gardens of japan

Review: The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee

I’ve never been to Japan and, aside from Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Artisan Gardens at Chelsea, know little of the country’s gardens. Ask me to sum them up and I’d have probably muttered something about moss, rocks and gravel. So, I was hoping to learn more with Helena Attlee’s The Gardens of Japan.

gardens of japan

It definitely falls into the ‘coffee table’ category, despite being a paperback reprint of the original 2010 edition rather than a hardback glossy. This is not a ‘how-to’ book but one to inspire further research.

Attlee takes us on a whirlwind tour of Japan’s finest gardens, pausing in each long enough to give only a little historical background – vital to understanding many of the gardens – and a brief overview of what’s there. It is brief and would be insubstantial were it not for the stunning photography of Alex Ramsey, which helps to flesh out the description.

What she does do is give a sense of a different way of appreciating gardens and even of what constitutes a garden.

Many, especially the kare-sansui, dry gardens created from gravel and stone, were, she tells us “not made for touching or walking through. They were designed like paintings, to be viewed from a static position.”

gardens of japan
A representation of the Mystic Isles at Tofuku-ji

This is taken to the extreme at the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens where the carefully constructed landscape can be seen only through specially constructed ‘picture frames’ on a viewing platform around the building.

Everything in Japanese gardens is carefully controlled from the precisely raked gravel – often done daily – to the carefully positioned rocks and, when you can enter, the route you must take; there is only one way around Katsura Rikyu. Surprisingly, a string-bound rock is universally recognised as a ‘no entry’ sign, something I cannot see being effective in open gardens in Britain.

In Kenroku-en, pine trees have their needles thinned by hand to give the trees a more transparent feel; at Heian Jingu, weeping cherries are supported by a bamboo frame and pruned annually to create a lattice effect; in Daichi-ji, azaleas are clipped tightly to produce undulating topiary.

Gardens borrow from the landscape – shakkei – and create a false perspective by using small trees to suggest distance. In some cases, the view beyond is vital.

“Without its view the garden is nothing,” Attlee says of Entsu-ji, which has one of the most famous examples of borrowed landscape.

gardens of japan
Early morning at Suizen-ji

Some have little in the way of plants beyond trees and moss – there are 48 different mosses in Ginkaku-ji – and Ryoan-ji has no plants or trees but just gravel and rocks.

There’s a sense of time slowing with stepping stones, double bridges and zig-zag paths all designed to stop a headlong rush from one end of the garden to the other.

Where there are flowers, they are revered with thousands celebrating the cherry blossom season with flower festival picnics, or hanami.

The Gardens of Japan would be a good starting point for anyone who is thinking of creating their own Japanese-style garden or planning to visit not least because it has a map and contact details for the gardens. I certainly feel as though I know a little more and will be looking at Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Chelsea entry this year with greater insight.

The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee, photography by Alex Ramsey, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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