Where the Path Leads

JGS Conference // I’m so excited my brain is exploding // I met Marc Keane!

I’ve just been in Cambridge for the weekend, attending the Japanese Garden Society annual conference. It was a weekend of inspiration, ideas, connections and amazing people. Actually, it was so exciting and my brain and heart were rushing so fast for two days that I ended up driving back home along the A14 like a total crazy person, alternating between singing the Top 40 at the top of my lungs and shouting to myself about all the brilliant things I’ve heard. Well, I had to let some of the excitement out, or I would have risked my chest exploding into a ball of light- and that could have caused an accident. Anyway, I want to write out a few of the most inspirational/informative things I heard- mostly for my own benefit- while it’s still fresh in my mind and I’m still filled with the energy of it all.

The conference this year was titled “Where the Path Leads: Transmission and Evolution of the Japanese Garden Beyond Japan” and comprised an amazing line up of expert speakers from the UK, Japan and the USA, all focusing on the place of the Japanese garden outside of Japan:

The full schedule of the conference is here.

I can’t summarise a weekend of speech into a few hundred words so I’m going to try to highlight the key learning/inspiration/questioning points for me, which are divided into: The history of Japanese- style gardens outside of Japan; What is the meaning and/or function of Japanese-style gardens outside of Japan?; How can we best care for Japanese-style gardens outside of Japan? 

You might notice that I’ve written “Japanese-style” gardens repeatedly above- that’s because there is *just a little* debate about what makes a Japanese garden when it’s not in Japan- which brings us to the final subject raised at the conference: What does it mean to create Japanese gardens outside of Japan?

The history of Japanese-style gardens outside of Japan

Dr Brown, Watanabe-sensei, Yamada-san and Dr Raggett all spoke about the creation of Japanese gardens outside of Japan from the end of the Edo period to today. It was fascinating to hear about the Japonism frenzy in the USA and UK  in the late 19th and early 20th Century- and the really weird ideas people had about Japanese culture and art! Watanabe-sensei and Dr Raggett both spoke extensively about the large Expos held in Vienna, London, San Fransisco etc- and how the temporary show gardens created there were a huge driving force behind the desire to build Japanese gardens in the West and then maintaining their popularity. This has continued up until today- since there’s pretty much always a Japanese garden at Chelsea. Japanese show gardens in the early C20th also served a heavy diplomatic function to promote trade, peaceful relations and a popular interest in Japanese culture and goods. Essentially, the Japanese garden was an excellent marketing tool to promote the very confused & inaccurate popular image of Japan in the mind of the West as emblematic of exoticism, mystery, primitivism and craftsmanship- and serve as a distraction from Japan’s increasingly aggressive military tactics at the start of the 20th Century. And it kind of worked, apparently! Or at least until it didn’t. Gardens as a military tactic: who knew?!

In the UK,the building of Japanese gardens was a significant activity for the aristocrats and new money alike at the end of the 19th century. Once Japan had opened up to the West post-Meiji restoration, it became the trendy place to tour- and to shop. Dr Raggett recounted tales of the British elite taking entire ships worth of ornaments, furniture, plants, animals (animals!), buildings, rocks, fabric, art- whatever- home with them. Apparently the Western tourists of the era were more interested in souvenier shopping than anything else, and then showing off their posessions when they got home. So it doesn’t seem like much has changed! The most interesting factor about this is that the early Japanese-style gardens built in the UK weren’t representative of Japanese garden design philosophies or styles at all- they were really just a mishmash- pic ‘n’ mix of ornaments, bonsai and what was considered the key signifiers of a Japanese garden: a red bridge, lanterns and maybe a tori. Not much sign of an understanding of ma 間, flow, shakkei, wabi-sabi, shin-gyo-so or anything that makes a garden beautiful!

The creation of Japanese gardens around the world continues, including as a tool for reconciliation post WW2, and speakers mentioned finding Japanese- style gardens in counties in Africa, in Australia, NZ, lots and lots of places in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the US and UK.

The meaning & function of Japanese-style gardens outside of Japan

So, as we heard, the history of the Japanese garden outside of Japan is very varied. Equally, the understood meaning of Japanese gardens has changed through time: i.e. what Japanese gardens have represented and been used for. I’ve just mentioned gardens as diplomatic tools, economic/marketing tools, military tactics and as tools for reconciliation and remembrance post-conflict but the picture is even more complicated than that.

Dr Brown described how the Japanese garden in America pre WW11 represented the orient and exoticism. After the war, they became symbols of purity and peace in an attempt to heal wounds. In the minds of the public, they have been representational of ancient artistry and skill but also of modernism or futurist design (e.g. in the work of Mirei Shigemori, influence on Isamu Noguchi). As far as I’m aware, none of these things are the primary meanings of gardens when you’re actually in Japan!

In various discussions over the weekend, it was made clear that the fundamental principles of Japanese gardens are poorly understood by most people. The stereotype is still that Japanese gardens should be very controlled, unnatural in appearance- and must always have a red bridge! Although this can be frustrating, I do think that it spurs us to find new ways of talking about or creating gardens to communicate the key purpose of representation and connection with nature.

Marc Keane talked about how understanding the change in visual signifiers of nature is relevant to our ways of experiencing and creating Japanese gardens today and into the future. So, just as when I look at this painting

and I have absolutely no idea why the dude has a skull and a carnation on his table, I’m pretty sure that it was obvious at the time. Equally, when they were orignally built, the meaning or subject of abstract karesansui gardens may have been a lot more obvious to their contemporary viewers than they are now- because our understanding of nature has changed. At the time, ‘nature’ will have been imbued with layers of meaning connected to religion, contemporary literature, politics, now outdated scientific understanding etc. These complex layers of meaning were represented by visual signifiers like specific sacred mountains, turtles and cranes etc which no longer hold the same meaning for us. Today, ‘nature’ has different layers of meaning which might include photosynthesis, enzymes, DNA, gravity etc. This also means that the visual signifiers have changed, which gives us a great opportunity to talk about nature in a new way and create Japanese gardens using new forms- as Marc Keane has done with his Spiral karesansui.

Looking to the future function of Japanese gardens, Dr Brown and others reflected on the fact that gardens in Japan were historically places of leisure and that this liveliness and  activity has in some places been replaced with a museum-like atmosphere. This, he argued, is a problem for the long-term sustainability of gardens as it dampens interest, whilst also removing the heart of the garden. Whilst tea gardens and monastery gardens are intended to be contemplative spaces, stroll gardens and other gardens were places of entertainment. A key feature of Japanese garden design is that it is practical: gardens are built for a purpose. So what is that purpose now, in cultures that are so different from Japan? Dr Brown strongly encouraged that we should think of gardens as places for activities. He noted that gardens are re-created and re-translated through the activities that occur within them, particularly when those are activities which were not intended in the original function. As a National Trust gardener I whole-heartedly agree with this but am whole-heartedly afraid of it! Gardens are places for activity and social interaction, not passive contemplation. People’s lives are made better- made wonderful- by experiencing gardens. However, I have seen the damage caused by the re-translation of gardens into venues for irrelevant activities, which deepen neither understanding nor enjoyment of the place but rather create a barrier which separates the visitor from understanding or feeling the piece of art they are standing in. And it makes me so sad! So: let’s use gardens, let’s make them vital places at the centre of society and life- but let’s do it by curating activities and experiences that are relevant to the space, please.

How to sustain and care for Japanese-style gardens

Well, this is of serious interest to me as a professional gardener who would like to train in Japanese garden arts- because there is a known lack of skills in the UK, and a known lack of facilities to train gardeners in the UK and globally. Partly this is chicken and egg situation, because there isn’t necessarily a current market to provide work for Japanese-style gardeners in the UK- but it’s hard to create one without the skilled professionals to promote and sustain the garden.

This is also a similar problem in Japan, which I heard about when I was working there last year. Surprisingly, hort in Japan is suffering almost exactly the same issues as the UK and the USA- fewer young people getting involved, schools and families unsupportive of horticulture as a career (despite the gardens themselves being valued by those same institutions or older people), young people not so interested in visiting gardens etc. And of course the low pay and – in Japan, not the UK!- the long gruelling hours. This is a problem that is being recognised but the solution is in its early stages. Portland Japanese Garden has started  professional training workshops, one of which Kes spoke about- making everyone jealous of how great it was and how much she learnt. The JGS is starting to think about plans to support and train professional gardeners, doing things like awarding bursary money (to me- thank you!!!), and helping gardeners at Japanese gardens, like Kate at Cowden Castle.

What does it mean to create Japanese gardens outside of Japan?

Having already thought about the history and function of Japanese gardens outside of Japan, Marc Keane’s keynote lecture was both a totally inspiring reflection on the experience of creating gardens, as well as a gentle response to the debates on ‘authenticity’ of Japanese gardens. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about this topic (me included). For example, a purist might suggest that a ‘true’ Japanese garden must only contain Japanese plant species, rocks/lanterns carved by Japanese masters and so on. That is, of course, something quite difficult to achieve if you’re building a garden in Florida, Nicaragua, South Africa or Birmingham, where the ecosystems, society, infrastructure are totally different to Japan. Whilst technically possible to do this kind of recreation, in many places it would require a lot of money and interventionism! I believe that this sort of traditionalism can end up creating a situation which is counter to the fundamental principle of Japanese gardens arts to work with nature and represent nature- so I’m definitely not a purist.

Marc identified three options to the ex-situ Japanse garden designer:

  1. The recreation: the garden is designed and built to be as close as possible to one that would be built in Japan- using the same materials, plants, importing objects where necessary etc. A perfect representation of the traditional Japanese garden
  2. The adaptation: the garden is design to be as close as possible to those in Japan, but using clever replacements for those plants, ornaments or materials that are not available/practical as they are in Japan- and adaptations to suit for the different lifestyle of a different country. This could be really fun- like using local stone, having ornaments carved from found objects, searching out materials or plants to give the same aesthetic/feeling but that are individual to the locality, adapting traditional techniques to new uses.
  3. The abstract version: take the fundamental principles of Japanese garden design- and just run with it, to create something entirely new that would never be created in Japan in traditional design- but which still embodies all the founding principles.

I’m all for number 2&3! Which isn’t surprising, since one of the things I love most about Japanese gardens is the philosophy and understanding behind it: practical and sensible, sensitive and spiritual, beautiful and heart-altering.

Marc gave examples from his designs. Tiger Glen Garden represents option 2:

Tiger Glen Garden
Tiger Glen Garden by Marc P Keane. Photo credit http://www.mpkeane.com/tiger-glen-garden

This garden uses local materials and adapts traditional design features and construction materials to create something clearly in the Japanese style, but firmly rooted in its locality. Equally importantly, it has been adapted to make it practical for the situation that it is in: for example, altering the construction of the dry stream to make it more vandal-proof and easier to maintain- whilst retaining its beauty and adding uniqueness.

Thrust! is an example of the third option:

Thrust! garden detail
Thrust! by Marc P Keane. Photo credit: http://www.mpkeane.com/tiger-glen-garden

I think this is an incredible piece of work. Definitely not a Japanese garden, but also definitely a Japanese garden. I love the energy, the abruptness, the intensity and the space in this garden. I find it powerful and thought-provoking- and as suitable for hours of contemplation as the most traditional karesansui.

This lecture was a personal highlight for me. The possibilities for creating new things within the ancient teachings of Japanese garden arts is what inspires me and excites me the most. It’s wonderful to see that there are people out there doing this so beautifully- and makes me think that maybe- one day- I might also be able to create such beauty.


So that, in the most concise 2,500 words I could manage is a summary of approximately 20% of all the things that I heard, learnt and thought about on the weekend! Which is why my brain is a little exploding. I’m super grateful to all the speakers, organisers and lovely people that I met: thank you. This has been an amazing boost of inspiration and excitement just before I go to Japan this week and I can’t wait! Oh- one of the outcomes of the conference is that I’ve now set up the JGS instagram account so please follow us @japanesegardensociety. I’ll be instagramming my experiences on there and @theadventuringgardener over the next few weeks so please follow.



*Once I did my back in and was stuck on the floor for two hours unable to move. Luckily, I’m messy and I’d left Marc Keane’s book about Japanese Garden Design on the floor within reach, so stayed very still and read it until I could move again. It worked brilliantly as an analgesic: thanks Marc!

2 thoughts on “Where the Path Leads

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