I took Mother Nature to Japan

I grew up with Mother Nature.

Well, maybe not THE Mother Nature, but it sure
seemed like my mother was – and continues to be –
some corporeal manifestation of Mother Nature. As
a kid growing up in the countryside outside of
Toronto, I remember that we had a huge vegetable
garden, numerous flower gardens and what seemed
like hundreds of trees and shrubs. Every other
week my mother was digging up another patch of
lawn for a flower bed or planting another tree. I
didn’t mind because it meant less grass for me to
cut, but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate
what she was doing.

Later in life I started to understand that
gardening was Mom’s sanctuary. Her way of getting
away from it all.

And during our trip to Japan I learned that
not only the act of gardening, but gardens
themselves, can be sanctuary for many people.

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Walking through a garden in Japan

You’ve probably heard that Tokyo is considered
by many to be the largest city in the world and
you are most likely aware of the fact that Japan
is a relatively small country.

Here are some statistics to ponder:

* Japan is the 61st largest country in the world at 378,000 sq/kms
* Japan has a population of 127 million, 10th most populous nation on earth
* Japan is the 36th most densely populated country – 337 people per sq/km

Tokyo street scene

So, in a country the size of Japan with the
population of Japan and with the population
density that Japan has, where do the Japanese go
to get away from it all?

Gardens.

And they have been going to gardens for over a
thousand years. As long ago as the Asuka Period,
from 538 to 710, when Buddhism was introduced to
Japan, the country underwent an artistic
transformation and gardens became works of art.

Garden design has been an important Japanese
art for many centuries. Traditional Japanese
landscape gardens can be broadly categorized into
three types, Tsukiyama Gardens (hill gardens),
Karesansui Gardens (dry gardens) and Chaniwa
Gardens (tea gardens).

Each garden should have some or all of the
following features:

* Water, real or symbolic, often creating an island
* Rocks or stone arrangements
* A lantern, usually of stone
* A teahouse
* A hedge, fence, or wall
* A bridge to the island, or stepping stones

We saw many examples of traditional gardens
and most of the elements of a garden were used in
every one of them. But we saw one garden that
really puzzled me. It was a dry garden, the
Karesansui style. It had a few rocks placed on a
bed of fine gravel and it was supposedly one of
the finest examples of this type of garden. But if
each garden is supposed to have a water feature,
why are dry gardens so revered?

A dry garden - raked gravel to look like water

My mother then explained to me that the gravel
of a dry garden represents the water, and that the
way it is raked symbolizes the waves or ripples on
the water. I was being too literal. Not Zen
enough.

When did she become so knowledgeable about
Japanese garden design? Must have been all that
time in the garden, meditating.

Speaking of meditating, there is one garden in
Japan that has a very interesting entrance
requirement. In order to visit the garden you must
first learn about meditation from a monk. This
takes about an hour. Then you must meditate… for
another two hours. Only then you are allowed into
the garden.

In every garden we spent time in, it could be
argued that many of the visitors were practicing
some form of walking meditation, communing with
nature and enjoying the peace and tranquility that
one finds in a Japanese garden. It’s not
surprising that there are so many gardens then,
when you consider the population of Japan. Even in
the middle of the biggest city in the world, with
all the hustle and bustle that comes with it, you
can find oases of calm and serenity. When they
need to get away from it all, when they have had
enough and need refuge from the commotion, I think
that Japanese people use their gardens for
spiritual renewal.

Enjoying a stroll through a garden

Call it sanctuary or call it meditation,
people all over the world have figured out that
going out into the garden is a great way to
maintain one’s sanity.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be the gardener my
mother is but I know that if I need sanctuary I
will go to the nearest garden and walk around a
bit.

127 million Japanese can’t be wrong.

And my Mom’s probably not wrong either. She’s
Mother Nature after all.

We have one more installment in our Japan
travel diaries that will be posted next week. Stay tuned!

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To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012

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