Sunday, June 12, 2011

Musings: Japanese Garden.... or Not

In a post published earlier this week at Gardening Gone Wild, noted landscape historian, author, and landscape style expert Jill Sinclair answers the query that headlines her article, “What Makes a Garden Japanese?” with spectacular photographs and mouth watering descriptions of two glorious Japanese gardens in the Paris environs, and more thought-provoking questions.

I don't presume to have any answers to her questions (although I do have questions of my own). Nor do I suspect that the answer, if there is one, is all that cut and dried. Her sensitivity and appreciation for the quandary that underscores her query, and her observations that over time, even "expert" opinions evolve, kept this post on my mind. As I worked in my gardens this week my mind kept drifting to it - perhaps that was precisely her objective? - enough for me to reread it several times and then to finally sit down to write a comment that morphed into this post.

Without a doubt, different cultures affect the style of many things, be it food, clothing, music, interior decor, or gardens. Are we too quick to attach an ethnic or cultural label to something that may not be entirely authentic? Perhaps we are, but in a world made incredibly small by supersonic transport and the Internet, is that not to be expected?

I see the use of a specific ethnic or cultural word as a descriptor to be more a way to communicate a mental picture of a theme or style with a minimum of words than the result of either a deliberate attempt or an uninformed effort to get someone to believe that a garden  (or a deli sandwich, take out food, or a hotel lobby) is something that it isn't.

Last July, Steve and I had the privilege of touring the James Rose Center, mentioned by Ms. Sinclair in her article. It is without a doubt one of the most unique residences and gardens we've ever seen.

I would agree with Ms. Sinclair, and indeed, with Mr. Rose himself, that one can certainly see Japanese influence at play there, for example in his use of shoji screens, and the area for tea. But the architecture looked as much American modern as it did Eastern, at least to me, anyway.

Likewise, the grounds did not strike me as anything close to what I envision when I think typical Japanese garden with the usual plantings, layout, and accouterments one associates with a garden like the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. That could certainly be just my own ignorance, but the Asian influence was apparent in the ponds (which we encouraged the caretaker to consider stocking with koi), the walkways, and some of the plantings.

What stood out and seemed most evident to us throughout the estate was Mr. Rose's unique architectural style, which we found interesting, curious, even fun at times. But you should also understand that I am far from an expert in either architecture or "style", and it may well be that I simply missed the boat.
Trees growing through the hallway.

I found his effort to merge the outside with the inside to be the most compelling overall theme which he carried through the gardens and the residence in very dramatic ways, something I had never seen before, and something that we took to be his hallmark.

This was especially apparent to us when we were sitting on the upper deck in the area between the individual “apartments” or "studios" that  he built for himself, his mother, and his sister which were originally separate and distinct but were eventually linked into a single residence with the addition of a second story deck that encloses what had previously been a garden area surrounding each unique structure.

We sat in the shade of trees growing through the house to the second story deck
Sitting in the shade of a large tree that grows through the residence, one certainly has a foot in both worlds – indoors and out.  It was without a doubt, the ultimate tree house, something I associate with American backyards and not Japan at all.

Visiting the Rose Center bolstered what has long been my contention, that the best way to shade our own deck would be to grow some large shade trees on the patio level and cut holes in the floor of the deck for the trees to grow up through so they could give us …. shade.  My husband still thinks I’m a bit crazy, but not as crazy as he thought I was before our trip to Ridgewood! (Honestly, I think he is secretly taken with the idea.)

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden, taken during our visit there last summer
I'm not sure how important it is to be absolutely "authentic" if one is merely describing a gardening style, or a garden that was inspired by a specific culture or theme.  It seems to me that the main reason for using a descriptor such as “Japanese” in describing a garden is to give a frame of reference using a taxonomic term that many people understand and can associate with specific elements. But that's where things can get muddy. How many elements do you need and what level of authenticity do you need to attain to legitimately call the garden "Japanese" or "English" and who decides that? 

A pagoda in the garden bed next to our koi pond
The dwarf pines, small stone pagoda, azaleas, iris, maples, walking paths, plethora of Japanese flowering trees, immense figure of Buddha, and our koi pond certainly suggest Japanese or at least Eastern influence in some of our garden beds, but I would hardly call any of our small gardens an authentic Japanese garden. Yet, most people look immediately toward the koi, the flowering trees, and the stone pagoda if we make a reference to it as such and more than once someone visiting has commented "what a lovely Japanese garden". Funny, I don't see it as "Japanese", but I know what they mean.

Similarly, the central portion of our garden is an area that we consider to be a formal English garden. My guess is that many residents of the UK would look at our garden and raise at least one if not both eyebrows at us for calling it that. Even Gertrude Jekyll herself would probably shudder, despite the fact that our “formal” beds are hedged with her very own Munstead lavender rather than traditional boxwood, which we can’t grow here in this micro-climate to save our lives.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that our main garden was “designed in the English tradition”, and our front and side gardens are “modeled after the cottage style”.  But that seems so stuffy, and besides, it’s so many more words. 

Ms. Sinclair described the controversy that once surrounded the Japanese Stroll Garden designed by Isamu Noguchi for UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Although that debate occurred more than half a century ago, ethnic sensitivities are alive and well around the world today. But I'm not sure it's possible to come up with a compromise that will keep everyone happy. The very thing that some find as an affront, others find is a compliment.

We wouldn’t want to offend anyone, their culture, heritage, or their homeland by calling one of our gardens something that it truly isn’t, but where does one draw the line? Is there such a thing as being "politically correct" when describing your garden on a blog that reaches people around the globe? What about naming a garden that welcomes the public through its gates? How does one begin to define "authentic", when even within a culture or a country, wide variations undoubtedly exist?

I hardly consider myself an “expert” in either formal or cottage gardens after the traditional English style, although I’ve certainly read and studied about them. Perhaps the solution is best reflected in the words of the late Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who, while struggling to define obscenity, stated simply, "....I know it when I see it."

That said, for ease of communication, around here at least, our various beds are referred to in terms of the prominent style or the theme we tried to evoke in each area, or that was the inspiration for the design. That’s not to say that we didn’t digress a bit in the individual beds when it suited our fancy. 

Ms. Sinclair gets to the crux of the matter when she asks whether we in the West have any understanding at all of the subtleties and symbolism inherent in true Japanese gardens. I doubt that most of us do, but I’m not sure that I need to in order to simply enjoy the influence of their style in my backyard. Maybe that shows colossal insensitivity toward another culture or country on my part, and if so, I assure you, it's unintended.

I can appreciate that people of other cultures may not be as laid back as I am when it comes to someone co-opting a word or phrase that has a specific definition or meaning in their culture and attributing it to something that may be little more than a poor imitation in their eyes.

The closest I’ve ever come to being able to experience this dilemma first hand involves food. An observant Jew, I have dined at many “kosher style” as well as authentic “kosher” delis. At a “kosher style” deli, you can usually get a side of bacon (and I don’t mean kosher turkey bacon) with your latkes. I wouldn't order it myself, but I don't begrudge you your bacon either. At an authentic kosher deli, bacon isn’t found on the premises and they would generally not serve a cheeseburger, even by special request.And that's fine too.

I personally don’t object to the word “kosher” being used whether for it's ethnic, religious, halachic, or colloquial meanings, as long as it is crystal clear to the patrons whether or not the establishment keeps an authentically kosher kitchen so that those who wish to observe the laws of kashrut when dining out may do so. Beyond that, I certainly know that if I see the word “kosher”, I can generally expect to find reubens, brisket, matzo ball soup, fresh lox, cole slaw, falafel, and fabulous deli pickles on the menu.

Having said all this, I wonder as well about the converse:  what does someone living in Japan call a garden built in Japan that boasts casual, informal plantings of English lavender, a rose or two, a fountain, a bistro set with an umbrella on a small patio area, some flowering ground cover, perhaps a trumpet vine or clematis climbing over a porch, and a bunch of daisies, violets, and some kitchen herbs tucked next to some zinnias? Would it be a Japanese garden, since it’s in Japan, or a cottage garden, since the elements it contains clearly evoke that style?

Author's Note:  If you have the chance to visit the James Rose Center, you are in for a treat. But definitely call ahead and make an appointment with the caretaker even if you plan to go during the public hours and be sure to get very specific directions to the location. There are no signs on the street - such signs are not allowed in the village and GPS gets you close but not exactly there! The entrance is on the adjacent side street and the only sign is a very small one on the gate, not visible from the road. We spent as much time searching for the landmark as we spent touring it! But it was definitely worth the trip.


  1. Very nice post! I'm not a big fan of labels on gardens, probably because I'm not focused enough to follow all of the directions -- I like combining different elements. :-)

  2. Just like we have fusion food when different cultures are combined, I guess we can have a 'fusion garden' or 'anglo-zen garden' ;>)

  3. Alan, we are actually very good at researching, but consciously make substitutions that suit our personal taste, personal style, and micro-climate. So while we often know what should be included, we seldom "follow the directions" either. As I like to say, it's not perfection, it's a garden.

    And Autumn Belle, I think you've really hit on something. I haven't heard a better description of what we call our Zen garden.

    It started out as a very carefully thought out Zen garden that in the four years we've had it, has evolved into a clear fusion of everything Zen and everything we love. It's a pleasant place to sit and meditate, read, daydream, have breakfast... it's one of our favorite little nooks and crannies.

    Thanks so much, both of you, for your comments!

  4. That is why I'm sometimes forced to explain why I call the And Roses garden Paradise. Not because I think it is perfection, but because I was inspired by the tradition of Paradise gardens in Persia (now Iran, but that's another story)

    And the kosher food ... we are vegetarian, and object to gelatine being used to thicken our yoghurt. If my yoghurt is labelled kosher, I know the thickening is plant based and is acceptable to me. Woolworths changed their supplier when they found gelatine despite the guidelines.

  5. I think you figured it out in your example of the kosher delis. One is authentic, the other is kosher "style" serving things other than perfectly authentic. Same, I would say, of gardens. English "style" or Japanese "style" I think, would mean evocative of that style, but maybe not all the way authentic. By the way, the photos of your garden album at the bottom of your blog are amazing!

  6. A thoughtful post. Style is a good word to use. Perhaps authentic (as one part of its meaning) would proscribe the use of any plant, bush, tree, vine, etc. not native to the area.

  7. This was a very thought provoking post. I do not pigeon hole a design style because the designer's culture always creeps in. It is hard to separate oneself from a heritage and a design would not be authentic if it did not include a bit of vernacular that surrounds it.

  8. Cathy, I was delighted to see your comment on my GGW post, and now to read your thoughts here. My purpose in writing was exactly as you surmised - simply to get people pondering on the way we describe and categorise garden styles. It is a big, interesting subject and, as you say, tied in with notions of authenticity and cultural identity.
    In my response to your comment on GGW, I have mentioned that my original post was inspired by a symposium earlier this year called "Foreign Trends on American Soil" which looked at how US landscapes have been influenced by garden styles from abroad. Anyone who has been intrigued by my musings, or by your excellent post here, might look out for the forthcoming book, based on the papers presented at the symposium. Jill

  9. You raise so many interesting points in your response to Jill's post. I like Holley's idea of Japanese style garden. It is so funny that when I read Jill's original post and left a comment, the words of Justice Stewart describing pornography popped into my head. I didn't use them because it is an international blog, and I didn't think people would get the reference without an explantion, which I didn't want to get into in a comment. I hope you have had a chance to visit DeniseNoNiwa and see her photos of gardens in Japan.


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