The Japanese love gardening, as it’s classified as a favorite activity by a large part of the population. Japanese gardens are born from concepts other than Western ones, historically designated by being a way to recreate an ideal world, perfectly symmetrical, almost exclusively representative. On the contrary, Japanese gardens want to recreate a moment of harmony of the human beings with the nature that surrounds them.
A little history
Japanese gardens developed concurrently with Buddhism, being built near temples, and for a long time they were a prerogative of clergy and aristocracy.
The first references to the gardens appear in the History of Genji of the tenth century, but it’s only between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the diversification of the Buddhist schools, that two approaches were introduced, on the one hand the minimalist Zen, characterized by rocks inside of stretches of raked sand, and on the other the natural one of the masters of the tea ceremony, with plants and green fields.
Gardens as art
It’s only during the Edo period (1603-1868) that gardening became an art within everyone’s reach, also thanks to the manuals that reported its basic concepts. These include the three primary elements: water in the form of a pond or lake, trees that evoke the image of a forest, and stones in their natural form and color, representations of islands. In addition, the three main styles: the landscape garden (tsukiyama), with a lake in the middle, the dry landscape (karesansui), with rocks and sand to represent the Buddhist concept of paradise, and finally the tea garden (chaniwa), which helps to create a moment of quiet and rest from everyday life. In addition to these, every single element of the Japanese garden has a specific symbolism and follows the feelings of those who created; a stone can represent an animal, an island, a mountain, or rocks of a waterfall, everything depends on the shapes, on how and where an element is placed, on the shadows, and so on.
Also during the Edo period, the shogun wanted every major aristocratic family to build a residence with a large garden. In addition to being a political move, the layout of homes and gardens played a strategic role in fighting fires, since water could be used by firemen to contain flames. In addition to this, the pond or lake allowed a magnificent scenic effect both for state ceremonies, and to admire the Moon and declaim poetry in its honor during full moon nights and the tsukimi. More on the tsukimi at this link.
Not just that; the aristocrats were in constant competition, so as to use perspective stratagems to make the gardens look bigger and to insert existing natural elements in the distance, for example a mountain or a forest. The fashion was also developed to include reproductions of elements or famous sights to create the illusion of a travel, in many cases also a socio-political move.
The relationship with nature
As Japan is a country with a strong connection to nature, gardens relate to the concept of respect for it as a strength greatest than human beings, which can prove to be extremely benevolent (for example, in case of good harvest) or to bring suffering (for example, in case of natural disasters), and this is precisely why humans must be aware of their surroundings.
Although space is limited in Japanese cities, many choose to build a small garden on their balcony or roof, or in the few centimeters that separate the fence from the walls of the house; or even create patios to improve ventilation, allow more light and characterize the various rooms of the house, for example, a room and a representative garden express different feelings than a more private area, like a living room used only by the members of the family.
Although it is believed that the Japanese gardens are diametrically opposed to the western ones, in reality they both want to idealize nature starting from its main elements. The most important difference is that while the idealized form of nature in Japanese gardens derives from an empirical perception, that of Western gardens has its roots in the human intellect, without regard to empirical manifestations. That is, in simpler terms, both concepts want to express their idea of an ideal nature, but the Japanese garden considers nature as we see it, the Western one as we think of it. It can be said that Japanese gardeners do a great job when, seeing a garden, we don’t realize that a human hand sheped it.