Japan’s Gold Medal Gardens

A Grand Host and History

Last Friday saw the opening of what should have been the 2020 Olympic Games (were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic) and Floral and Hardy has decided to take a closer look at this year’s hosts: Japan.

Aside from being a country synonymous with its horticultural heritage, especially the renowned spring blossom season that thousands flock to see, Japan also boasts one of the oldest horticulture traditions in the world.

In fact, another of our blogs earlier this month was centred on designing rock gardens which take many of their aesthetic cues from the conventions of Japanese Zen gardens.

During the Asuka Period in feudal Japan, dated between the 6th and 7thcenturies A.D., the mercantile class was flourishing and their greatest trade ally was China. Merchants visiting the ‘Middle Kingdom’ took note of their sensibilities in horticulture and imported many of them back to their native Japan.

These classical gardens would vary in size and scope depending on their purpose and owners however there was a singular theme that pervaded through all forms of design: Harmony between human beings and nature.

As a result, miniaturisation was first popularised in Japanese gardening as a means of paying reverence to nature from within the domain of humans – i.e. the tailored spaces of gardens. Creating miniature landscapes was Japanese gardeners way of creating a portrait of nature and using the natural world to do so.

In our rock gardens blog, we mentioned the trick of using surrounding natural features to fill the visual border of your space e.g. nearby hills, rock formations, and large trees. This practice originated with Japanese gardening.

Where China ends and Japan begins

Gardens of this style first began appearing on the island of Honshu, the largest and most populous island of Japan which is situated between Hokkaidō to the north and Shikoku and Kyūshū to the South and West respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the first of these gardens adopted the distinctive idiosyncrasies of Honshu ecology and geology. The island is characterised by craggy volcanic rock formations, ravines, and various waterways including mountain streams, lakes, and waterfalls.

The flora of Honshu was typified by its evergreen trees, huge diversity in terms of blooming flowers, and well defined seasons. These endemic features spoke to the content of these gardens but the form came from both the macro image of nature as a whole and Japan’s Shinto faith.

The Shinto religion enshrines a creation myth that centres on the creation of Japan’s eight islands as a picture of divine harmony and beauty. As such, early gardening efforts often created symbolic avatars of the eight islands within their borders. These might be represented by distinctive rocks or trees being bound in rice fiber and then surrounded by white stones which themselves represented the oceans around Japan.

Later these dioramas would come to define both private gardens and the larger formal spaces belonging either to religious sites or the imperial palaces.

Today, many of these formal gardens still exist as mascots of Japan’s horticultural heritage and the philosophy behind Japanese gardens have spread across the world.

You might say that, like the Olympics, the aesthetic and sensibilities of Japanese gardening have also transcended national boundaries and created an art form that can be appreciated by all peoples.

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