A science-fiction television series called Babylon 5 (still in reruns) included in its gigantic, eight-mile-long outer-space platform a Japanese stone garden where Earthlings and aliens could seek spiritual enlightenment and relax from the challenges of navigating deep space.
That is, perhaps, a testimony to the popularity of Japanese gardens. And indeed, the Japanese islands themselves are somewhat akin to space ships crammed with humanity. Those long-standing population stresses are reflected in the culture’s dominant religions: Shinto and Buddhism.
Shinto (Japan’s nature-based, indigenous faith) dates back thousands of years. The introduction of Buddhism from China in the sixth century, part of a general adoption of many elements of Chinese culture, sparked a gradual intermingling of the two religions in a uniquely Japanese synthesis. In the centuries that followed, many schools of Buddhism arose; by the 12th century, Ch’an Buddhism (imported from China) had become established in Japan as Zen.
Religion and philosophy played key roles in the evolution of Japanese garden design, much of which was undertaken by Buddhist priests. Over time — and under the influence of Chinese landscape painting — those gardens gradually became more abstract and philosophical in nature.
One key player in that evolution was the Zen priest and acclaimed painter Sesshu (1420-1506), who withdrew to a rural temple, where he studied the placement of stones — especially those with flat tops — in gardens.
Stones are endowed with the spirit of nature and represent timelessness, quiet and stability. Precise rules govern their arrangement: A large stone at the garden’s center with a smaller stone in the 2 o’clock position is good, but if the smaller stone is at 3 o’clock, the arrangement is bad. A single stone in the center of a bed of raked gravel can represent a ship at sea.
Even steppingstones have a history. They were developed by 16th-century tea-ceremony masters to pave the way to the teahouse without allowing damage to a silken slipper, a grass stain on a kimono, or injury to the surrounding moss gardens.
Artificial light is vital to Japanese gardens, which are meant to be enjoyed at night. Tea masters introduced stone lanterns to light the way to ceremonies. The most popular lanterns were those designed for viewing the snow as it fell upon the garden. In our northern garden, we had an inexpensive snow lantern made of concrete. I wired the interior with a low-voltage lamp so its glow would be reflected in the falling snow.
Bamboo fences are another key feature of Japanese gardens. Every fence pattern has its own name. Koetsu sode-gaki is a long, low, sloped fence used to divide the various parts of a garden. Shiorido uses shaved bamboo in long strips to make a diagonal latticework design.
Water is sublime in the Japanese garden. The reflections of water and the sounds it makes are as important as the plants. If water isn’t naturally available at a garden site, a lakes may be built. If space is limited, a pond may be used instead. If the garden is small, stone basins may be employed. And if there’s no water whatsoever, a serpentine pathway of dry stones evokes a stream bed. Even the outline of a lake has meaning; an irregular design gives visitors the impression that the view is constantly changing.
Together, these elements help create a spiritual oasis amid a sea of humanity.