When I was nine, Japanese culture consumed my life. (What can I say? I was a quirky kid.) My passion began with a lovely little book from Rumer Godden: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. It's the story of Nona, a young girl from India sent to live with relatives in England, and two Japanese dolls that arrive in the post, who she believes must be as frightened and adrift in their new country as she feels. Nona's quest to build the dolls a true Japanese doll house—authentic in every tiny detail—enthralled me. You see, my eldest sister also read the book 13 years before me, and somewhere in our house languished three abandoned Japanese dolls: Miss Happiness, Miss Flower, and Little Peach. It was my mission to create a home for these dolls.
I read every book in our library about Japanese history and culture: tea ceremonies, architecture, flower arranging. I studied photos and made notes, convincing the librarians to allow me to borrow books from the adult section—a scandal!--in return for helping them stamp due dates on return cards. My dad, who was a brilliant man but not necessarily the handiest guy around a work bench, helped build the dollhouse, while I sewed tiny kimonos, wrote haikus, and painted minuscule scrolls for the niche.
I followed Nona and her cousin Tom's progress on the house religiously. Then, I read this:
“...she begged a big old meat tin from Mother and put it on the window sill beside the house; she covered it with a layer of earth and moss. Following the pictures of Japanese gardens in Mr. Twilfit's big book, she arranged a path with flat stones, and a little heap of pebbles to hold the shell that Anne had given her. The shell was filled with water and made a pool, and by it Nona planted some tufts of grass to look like bamboos, and tiny flowers to look like bushes. 'Japanese gardens have to look natural, like hills and lakes and streams,' she said, and she made a stream of bits of broken looking-glass set in the moss, and by it set the clay lantern she had modeled. Miss Lane had let her fire it in the school kiln and it had a gloss on it like stone. It looked like a toadstool with a hole in the hood. When a bit of birthday cake candle was put in, it shone over the garden at night, 'and it's quite safe,' said Nona. 'The clay won't catch on fire,' The garden was beautiful, 'but I do wish I had some trees,' said Nona.”
Of course, to be completely accurate, my dolls' house needed a garden.
Sadly, my attempts to create a miniature Japanese garden in a cast-off foil cake pan were futile. I didn't know enough about plants or their need for decent drainage, and the violets and tufts of grass I dug from our garden soon withered when transplanted. I felt that I'd failed my dolls. Still, the dream of a Japanese garden always remained.
From the moment we entered the garden, it was like no other tour on our agenda. First of all, there are rules. From the ban on food, drinks, and cell phones to the regulations on tripods, the garden demands respect.
Rightfully so. After all, the principle of Japanese gardens is to focus on peace, harmony, and tranquility, capturing the beauty of nature. It's difficult to find peace if your neighbor is chatting on a cell phone.
The 5.5 acre site encompasses five gardens-within-a-garden: The Flat Garden; The Tea Garden; The Strolling Pond; The Natural Garden; and the Sand and Stone Garden.
Where to begin? With a strict time limit, I wanted to see and photograph everything.
Entering the gardens, I felt immediately at peace. Maybe it was the ying and yang, the interplay of light and shadow, the balance of water and stone. Japanese gardens are typically asymmetrical in design, reflecting nature in an idealized form. The garden's primary components include stones, the “bones” of the garden; water, which is considered the “life-giving force;” and plants, which provide the “tapestry of the four seasons.” Secondary elements, like pagodas, stone lanterns, water basins, arbors and bridges, also communicate underlying messages and purpose in the garden.
Every detail throughout the garden possesses meaning. From the stones to the lanterns to the water basins, all elements are carefully chosen and thoughtfully placed.
Designed by Professor Takuma Tono, the traditional human-sized scale of the garden is breeched only to blend into the native environment, with towering Douglas fir trees surrounding the gardens and providing a cocoon, sheltering the gardens from the outside world.
The Flat Garden demonstrates the tradition of developing the dry landscape style over time. The garden reflects balance—balance of the flat planes, the stones, and the shrubbery and trees to create depth and space. It's intended to be viewed from a single point: framed like a painting when viewed from within the pavilion, or open on all sides when admired from the veranda. The round azaleas represent mountains and hills, while the Circle and Gourd Islands symbolize enlightenment and happiness. The seasons represent here as well: the century-old weeping cherry tree evokes spring; summer's imaginary cool water is represented by the raked gravel; the Japanese lace leaf maple reflects autumn; and the black pines herald winter.
My greatest regret about my visit to the Japanese Garden is missing the presentation about the tea ceremony. Somehow, I came upon the very ending of the presentation. How could I miss it? My zen was clearly all out of whack when I realized I was too late, which is counter to the purpose of the Tea Garden.
The Tea Garden is a place for reflection. Rather than cursing the fact that I'd missed the tea ceremony, the Tea Garden should inspire quiet reflection on the beauty of nature and the art of living in harmony with all people and things. As a visitor arrives for tea, he first passes through a carefully designed tea garden, where the wooded, natural setting allows him to detach from the stress of the everyday world. The pathway (roji) leads to the Flower-Heart Tea House (Kashintei), connecting the inner and outer gardens, separated by a bamboo gate. Within the garden, guests visit the tsukubai (an arrangement of stones around a water basin) to rinse their hands and mouths, symbolically removing the dust of the real world. The path represents the journey that's necessary to create the proper state of mind to prepare for the tea ceremony.
Being present—no cell phones, no agendas, no distractions—is the purpose of the tea ceremony. Through the simple act of sharing a bowl of tea with friends in a tranquil setting, guests achieve a heightened awareness of the beauty of the present moment.
Obviously, I had issues just being PRESENT for the tea ceremony. Yeesh.
Still, the Strolling Pond Garden helped center my distraught emotions. How could it not? From the Moon Bridge to the koi ponds, the Strolling Pond Garden evoked calm.
Consisting of upper and lower ponds connected by a stream, the upper pond features the Moon Bridge...
...while the lower pond's zig zag bridge leads through flower beds with a waterfall backdrop.
Strolling ponds were originally created as recreational sites for Japan's wealthy. Estates of aristocrats and feudal lords boasted of strolling ponds. The design of an aristocrat's strolling pond garden reflected the landscape of a person's place of birth or of a distant land visited.
From the Strolling Pond Garden, a stream connects the ponds and leads to the Natural Garden. The most recent addition to the Japanese Garden, the Natural Garden encourages visitors to rest and reflect on “the very essence and brevity of life.” Originally designed as a moss garden, the moss proved too difficult to maintain. Instead, the Natural Garden focuses primarily on deciduous plants that reflect seasonal change. The stream meanders throughout the elevated paths, with the ki, or flow of energy, refreshing guests.
Our final destination is one most people imagine when talking about Japanese Gardens: the Sand and Stone Garden. (Do you have one of those little executive sand raking kits on your office desk?)
The Karesansui, or “dry landscape” garden, is comprised of sand and stone, but its meaning is much less tangible. In fact, less is more in the Sand and Stone Garden, as one of the design principles evokes the “beauty of blank space.” Developed in Japan in the later Kamakura period (1185-1333), a Sand and Stone Garden is often part of a Zen monastery. The garden is not meant for meditation but for contemplation, a “cosmic view of the universe in sand and stone,” according to the Garden's literature.
Professor Tono designed the Sand and Stone garden in the 1960s, when knowledge of Zen Buddhism was minimal in the U.S. According to the website, his inspiration for the design was based on a tale that's more than 2,000 years old. The tale evokes a previous incarnation of Buddha, the Jataka Sutra. In the story, the Buddha faces the dilemma of saving a starving tigress and her cubs trapped in a bamboo ravine. Buddha's self-sacrifice to save the starving animals is a lesson in compassion on the path to achieving enlightenment.
What do you think? Can you visualize the tigress and her cubs in the sand and stones?
Along with each garden's design, the elements within the gardens tell stories. Lanterns represent the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. The piece touching the ground is chi, the Earth. The next section, sui, or water. The section encasing the light is ka, or fire. The last two sections are fu (air) and ku (spirit), as they point upward.
A lantern is not just a tool to light a path in a Japanese garden.
As I wandered throughout the gardens, I couldn't help but remember my first, feeble attempt to create a miniature Japanese garden for my dolls.
Maybe it's not too late.
I think Miss Happiness and Miss Flower would be very pleased with the things I've learned.