Japanese gardens: to think, meditate and be at peace
WORDS Angela Cowan X PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesty Butchart Gardens
Find the mountain where there is no mountain.
Imagine a Japanese garden and you’ll no doubt picture cherry blossom trees, artfully pruned shrubs, trickling water features and gently sloping bridges. A sense of peace and serenity, and of calm and quiet drapes over the space. A large torii gate brackets the entrance, inviting visitors to enter into the garden beneath its arch, exchanging worry for reflection.
Whether expressed in sprawling multi-acre retreats or miniature trays only a few feet wide, the philosophy behind Japanese gardens is the same: a place to think, meditate and be at peace.
“Most people understand that the style is supposed to have a sense of serenity and peace to it, a place to go and be mindful,” says Susan Hawkins. “People already understand that in Japanese gardens there is an intrinsic value to everything.”
Susan is an instructor at the University of Victoria with a master’s degree in art history, a background in heritage landscapes and a lifelong passion for all things growing.
She’s taught the history of gardens from Versailles to Victoria, touching on Edwardian design, the Age of Enlightenment and the fascination with collecting rarities, Egypt, and everything in between. But there’s an interesting—and unique—aspect to Japanese gardens in that it’s possible to trace their inception back to a narrow point in history.
Muso Soseki, a 12th-century Japanese monk, is considered the first Zen garden designer, notes Susan.
“In the beginnings, the sages or yogic masters went to nature. They went to a tree. They went to a woodland to meditate, to separate themselves from the everyday. One day, [Soseki] has an epiphany. He’s sitting outside his little hermitage and sees a rock and a tree and a little creek.”
He sees how the individual parts can represent the wildness and enormity of nature, and takes that idea to create a temple, and a temple garden. Retreating into the sanctity of nature suddenly becomes much more accessible, and caring for the garden becomes part of the monks’ spiritual practice.
“The idea of learning to do this becomes a very high art,” says Susan. “There’s a particular sense of allowing a linkage to happen to nature, of creating a small space to reflect in. So instead of having to go out to nature, to go on a pilgrimage to the mountain, his philosophy truly was, ‘Find the mountain where there is no mountain.’”
Speaking to Susan, you instantly get the impression that she holds an encyclopaedic level of history and knowledge about everything green; she can pull out facts and near-lectures at will. It’s fascinating, and utterly absorbing to listen to, and in no small part due to her practical experience as well.
Beyond her academic accomplishments, Susan is no stranger to getting her hands dirty. She’s been in horticulture for over three decades, has a BC certification in landscape horticulture, is a Master Gardener and, among many other notable projects, was invited to do the restoration for the Japanese Shinto garden at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. These days she also has an allotment garden in Oak Bay, which is where serendipity struck when she met Marian Paris.
Marian has been in the process of creating her own Japanese garden for three years now. She and her husband have lived in the same Oak Bay bungalow for more than three decades, but it’s only been in the last few years that she’s picked up her trowel and dug in.
“I’m brand new to caring for a garden,” says Marian, who is gentle and thoughtful as she speaks. “We started to do some much needed work, like putting up a wraparound fence to deal with the deer, and it just evolved from there.”
When the two women met, they quickly got chatting about Susan’s UVic courses, and when Marian asked if Susan consulted on private gardens, Susan agreed to lend her expertise to her Japanese garden project.
Much of the foundational work had been done, with structure and shape and hardscaping already largely figured out. Where Susan became essential was in choosing the actual plants.
“I’ve been so insecure about the idea of committing to plants,” says Marian. “What a gift her expertise is, because she brings her passion and experience to this project.”
When Marian describes the in-progress garden—with its stonework and hanging lanterns and trickling water—you start to actually feel what it is she’s trying to cultivate in the space: a soft, quiet sense of serenity. Of peace and of sanctuary. You can feel the heart she’s put into it, trailing out and over the ground like vines of affection.
“I have a brand new relationship with this garden, and I feel so grateful to have this focus,” she explains. “The garden for me represents recovery from grief. Our youngest of three sons died in 2013. His name is Daniel, and ever since his death—which irrevocably altered us—this project and everything involved has inspired me to look at life differently.”
She adds: “I know how I want to feel, and it’s happening here.”
Marian, and by extension everyone who’s been involved in creating the space, has approached the construction of the garden with a unique sense of deliberate creativity, with her full encouragement.
“It’s been really great to give people the freedom to decide how it should be,” she says.
From the contractor, who unearthed a huge cleft in the bedrock, to the stonemason who created a stunning memorial to Daniel, and the fellow who dug out a huge pit to remove a 4,500-pound boulder and then had to leave to be at his baby’s birth, everyone has left a piece of themselves in the garden.
It feels fitting that in the creation of a garden meant to be a place of reflection and serenity, an entire community of people has come together and made indelible impacts on the process. And it ties perfectly with the entire philosophy behind Japanese gardens, where everything is deliberate, thoughtful and intentional.
Find the mountain where there is no mountain…
Create your own
Even if an entire garden overhaul isn’t feasible for a DIY Japanese garden, you can scale down the philosophies into your existing property, says Susan.
It’s important to think about the basic foundations of gardening—what type of soil you have, whether it’s shady or sunny, how you’ll get a wheelbarrow in—but with Japanese garden design, one of the main tenets is the interrelationships between the structures and plants, and how you interact with them.
“It’s about being mindful of the things that are in the garden. The wind through the trees. The smells,” says Susan. “It’s about engaging with the environment that you’re in. You have pathways, you have stone, you have water features and movement.
“Japanese gardens, though they vary greatly, are usually half to two-thirds green and another third colour, especially leaf colour. If you have a shaded area, Japanese gardens typically do very well under certain kinds of canopies. And moss grows very well here,” she adds, laughing. “Things that are within a Japanese garden are in flux. You need corners to go around, paths to walk. And there’s the space between things, called ma. It’s not an empty space. It’s a space where activity is constantly being seen. If you’re looking through the leaves of a tree, the space between those leaves is the dynamic place where ma is.”
Perhaps most importantly, the garden needs to reveal itself gradually.
“You have to enter into the garden. It doesn’t give itself away all at once,” says Susan.
Whether you’re looking for inspiration for your own gardens or just want to explore others, there are plenty of local options.
The Victoria Japanese gardens at both The Butchart Gardens and Royal Roads University are fabulous examples. Both were designed and created around 1910 by Isaburo Kishida, well-known for his creative eye, and have had the benefit of more than a century to grow and mature.
A much more recent Japanese garden was unveiled in 2002 on Mayne Island, in recognition of the early Japanese settlers on the island.
In Kelowna, the Kasugai garden was co-designed in partnership with Kelowna’s sister city of Kasugai, and offers an oasis of waterfalls, ponds and creeks in the middle of an often very hot city. And in Vancouver, the Nitobe Memorial Garden at UBC is considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan itself.
But wherever you are—whether a century-old garden with pine trees that brush the clouds, or a modest corner of your own back yard that’s been transformed with calming stone and uneven walkways—the philosophy of the Japanese garden is something you can carry with you. Simply take a breath, listen to the breeze in the leaves and find a mountain.