"DESIGN the pond with respect to its position in the land, follow its request; when you encounter a potential site, consider its atmosphere; think of the mountains and waters of living nature and reflect constantly upon such settings."
So wrote Tachibana no Toshitsuna towards the end of the 11th century, in Sakuteiki, perhaps the world's earliest gardening manual.
Inspired by themes of Buddhism, which arrived in Japan from China in the 5th century, Japanese gardens honour the balance between nature and humanity. The principals of Japanese garden design derive from an observation of nature: gardens may be a symbolic re-creation of a landscape through the placement of just a fewrocks or may represent, in miniature, a complete landscape.
Throughout his life Shiro Nakane, one of Japan's foremost landscapers, has been acutely aware of the country's most revered and respected gardens. The son of Kinsaku Nakane, who restored many of the country's greatest gardens after the deprivations of World War II, Nakane grew up in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, amid the post-war restoration of the city's treasured temples, shrines and gardens.
His personal library is the repository of the pictorial records of the rebuilding of these great gardens, sites now well known to garden lovers across the world: the Katsura and Shugakuin imperial gardens, the gold and silver pavilions and the revered moss garden, precious sites that hadbeen neglected during the war, when survival took precedence.
The different elements that contribute to the success of the Japanese garden - often painted with such a light hand that they are difficult to articulate - are influenced by the principals set out in Sakuteiki. Scale is important in the creation of a restful garden, and a balance of one-third active - that is, planted - space and two-thirds passive is considered optimum to engender a sense of calm. The relationship of a garden to its environment - the borrowed scenery, or shakkei, perhaps distant mountains, or simply a tree in a neighbour's garden - is crucial.
Shiro Nakane adds three essential elements: the stone lantern, the water basin and the pine tree. "The pine tree has been a feature since the 11thcentury, but the water basin and stone lantern were used only from the 16th century," he says.
The plant list employed in Japanese gardens is not extensive: judicious use of a restricted palette contributes to the peaceful atmosphere so central to them; the colour green is a key factor.
Contrary to popular belief, Nakane says, flowers are also important in Japanese gardens as they reflect the changing seasons. Early spring finds hillsides covered in cherry blossom - revered as central to ideas of elegance, delicacy and the melancholy of fleeting beauty - and azaleas about to bloom in hues of cerise, purple and pink.
Two species of pine are most often used and signify endurance: the Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergia), and the red pine (Pinus densiflora), which may be shaped through the decades to create layers of elegant, horizontal limbs that drape long needles.
The outstretched arms of a Japanese weeping maple, with its fine, filigreed leaves, might be reflected in still water and Osmanthus fragrans, native to Japan, is greatly prized for its scent, along with gardenias and daphne. Pieris japonica is revered, flowering in spring with cascades of white bells, often arresting against a carpet of emerald green moss.
Winding paths, set with stepping stones placed to temper the pace of a journey, are softened with kidney weed, Dichondra micrantha. Paths that flank a lake may be edged with small-leaved box, with miniature bamboo or mondo grass.
Japanese gardens fall into different categories, although several styles may be embodied in a single garden. Dry gardens, or dry landscapes - karesansui - are derived from a Zen Buddhist focus on meditation, the path to self-awareness. Temple gardens were intended to be more striking, many built by shoguns as a display of wealth and power.
Stroll gardens, such as Shugakuin, were often created by the ruling elite as personal pleasure grounds, while tea gardens were incorporated into the grounds of temples and embodied ideals ofdiscipline.
Nakane and his staff are engaged in the continual monitoring of Kyoto's most important gardens: at Shugakuin, his firm has completed a full inventory of plants. "We even counted the pebbles," he recalls. "All 153,000."
Along with a minimalist respect that eschews waste, Nakane explains that history and time are crucial to the unique nature of the Japanese garden. "Our national aesthetic says that Japan should stay until everything is covered in moss," he explains. "Long tradition is important. We do not change for change's sake."
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