Yoko Kawaguchi prefaced her talk by telling us the most specific impetus in the design and building of the Japanese garden in the love of the Japanese landscape. An illustration of a Chinese ink wash painting for the 11th Century, in many ways captured the whole sense of place , Ma, that encapsulates much of what is understood of Japanese gardens. Yoko’s talk was to show us the ways we can understand Japanese gardens for images from Japan’s history, One particular image of Koishikawa Kōrakuen Garden, an Edo period garden in Bunkyō, Tokyo. My further research finds that it is influenced by West Lake in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China. West Lake has influenced poets and painters throughout Chinese history for its natural beauty and historic relics, and it has also been among the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese garden designers and according to its UNESCO designation it has "influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries"and reflecting "an idealized fusion between humans and nature”. Yoko describes how this link with landscape - which informs the design of gardens and art is significant - one influencing the other and vice versa. Another significant word Yoko used was sublime - as being a Western concept that in some ways reflects the Japanese artistic
What I have in common with the garden makers of Japan that Yoko describes is a love of and inspiration from landscape. I make my garden in north west Wales. There are parallels between the Japanese word Ma (間) and the Welsh word Cynefin which sort of translates like “a place where a person or even an animal feels it ought to live. It is where nature around you feels right and welcoming”. There is no English word that quite explains the sense of place of Ma or Cynefin. I do recognise differences between Ma and Cynefin - in that one need not feel at home in Ma - it is an experiential place or even the space between places. I understand from the garden maker speakers that they conceive ma when they set their stones - but also in cynefin the place is right for the object. In ones reaction to landscape there is also a European word that Yoko used, and that is sublime. Edmund Burke defined the sublime as
“a quality of art or experience that "excites the ideas of pain and danger" that produces "the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling" (302) and that causes "astonishment...horror, terror;...the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.”
The British landscape was the inspiration for sublime imagery in the romantic period. For me the most sublime British art are the works of J.W.M. Turner who along with many others took the landscape of Wales as well as Wales’s ruined castles and abbeys in particular to evoke the sublime. As with Japanese garden design, there has been the interplay between landscape art and garden design. The ruin and the wild were features of the picturesque and romantic period of British garden design. However, in contrast to borrowing scenery, Repton built follies and Capability Brown changed the scenery to fit the aesthetic. The sublime also parallels the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic (wabi- transient and stark beauty; sabi- the beauty of natural patina and ageing). So as a garden maker in Wales I have much to draw from that offers me Ma, Cynefin, Sublime and Wabi Sabi.
I am inspired by the Welsh landscape. The valley of the Conwy just south of Betws y Coed is famed for the Fairy Glen. I have seen paintings of it in Bergen by Norwegian artists - as though they did not have sufficient sublime landscape of their own. Below there are two of my recent photographs and an 19th Century British Romantic School painting by Reginald Aspinall (1876) (Harris Gallery, Preston). Here nature has worked to create the perfect garden template. The rocks and the water are in perfect juxtaposition, the moss and lichen provide the perfect patina. The stones, in theory, could not be anything other than perfectly placed - for they are positioned by the power of water.
My photo of Fairy Glen
Reginald Aspinwall's painting from Harris Museum , Preston
Less than a hundred metres further downstream the Conwy merges with the Lledr and we get a different landscape. I am struck by the similarity with the garden of Tenruy-ji in Kyoto, with the same ( but accidental) capturing of borrowed scenery. There is a small rocky promontory, which no doubt would please any designer. In the pool created, fish leap as they might in a Hiroshige woodblock print. Nestled on the wooded shore there are anglers’ shelters that are worthy complements to hermits’ shelters.
My current and future garden making therefore has a wealth of inspiration. Sakuteiki’s first instruction from Treatise in Garden Making (11th century) is to observe and learn from nature; “do not transpose a view that you have seen - it is imitation - but to absorb the atmosphere and feeling”. My making has just started and therefore has several centuries of development and sabi to come. Alas although I am surrounded by woodland and mountains I do not easily get borrowed scenery in my garden. The height of my neighbours trees and the orientation of my own house make shekkei impossible. The trees also affect the palette of plants I can use - shade tolerance is important.
However having a nice temperate Zone 9 climate means I have a wider palette than Japanese garden masters. I am doubly fortunate in that I live close to Crûg Farm, whose owners, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn Jones have scoured the mountain forests of Japan, China and Vietnam. Schefflera amy not be part of Kyoto’s plant lists however they make a great contribution to making a setting for my mountain hermitage. The key ingredients are thus in place that satisfy the needs of cynefin and ma; of wabi-sabi and the sublime for a Japanese style garden in Wales.
I learned a lot from the professionals too. Howard described his professional practice with a particular reference to a client who had a 1.5 acre garden in the chalk landscape of southern England. It seemed that the clients had a “money was not a barrier” attitude to creating the Japanese garden that fitted with their lifestyles. Enough money to excavate landforms, to change slopes, and to plant acid loving plants into chalk. Howard described how he had to adapt the aesthetic to the needs of geology, climate on the one hand and the fact that he has the plant material 21st Century United Kingdom has to offer - and in the cases he described - the finance to get the best. He also showed us very modern, minimalist hard landscape features such as lanterns very much influenced by Shiegemori.
Richard Ketchell further described his working methods which he wrote about in Shakkei (vol 25 n.1). I was particularly drawn to two things - the impermanence of rules, and the sense that setting stones comes from an embodied knowledge- where past learning melds with the physicality of the stone and the space in which it will fit. In the article he says“The creative process of creating a garden is a shamanic journey into another world to see, then “bring back a vision of completeness and harmony.”
Therefore, for Richard, the design of a garden is not something that can be pre-conceived and placed on paper - in the current western tradition of the Chelsea-esque - but when the inner vision combines with stones that are in his hands and he is the the space.
Graham Hardman’s methods and sentiments echoed those of Richard. Graham’s words also implied that formal western landscape design practice was not sufficient when making a Japanese garden. In fact all three of the garden builders shared a sense that the clients interaction during the construction, their own increased sense of the Ma, the space, as elements are added determined the form of their next action in planting or placing some hard landscape element.
Graham focussed much more on garden’s in the UK on a domestic scale - close to my own- and was in some sense answering his own question about Japanese gardens in a UK setting. We have a different climate and the surrounding architecture is very different. We have a access to a wider availability of plants but equally we can not rely on the humidity to give a good moss cover. Howard mentioned sedums and Graham mentioned Thymes as a substitutes. Graham’s illustration of a garden he designed for a suburban driveway is never going to resemble Raku residence in Kyoto. It is worth noting what Teiji Itoh(1965) has to say about Edo Tsuboniwa (courtyards) :“Still the important fact to remember about the courtyard garden is that it has never sought to be an ideal or perfect creation…. in this we see reflected the good sense and the basic philosophy of the urban gardener.”
Space and Illusion p87
All three of the Japanese garden makers therefore have licence to build to interpret the philosophy in the ways that fit.
In my own garden making I have much to learn. Unlike the professionals I am only making one garden. Years of experience in setting stones have to be replaced by careful study of the works of others and gathering the “basic philosophy of the urban gardener” as something to internalise, so that I too can act “bring back a vision of completeness and harmony.”
Unlike the professionals I have not gone to distant quarries in Leicester or Scotland. Anyone who has seen the OS Geological Map of Anglesey will think it a 1960’s psychedelic poster - such is the diversity of stone requiring many colours to differentiate the strata. My garden lies on an outcrop of Anglesey blue schist. A hard angular, crystalline rock that fractures quite easily into very irregular shapes. It does not lend itself to elegant slabs or soft gravels. However within 10Km I have purple slate, which I use for walling and paving in both chips and slabs (and eventually stepping stones). I also have Anglesey marble just up the road. It is a dark grey and I am able to talk to the quarry to make me kerbstones the size I want them, and may in future provide tsubaki (basins).
The cynefin represented by my garden however is the blue schist. It delineates some planting areas and edges paths but more significantly it is the fact that the rock is in the surface. I have no say in the placement of the large stones in my garden, it has been determined by geo-history. Instead I have had to think through how the fixed elements in the garden; the lie of the land, the sun, the shade and the rocky extrusions can be accommodated into a harmonious space. I realise I have to adopt a different technique but follow the same philosophy. I am also my own demanding client. I want kare-sansui. I want decorative elements of tsubachi, bridges and lanterns ( and purchased from Howard). I want my hermitage.
The level change wall
I have set about the process by addressing the geography and geology. I have changed slopes by building retaining drystone walls. I have laid paths and created pavement of local stone (slate). The paths provide the journeys through the garden and the places to stop and contemplate have been thought through as site lines, desire lines and places of surprise and hopeful delight. I have used bamboo poles and other screen to delineate space. I have sited the machiai/hermitage. The stones have been significant factors in all of this - but I have not placed them, but they still need to be in the “right” place. I may have this wrong; paths and plants may have to move - but the stones are in the right place.
Stones, positioned by Geology in my garden.
I am really at the beginning of the process. I have done the build. I now have to wait for plants to mature and sabi to develop. I need to be still, I need to move through the space, I need to see the seasons change. I need to visit more gardens and absorb more landscape.
By the way, Betws y Coed means monk’s hermitage in the woods. So where do I go from here? Nowhere. I have much to contemplate within the garden before the next steps.
From: Mountain Light SanctuaryThe snow-covered mountain pathWinding through the rocksHas come to its end;Here stands a hut,The master is all alone;No visitors he has,Nor are any expected.
Sen no Rikyū (1521-1591)
(D.T. SUZUKI, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 282)
Edmund Burke “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”
Teiji Itoh “Space and Illusion”, Weatherhill, New York 1965
List of illustrations
Reginald Aspinall -Fairy Glen Betws Y Coed, Harris Museum and Gallery
Image 1 Fairy Glen, Conwy - an example of the sublime (author’s own)
Image 2 Fairy Glen (2) Conwy - natural placement of stones (author’s own
Image 3 Tenryu-ji - contrast with the Shakkei where Conwy meets Lledr (image 4) (source http://japanesegardens.piwigo.com/)
Image 4 Where the Conwy and Lledr merge - a source of Shakei
Image 5 - Stones and Water (author’s won)
Image 6 Blue Schist emerging from the ground
Image 7 Blue Schist in walls and other features (including sea worn stones)
Image 8 Making a garden around the stones. Anglesey grey marble kerbstones.
Image 9 Slate used for level changes and paths.
Image 10 The Machaia/Hermitage