curving here and there.  The rich experience.  The sense of an unfolding and unpredictable journey this garden beckoned me on as I entered it's little threshold.  At the entrance were two adorable bonsai tree arrangements - one I believe was maple and the other, pine.  You could just imagine little people going there to take a peaceful nap under the sweet shade of that tiny tree.  As you walked the winding, rambling path you entered a gorgeous Japanese Pagoda with beautiful lanterns hanging from the top. 
Cascade at Nanzen-ji garden in Kyoto [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

Then a baby waterfall leading down rocks to a gorgeous pond complete with lily pads and koi fish.  These lovely fish live to be about 60 years old! Quite amazing.  Then there are all kinds of different sized rocks placed around the whole garden, lending a sense of stability and balance to the viewer.  Across the pond from the Pagoda is a thicket of luscious bamboo, providing great shade to the garden.  The cool, breezy air that comes off the top waterfall cools me down in this hot desert land.  The different kinds of plants and flowers all flow effortlessly into the next patch of species.

View of Suizen-ji, a miniature mountain resembling Mount Fuji [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

picture from

This garden is in such stark contrast to the rest of the western, European style gardens.  While the main element I see in the French, Italian, Spanish, American gardens is perfect symmetry with bold straight lines and axises and a dominant "look at me!" sort of statement, this little Japanese garden is so subtle in contrast.  Tucked away in the inner most corner, it feels perfectly balanced yet asymmetrical in design.  It was also interesting to note how unassuming this garden was in comparison to the other gardens.  The other gardens could be seen bold and clear from further outside the garden (before entering).

The north garden at Ninna-ji in Kyoto, a classic promenade garden 
[Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

[Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

However this Japanese garden was somewhat hidden and could really only be experienced upon entering it.  Unfolding like petals opening in a lotus flower, there were layers to be peeled back as you walked further into the garden.  The experience was rich with these layers and quite thrilling in its unpredictable, hidden and meandering nature.  All of its subtle power and energy really only occurs inside of the garden, looking out, in contrast to more western style gardens, whose majesty can definitely be admired at from the outside, looking in (just think Versailles, France).  Two opposite styles or philosophies - both profound and powerful - in strikingly different ways.

Gardens and palace of Versailles in 1746, by the abbot Delagrive [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]
Bird's eye view of the gardens of Versailles. 19th century. [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

I am instinctively drawn to this style, this school of thought, this philosophical approach to gardening, art and even life.  I mean neither style is really better than the other.  They both serve their function and purpose very well.  It's just that the more Western style denotes aspects and values of great structure, order, symmetry, power and man-made manicured nature, which I believe is held predominantly and conventionally in our modern, American, western world.  Just look at conventional schools of thought, education, art and design.

A winding stream at Mōtsū-ji garden in Hiraisumi [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]
With its organic curves (versus straight lines) and meandering walkways and seemingly "random" placement of objects, plants and elements (such as rocks and water) - everything feels so very natural and effortless.  Although the amount of "effort" and "thought" put into it might very well have been a great deal more than in the more conventional Western style of gardens.  To create straight (or curvy) lines, points of axis and control where the eye is drawn to is a key aspect in any style of art or gardening.  However the way in which this occurs can be night and day.

"Moonlit Landscape With A View Of The New Amstel River & Castle Kostverloren" ca. 1647, 
by Aert Van Der Neer, Dutch, Oil on Panel [Cassie Goodluck's photo taken at The Getty Center, 
Los Angeles, Ca.]
My mom, an artist her whole life, always preferred and taught me, her young and aspiring artist, the art of "Asymmetry," with an eye for creating a "sense of balance" on the canvas between objects, and veering away from the "boring and elementary" use of symmetry.  She simultaneously taught me to direct or encourage where the eye is drawn on the canvas - to the most important focal point(s).  This is the work of every artist in conveying meaning and structure without obviously or forcefully telling them how to interpret what they see.

Carefully positioned stones around the pond in Ritsurin Garden
[Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

In this way, the Japanese garden was subtle yet very powerful and affected me on a much deeper and more soulful way.  With the European style gardens - it was a much more immediate response upon entering - "Oh, OK, I get it - my eye looks at that most elevated point of convergence where all the straight lines are pointing."  And from far way in an ancient town in Europe, this makes perfect sense.  The points of power - these are the focal points in which the eyes is drawn to.  Culturally, this can determine places of importance - either religiously sacred or politically powerful.  It demands respect and a sense of awe.

Bassin de Latone – Latona Fountain with the tapis vert and the Grand Canal in the background [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

Yet in nature and in the more Zen, Eastern style of art and gardening, this doesn't seem so apparent or obvious.  And being obvious does not appear to be valuable neither desirable in this kind of art or design.  Instead, a more subtle, natural power of the whole experience, seems to be encouraged.

Saihō-ji (Kyoto), also known as the "Moss Garden", begun in 1339 [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]
In a much more curvy, flowing, organic and circular fashion as opposed to lines, geometry and linear logic, one gathers a full and complete experience only as one enters, meanders, contemplates and finally exits the garden.  As I am learning, this Eastern style is related to the great spiritual beliefs in the flow of Chi (or energy).  The flow, harmony and balance created is what matters.  This is sacredly held dear to Eastern cultures and what is so delicately created and portrayed in just about every aspect of their daily lives.  There truly seems to be an art to living and to every other aspect of life... eating, cooking, presenting food, placement of objects (feng shui), holistic medicine (holistic=whole person), art, gardening and even serving tea!  I believe there are very subtle yet powerful tools to be learned in this kind of special and enlightened art that can be applied to all aspects of living, especially gardening.

Murin-an in Kyoto [Public Domain Image c/o WikiCommons]

This Japanese garden affected me deeply.  I realized it had real potential for revitalization and healing for the human spirit, mind and body.  I think Nate and I creating one of these little, hidden gems nestled in our future home, and possibly in the homes of others - perfect for contemplation, tranquility and meditation - is definitely in order...


  1. If you ever end up in South Texas, you would love the Japanese Tea Garden in downtown San Antonio. Have you been there? I try to take my girls at least once every few months. Asymmetry to the nines. Nice post! Thanks!

  2. Cassie your post is so beautiful and touching. The words are complimented by the wonderful photography and illustrations. This blog could be expanded into a kind of course, there are many great ideas here that fascinate me. Keep it up!

  3. Japanese gardens have always felt the most tranquil and natural to me as well. Always had more of an affinity for them than most other gardening/landscaping styles. What really stood out to me (perhaps because I'm a page designer) was how you designed your post to flow -- using the pics and narration -- like one of the meandering waterways/walkways from a Japanese garden that you were describing. You're amazing! Love ya!

  4. Beautiful post, Cassie! Keep 'em coming...