Japanese gardens have a strikingly different appearance than western gardens. They have been developed over several centuries, taking their inspiration from the Chinese through Korea.
The photos presented here were taken during a trip to Japan in March 2013. Japan has four distinct seasons in general, and in March the northern half of the country is still showing winter-like aspects, for example bare deciduous trees. Because of this, views of the various places visited allowed a better emphasis on the garden structures (paths, ponds, bridges, sculptures, accessories, etc.) but also on the trees, especially their shapes & branches. It is also during the cold months that the elaborate winter-protection structures in the famous Kenroku-en Garden can be seen.
March is also the month when the ‘sakura front’ (sakura zensen) starts. This is the name for the blooming of thousands of cherry trees across the country, a very important cultural event. It is so important to the Japanese people that weather forecasters will provide updates on the progress of that ‘front’ from south of the country (March) to the north (April). The Japanese hold ‘hanami’ (parties) under the blossoming cherry trees and take photos of the fleeting beauty of the blossoms.
Traditionally, a Japanese garden creates idealized miniature landscapes in an abstract and stylized way. A specific type of pruning is used for this purpose, called ‘niwaki’ (cloud pruning). Some trees such as the Japanese black pine and the Japanese cedar are often pruned this way to provide the ambiance. Initially those gardens were intended for the aesthetic pleasure and recreation of emperors and nobles, or for contemplation and meditation. The latter were developed around Buddhist temples and shinto shrines.
Different types of gardens will be shown, and each type has its own features. For example, the ‘Promenade or Stroll Garden’ is a generally large and expensive undertaking and will feature water such as a pond or a lake, bridges, benches and sculptures, all disposed in such a way as to create a ‘surprise’ for the eye at every turn on the paths. In this category are the Imperial gardens, the Park gardens, the National gardens and the Botanical gardens.
There are rustic gardens with Tea Houses, where the emphasis is on simplicity – ablution basin, lantern, stepping stones, gate, moss, ferns and evergreens. The Zen (or rock garden or dry landscape garden) garden uses raked white sand to represent the ocean and rocks to represent the land, so this is a highly stylized type of garden.
Then there are the ‘courtyard’ gardens where space is limited, so pots will be used for flowers or trees to provide a serene entrance to a home, and plant layouts will create depth and perspective. Where space allows, shade-loving trees and shrubs will be planted.
The Japanese take great care of their trees. They provide them with good protection against pests and diseases and snow, and adequate support for trunks and branches. Sometimes that care will extend for centuries for culturally and historically significant trees.
About lawns – as opposed to North America, there are very few lawns in Japan. First, the lack of large spaces for sprawling lawns around buildings, for example, is one reason. Most gardens visited, even if space would allow it, instead will feature various types of moss, or clever arrangements of rocks and ferns and other small evergreen plants.
Most gardens visited had good layout plans at the entrance, some with English text, and many gardens had labels for their plants. Usually the labels, aside from the Japanese name, would show the latin name in roman letters, thus facilitating identification.
Although many different species of birds could be seen in the gardens, none (except one) are mentioned here, as they will have their own section later on.
WEBSITES: if the Japanese gardens listed below don’t have a website in English, another website (such as Wikipedia) will be provided as appropriate for more information. Another good source is a travel website.