How I Came To Love Japanese Gardens (Guest Post)

by Ben Bowen

Editor's Note: Ben here! This is the first guest post we have ever accepted on our landscaping blog. My sister Holly, and her husband Sean, live in NY. When work took them to Japan in February they got the chance to see real Japanese gardens. My sister came back with a love of them she didn't have before. Read on for her thoughts, and a bunch of great pictures!

Japanese Garden Design- Now I Get It!

Several months ago my older brother Ben was in town, and as we walked around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (Ross NW Watergardens' post about that here)  together he told me that if I ever wanted to do a guest post for his blog to let him know.

I said, "Umm.. ok." But what I thought was, "I wonder if he knows I don't really like Japanese style landscaping...?" I mean, I didn't hate it. It just wasn't really my jam.

I've always liked messy, wild gardens bursting with color and life, and when I thought 'Japanese garden' I imagined a minimalist, modern (dare I say soulless?) space with lots of gravel and maybe a miniature stone pagoda thrown in for good measure. Like I said, not my thing.

Just a month or two later, my husband is asked to travel to Japan for work for 3 weeks. We've never been, but we love sushi and ramen so we're excited! We decide to take a week's vacation to see as much of the country as we can. By the time our vacation comes at the end of our stay in Japan I've already fallen head over heels in love with the Japanese people, culture, and food.

But then we go from the Tokyo area down to Kyoto, and we spend a day visiting castles, temples, and their gardens. Even though it was February and almost nothing was blooming, I had an honest to goodness 'aha' moment. It felt like being let in on a wonderful secret - I felt grateful and excited to be included and also just a little miffed that I'd been in the dark for so long. In a flash, understood why people are drawn to Japanese gardens and landscape design. Or at the very least, I understood why I now was.

My sudden, new-found appreciation crystallized into 3 reasons to love Japanese-style gardening.

The first reason: we all need a little more peace in our lives. After just two whirlwind years of living in New York, I was much more prepared, conditioned if you will,to appreciate the peacefulness of Japanese gardens.

I found them to be a wonderful balance of whimsical and playful combined with symmetry and serenity. As Thom Yorke sings, 'everything in its right place.' There was moss tumbling over rocks, meandering streams, always something to catch your eye, to draw you in. At the same time there was no chaos or discord. No space stepped on another space's toes, no one was crowded out or overshadowed.

It felt to me like a perfect reflection of everything I loved about the Japanese culture; the quiet dignity and respect, self-respect and respect for others in equal measure, cleanliness and and orderliness that made you feel - free. True freedom, and certainly peace - requires an appropriate amount of restraint. All of these thoughts and more washed over me as I suddenly and finally realized the draw, even the necessity, of having a little bit of Japanese-ness in my life, at very least in my garden.

The second reason, was that not all Japanese gardens are the same. (Suprise!) There was much more room for diversity in style than I initially imagined.

We visited gardens that had large expanses of pristinely raked gravel and perfectly pruned trees, but we also visited gardens full of tumbling moss and meandering streams of water that mimicked a natural forest setting. All the gardens were different, but what connected them all was sense of peace, quiet, a subtle nudge urging you to reflect.

The third reason to love Japanese style landscaping is that it is such a perfect fit for the Pacific Northwest.

Almost all of the plants and trees were familiar to me, the obviously similar climate means that plants used in Japanese landscaping also thrive in the Northwest.

My favorite things about all the gardens we went to was the surprising proliferation of moss, and the water features. Whether it was a large pond or a meandering stream, a shallow pool or a waterfall, water anchored almost all of the gardens. And when I think of moss and water, I think of home.

Silly as it is - I had to travel halfway around the world to really appreciate what my dad and brother do for a living. If you haven't been to the Japanese Gardens in Washington Park since you were 15 like me, do yourself a favor and go. (Or hey, go to Japan, it's amazing.) Even if you missed the cherry blossoms - I think you'll hear the secret, too.