Building a Japanese garden.

Kieran Egan

Updated: 6th. Feb. 99.


I visited Japan for the first time last summer, and stayed with a colleague whose partner had converted the small balcony of their apartment into a miniature Japanese garden. It was a miracle of design and made what might otherwise have been a dull few square meters of balcony into a treat for the eye and spirit. Mind you, the small garden was augmented gradually by stones found on drives around the city of Nagoya or on trips further afield. This meant that a drive might at any moment be halted as Tanya's eagle eye spotted an appropriately shaped stone by the side of a field or in a back alley or in some more precarious spot. The car would lurch to a halt, and Mike and Tanya looked around with that exaggerated casualness I last saw in 1950s British movies as the only-too-obvious villain prepared to grab the diamonds from the unsuspecting dowager. Mike would then climb out, examine the sky for a few moments while edging closer to the stone, and then a swift lung and grunt would have it into the back of the car. Later, in the apartment, the stones would be cleaned and carefully set to enhance the accumulating beauty of the balcony-garden..

On returning home to Vancouver, I thought I could try to make our back deck, or the upstairs balcony, a copy of Tanya's transformation. But our wide Canadian decks didn't seem well-suited to the task. Looking at the wreck of the back of our garden a while later, I thought I could try to make a Japanese garden there. It was a wreck because the fence at the back was one of those old green plastic mesh affairs and it was the one neglected corner of our ajoining neighbor's otherwise well-tended garden, and their shrubs had invaded and grown a bit wild. It is also an area surrounded by trees, with too little sunlight for a successful lawn, AND was a neglected strip hidden behind one of those Lumberland playhouses I had bought and constructed-by-numbers when the children were little.

So I had my spot. I would make a Japanese garden along the back strip between the fence of our neighbors to the north, and the compost heaps I had built a few years ago, and the playhouse.

The trouble with taking on any large task is that there seem to be so many things one has to do before one can do what one wants, and then things to do before one can do the things before the things one wants, and then more things to do before . . . etc. The other trouble with this project was that what I had initially imagined as a small strip with some stones, perhaps a raised area with plants and a decorative Japanese lantern, gradually grew. The plan soon included a pond, with a small stream and waterfall, and a tea-house/scholar's study with a small veranda over the pond..

When I say the plan, I don't mean that I sat down and carefully drew up a plan first, or ever. I know that is what one is supposed to do. As it was underway, guests might ask (politely, indulgently, resignedly, even one or two interestedly, I think) to see the work-in-progress, and many, unenchanted by the mounds of earth and gravel and the untidy hole that was to be the pond, asked if they might see the plan. At first I was a bit surprised by such requests. My plan was just that I imagined the raised garden at one end--raised to create a run for a pump-driven stream--and the pond in the middle, where the stream might fall, and the tea-house at the other side. That was the plan, and I basically made each element up as I went along. That makes it seem very casual, but I just wanted to make a beautiful place, such as Tanya had, with the added attraction that I would be able to sit peacefully in it.

That is, I set out to make a paradise. It seems the ancient Persian rulers built, as an essential part of their palaces, a walled garden. The pairidaeza was an area within which one might create something particular, and pairi is the source also of our word 'dairy'. The Greek version of the word was used in the Bible for the Garden of Eden. The connection between gardens and paradise, then, is of long standing in human languages and imaginations. It is our ideal cooperation with nature. We create forms within which nature does its thing to our mutual satisfaction. It would be tacky to call this the garden of Egan.

The first task--instead of beginning on the garden, or building the fence I decided I should put up to protect it from the invading shrubs--was to take down the old playhouse. It was beginning to show its age--about 15 years or so--and likely wouldn't be altogether safe by the time grandchildren would be ready to use it. At this point I thought I should try to record the process in pictures, as no doubt your average Persian emperor would have done, had he had a Minolta. So here's the original site, with bits of the playhouse coming down. If you click on the small pictures here, you can see larger versions of them.

Left is the site looking north and right is looking southand below is the view looking east towards the wire fence that needs replacing.
(Or, at least, the 'left', 'right', and 'below' is how it works on my screen. Having seen it from someone else's, I realise all browsers may not display it this way, but I'm too lazy and inexpert--in that order--to put the pictures in frames.)

So I now had a space of about 40 feet along the back of the garden, from north-neighbor's fence to our compost heap, by about 15 feet. I still couldn't begin on the garden proper till I had built a proper fence to replace the wire-mesh job and beat back the encroaching shrubs. So reluctantly I had to shift from planning the garden itself to thinking what kind of fence might be suitable. I thought that I could at least begin the Japanese theme by making it a Japanese style fence.

Now, as I have begun scanning pictures and describing the process step-by-step, and indeed even by some of the steps I avoided, I realise that mounting this all onto one web page will take too much time in downloading. So, I will break it up into three sections, links to which are below.

My aim is to describe the process I went through in building, from a weedy and more or less waste 40' by 15' chunk of garden, an attractive place that has the qualities traditionally sought by Japanese gardeners--beauty, tranquility, and harmony. While I will describe just the one construction in a particular place, I will try in doing so to discuss the priciples I have learned and consider the choices I did not make. That is, I will try to make it a useful guide to constructing a small garden area using--more or less--Japanese principles. There will be compromises with Western notions here and there, in part as matters of choice, in part due to the materials or plants that are available.

But the Japanese garden itself seems to have been a kind of compromise. During the T'ang dynasty (c. 600 - 900) a fashion developed among some Chinese poets and painters to withdraw from the city and society to a rural retreat. There they would live in isolation, preferably in the mountains, near running water, working on their art. Mind you, "isolation" for these wealthy men might include a retinue of servants. One may see paintings of their "huts" in the mountains in which they sit contemplating nature, while servants bustle around taking care of everything that might distract the artist. The rural concealment, ironically, often brought fame and exposure of the artist's work to large audiences.

In the later T'ang period and into the Sung dynasty (c. 900-1300) the first compromise involved artists who wished for the serene environment as an aid to contemplation and concentration on their painting or poetry but who did not fancy the idea of heading for a hut in the hills. They began to replicate the wild environments of stones and evergreen trees and grasses in their city estates. This too became a fashion among civil servants, who built stylized wilderness gardens in town.

The further compromise involved the Japanese importation of this fashion in artifial wilderness gardening, to which they added the further element of the tea-ceremony and so the tea-house. The tea-house is an odd replication of the Chinese artists' "huts" of centuries before. So my desire to build something closer to a study than a traditional tea-house simply harkens back to an older tradition.

I have spent a fair amount of time poring through books; mostly from the library, a few bought, one splendid much-illustrated Japanese book (in English) a present from the colleague whose partner began all this. The books are invaluable for getting ideas and seing possibilities, of course, but can be a bit discouraging. The American books typically show how to dig out a pond or build a retaining wall using soil that you would willingly eat breakfast off, and with "workers" dressed in flawless white trousers and unscuffed tan shoes. The first Japanese book I read (in translation) began with the old master-gardener discussing clothing. His first advice was not to work in old clothes. Rather, one should have a special gardening outfit, or, I suppose, two for when the first is in the wash. I began to feel I was already involved in uncivilized western compromises. The old jeans and shirts it was going to be.

What stimulated this mega-project--apart from the aesthetic pleasure created by Tanya's example and looking for an activity that will give me physical exercise, keep me off the streets, and provide a break from a job that requires sitting at a desk for much of each day--is the image of being in the tea-house/study looking across at the tranquil garden and down at the pond, with the silky sound of the black bamboo moving in the breeze. And the slightly mad dream that in this environment of water, stones, and green plants I will be able to capture the winged words that elude me in the more utilitarian environments in which I currently write. An ironic conclusion will no doubt see me sitting in this manufactured paradise, unable to write another lousy word--as Dylan Thomas put it--either bemused by the sensuous beauty and calm of the place, or too exhausted and broken-bodied by the building process itself. But, if I can't write my own winged words, I will have created a pleasant place to read other people's.

The fence and the black bamboo: Part One

The fence and the black bamboo: Part Two

(Major revision of the above, 6th. Feb. 99)

The paving stones and fern border
(Not yet a live link)

The retaining wall

The raised garden, stream, and waterfalls

The pond
(Not yet a live link.)

The tea-house
(Not yet a live link.)

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