Training in Japan to become a garden designer may involve a long apprenticeship to a master designer and years of traveling to view beautiful natural and manmade landscapes. Few of us desire (or can afford) to spend years doing that, but there are many ways we can train ourselves. For those in the Western world who wish to create their own Japanese gardens, it is possible to design a self-study program using ideas from the Japanese training process. Here are some ideas which I have used to train my own eyes in Japanese aesthetics.
Visit places of natural beauty: An early goal might be to simply observe nature in a totally open way. With practice, it is possible to understand what it is about a specific natural scene that produces a particular response. I visit places of natural beauty regularly and particularly value a park within walking distance which teaches me about local conditions. If I have a strong emotional response, I take a picture to assist me in determining why.
Look Inward: Aspects of places which had special meaning to me as a child can often be incorporated in a garden design. In my case, I have a special love for mossy woodsy places based on camping trips. The Inward Garden. by Julie Moir Messervy, provides excellent guidance in this process.
Experience Japanese gardens: Viewing Japanese gardens teaches how limited elements can suggest various places, moods and subtle natural relationships like the curve of a river bank. If possible develop a relationship with a Japanese garden within traveling distance and visit it at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and in all seasons. Of course, an actual trip to Japan would be wonderful.
Learn to sketch: I have found it very useful to make sketches of natural settings and of Japanese gardens. Sketching nature requires me to focus on the essential elements in a scene, and it also helps me focus on the most important details.
Study design principles: Many books as well as this Journal* describe principles which apply to Japanese gardens. The academic study of design principles won’t replace the experience of working under a master designer, but it is valuable nonetheless. As to learning from books, I have found it easier to relate to the more intimate and modest courtyard gardens and residential garden designs for practical ideas, but I also value the many spectacular images of larger Japanese gardens for all the various ways they teach me about beauty.
Learn by doing: The garden in your own yard can serve as a laboratory and teacher, and it can be a reflection of your own personal development. In the early stages, rocks and plants moved around a lot until ‘they found their homes.’ Once I had a clear idea of the topography of my garden and the effects I cared about achieving, I found that scale and composition were paramount.
Keep a garden album: An album with photographs, drawings and notes provides me with a record of how the garden has changed over time, and how it looks in different seasons. It is satisfying to see what has changed, and improved as a result of my efforts.
*This article was originally published in the November/December, 1998 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, which has since been renamed Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
My garden is a haven more than ever now; a place to get away not only from too much togetherness but from the unsettling news that blasts from the radio and television. When a particular application required that I submit a garden photo with a “portrait” orientation, I found I had vertical shots of trees, leaves and lanterns, but not one that gave a sense for the garden as a place.
So I went out with my camera held up sideways. The first three shots are the result. They surprised me. Compared to the other shots I had taken in this orientation, these three revealed how what I planned and what nature provided worked together; how we had been working together in partnership for some time now.
A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.
I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.
A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.
On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.
I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.
The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.
A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.
Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.
Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to cha–no–yu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.
Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.
In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.
The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.
I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.
Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.
The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
A tea bowl, especially one containing a pool of frothy bright green tea is full of landscapes. This is literally true as well as being true on a more poetic spiritual level. In thinking about this concept, and comparing tea bowls and Japanese gardens, I found I was better able to appreciate both.
My favorite type of tea bowl speaks of the earth. Such bowls are honest about the malleable clay from which they are made. One can see the soft bowl from the potter’s hands in the final product just as one can see evidence of geological processes in a landscape. When bowls are fired, color “blooms” and rough textures may result. Such “kiln events” cannot be planned in advance, but only appreciated when they do occur. Even when dramatic kiln events are not present, the process of firing adds depth to the natural feel of the bowl. In the garden, time, mosses, lichens and weathering do the same thing.
Tea bowl shapes remind me of valleys or deep canyons. The shapes are functional to be sure. The sloping sides of the summer bowl are designed to cool the tea faster, while the more vertical sides of a winter bowl retain warmth. The curves and shapes of individual bowls vary. To raise one while holding it in both hands is to bring a valley pool to one’s lips.
Tea ceremony tea is actually finely ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added and then whisked to form an emulsion. The color is like sunlight through leaves. One guest, upon tasting it for the first time said, “It is like drinking a meadow.” Simple, pure details of nature matter in Tea, as well as in the garden.
During the formal ceremony, there is a pause to think with gratitude about all that went into creating the tea. This includes all contributions including the fertile earth, the sun, and those who planted, plucked, dried and ground the tea. Drinking tea is to drink in the landscape with an expanded awareness of what that means. I also try to hold that attitude of expanded appreciation when walking in a beautiful garden.
It is possible to create a tea bowl using materials readily available from the countryside. Clay deposits are not rare. A primitive kiln may be made by piling up rocks or bricks to form a low cylinder with gaps and chinks in its walls. Into this cylinder is layered sawdust or straw and leaves with the bone dry bowls. The top of the pile is lit, and covered with a lid. Once the smoke rises steadily, the kiln is simply left to fire at a low temperature over night. The resulting gray pieces will have shades of many colors and perhaps patterns of leaves on them. In a class I attended, we made tea bowls this way, cleaned them and immediately drank tea from them. In the same way, the elements of a Japanese garden are often available locally and when combined in the right way create a magical transformation.
Steven Murphy, a professional potter who studies the tea ceremony, explains that tea bowls must be quiet, but interesting. They cannot shout. An untrained person might find a tea bowl boring. Tea bowls are best appreciated by those with an eye for nature.
He reminded me that more than just shape is considered in selecting a tea bowl appropriate to the season. A bowl the color of new leaves in the rain might be used in early spring. A bowl with a deep glowing brown glaze might be chosen to contribute a feeling of warmth on a cold winter morning. Seasonal changes with their many moods are consciously planned for in Japanese garden design.
Like walking in a natural landscape, turning the bowl in one’s hands brings new views and surprises. The light, mood, and evolving taste can teach us to appreciate a familiar bowl in a new way. In some cases, a tea bowl literally changes with use as cracks in the glaze turn brown. A broken tea bowl may be mended with gold. The mended bowl continues to be prized all the more. It is only with use that a tea bowl becomes a real tea bowl. Just as it is only with tending and time that a Japanese garden becomes truly itself.
Tea bowls have faces called shomen which are turned toward the guest. The same word can be used to refer to the side of a tree or rock which is placed toward the the viewer of a garden. The shomen of a tea bowl may be obvious when a new bowl is taken from the kiln, or it may take some time to appreciate which side is the “face” of the bowl.
When making a tea bowl, Steven mixes one type of clay with another so that the color is not exact. He might even mix in something potentially destructive like tiny chunks of stone. The clay is made very wet which allows the clay and potter to work together. I have heard some garden designers talk about the importance of working with a sense of freedom.
After making twenty bowls, Steven waits a day and feels the bowls all over to determine which might become cereal bowls and which might become tea bowls. He smashes any rejects. This is like the gardener who never hesitates to remove a plant that does not fit in the garden.
Making ash glazes involves a number of steps. First wood or leaves are burned to produce ash. This is sifted, feldspar added and the mixture is ground to a fine powder. Lye is leached out, and the glaze is sieved. When Steven dips a bowl in his finished glaze, drips or streaks may happen adding a feeling of spontaneity.
Volcanic ash produces pale green or yellow; oak wood, lichen colors; oak leaves, a transparent spring green. Browns come from mixed leaves of maple, oak, sycamore, poplar, white pine needles and “mystery” leaves thrown in for good measure. Spruce and fir needles produce pewter tones. The reddish-orange heart wood of Balm of Gilead Poplar results in yellow, blue, pink or white, but there is no way to predict which color will result. The remarkable Poplar glaze can also produce gold flecks if the bowl is cooled very slowly so that iron in the glaze crystallizes.
It was a great joy to visit Steven’s studio to view the variety of landscapes in his finished work. There were bowls with sky images, wind images, and the moon viewed through streaked branches. The inside of one bowl had the feeling of looking up under a weeping beech tree. Pieces had very tactile satin and rough finishes in great variety. Some had bits of feldspar creating tiny light bumps on the surface. Colors were all ranges of gray and blue greens, browns, blues, creams and others with gradations and mixtures. Nothing was jarring or artificial. Some bowls had feet with bumps and fissures in the glaze which gave a very ancient feeling.
Both tea bowls and Japanese gardens use human perception and distillation to create highly refined art forms using natural materials. Both accept and joyfully use qualities that are not entirely under human control. Steven Murphy writes, “My teacher, Keiichiroh Satoh of Nagano, Japan once said, ‘You and the clay have to agree on what it will become. Forcing it only makes pottery with no inner beauty.’” In the same way, a deep understanding of the site is required to create a beautiful garden.
If I had to spend some time in an ugly part of a city doing stressful things and could not visit a Japanese garden or beautiful natural landscape, drinking tea from a lovely bowl would be my choice of compensation.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issueof the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil.
When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.
With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder.
Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.
Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.
For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.
It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.
When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers.
I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature.
This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issueof the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
I did not use preservative on the bamboo sleeve fence, preferring to let it weather naturally. In 2010, it was still holding up, drawing the eye to the glacial scraped granite outcrop at the center of the backyard. In winter, the slats captured snow.
By 2017, the fence had begun to disintegrate while the lace leaf maple behind it was making a more substantial statement of its own. In 2019, I decided to give the fence one more year.
In May 2020, it was time. With the cool weather, the oaks had not fully leafed out and light streamed from behind the tea hut. Perhaps light always filters through like that in the spring. With the fence in place, I might not have noticed. Paying attention to what inspires wonder seems particularly important in these dire times.
I wanted the fence to separate the sunken area behind the hut – to keep it special. Now a magical light radiated from that corner as if the spirit of the place had grown so strong it could no longer be contained.
The first photo shows an arrangement in my garden designed to evoke a falling down structure I encountered as a child camping in New Hampshire. This “well” was originally constructed in the White Mountains by pioneer Dolly Copp to capture stream water which was piped downhill to her home.
When I returned to the site in New Hampshire in 2012, it was still a place where fireflies gathered in the evening, but all indication of a manmade structure was gone (second photo below).
I noticed right away that there was what looked like a dry stream running along the back of my yard:
During a trip to Japan, I noticed this superb dry stream where Somehow the flat plate-like rocks in the stream bed suggest rushing splashing rapids and more. The way the rocks are set feels inevitable, yet not immune to the forces of time. This gift by a true master reminds us that we have access to where transience meets eternity, even as we ourselves change.
Just for fun, here is an actual stream in a place that should by rights be dry:
There is a theory that all humans prefer a particular type of open landscape with a vista of trees and water. These days, we are bombarded with devastating images of too little or too much water, but I hope we do not settle for mere survival as we work to compensate for this widespread and highly destructive disruption.
Landscapes with water can do more than that and it may not take as much water as you think.
It is true that I love taking photos of large bodies of water in nature…
But surprisingly, the small amount of water in my granite water basin has proven to be enough for me to feel a deep connection to nature’s flow. It captures light. Breezes move its surface as do rain drops. Creatures drink from it. On a hot day, a raccoon jumped right in. Leaves it reflects change shape and color, then fall in. After I clear them out, ice mounds up until it melts in spring. Then the caressing moss emerges once again.
As children, my brother and sister and I loved to catch fire flies and release them down by a falling-apart stone structure behind our camp site in New Hampshire. Dolly Copp, an early settler to this location in the White Mountains had constructed a well-like structure to capture the water of a stream and then pipe it to her homestead downhill. Over the years as we returned to the camp site, we watched as the structure became less recognizable as it tumbled apart.
I tried to capture that structure at one stage of its existence in my own garden. I stopped moving the stones about when they seemed to “disappear” – When they had blended into the universe comfortably with no need to speak individually for themselves.
Before I travelled to Japan to see its remarkable gardens, I had read about the famous Japanese garden Ryoanji with its stone groups set in raked sand that you can see in this video. I doubted that this garden would live up to all the hype, perhaps to save myself from disappointment.
We avoided the crowds by arriving at opening time, but there was no way to avoid a blaring broadcast in English. I tuned this out as best I could, until it ended with, “each person must find his or her own meaning.”
Although it was overcast, I noticed shadows on the sand cast by the surrounding wall and trees. One of my first impressions was the importance of the wall. I then became impressed by the large amount of open space; clearly, the point of this garden was not just the individual stones, although each was beautiful:
Gradually, I became aware of a low singing current passing from group to group and stone to stone. This grew in strength, zinging about. The key to this phenomenon seemed to be the specific arrangement. The intensity grew to unbelievable levels, and the stones ‘disappeared.’ It seemed like the configuration before me was a model of a vast, singing version out in space. It was full of immense power and it was beyond beautiful.
Although precious to me, my garden stone arrangement does not evoke the vast energy I experienced at Ryoanji. I sometimes think about Ryoanji’s designer and what price was paid to be able to get that particular arrangement just right.
Tea garden cleaning is not too serious an enterprise. It is said that young boys and old men are perfect cleaners of tea gardens because they are not too careful. In fact there is a story that Sen no Rikyu, who was a great tea ceremony master and setter of standards, shook a tree to scatter a few leaves into a too-perfectly-cleaned tea garden.
When I am cleaning my tea garden, I often get lost in what I am doing and before I know it, an hour or more has passed. I allow myself the luxury of taking my time. I stop to check if the few remaining weeds in the moss are distracting rather than enhancing and natural looking.
As I work, I notice the pattern of shadows and whether there is a breeze or a light covering of snow on the evergreens. I notice the color of a single fallen leaf. Sometimes I sweep the moss with a broom. I may replace a fallen twig I have removed. I “listen” to the garden and what it tells me should be done.
I water everything carefully, and the moss fills out and deepens in color before my eyes. I scour the rough granite water basin and fill it with pure water. Then I place the delicate bamboo dipper diagonally across the round opening. If it is evening, I light the lanterns not to provide light, but to enhance the growing darkness and to mark the path.
In winter, I carefully clear the stepping stones trying not to disturb the snow around them. This is a beautiful time of year in the garden as the snow mounds on the evergreens and lanterns and the bare branches of the trees enhance the solitude.
Normally cleaning the garden has the effect of taking me far from the mundane frustrations of life and bringing me to a state of peace, openness and gratitude. There is also the joy of anticipating the remaining tasks yet to be done inside the teahouse. These tasks include selecting the scroll for the tearoom, arranging the flowers, and preparing the tea utensils for the particular occasion.
I usually select a scroll that suggests the coming season. One or two simple flowers from my yard are arranged in a basket or mud-colored vase. I place odd numbers of molded sweets or dried fruits in an abalone shell. Sometimes I place them on a wooden plate with a leaf.
Tea bowls, jars and containers, bamboo scoops, pieces of cloth used in cleansing, and a special tea whisk are all selected. My appreciation of the beauty, simplicity and functional rightness of the tea utensils continues to grow over time.
This is just one example of how tea grows deeper in meaning the longer one practices. Many aspects of tea are both simple and profound. Its values, which are only implied indirectly in this article, are particularly true and precious to me.
One of the very last steps in preparing for a tea ceremony is to wet the stepping stones just before guests arrive to create a feeling of freshness and as a sign of respect and greeting.