The Landscape of Flaws: An Essay on Japanese Gardens

Published in Kinfolk, Volume 8 (2013)

I fell in love with the aesthetics of Japanese gardening not through visiting Japan, but via the cinematic imagery in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Specifically, it was a vignette set in the Zen gardens in Kyoto that piqued my interest in the Japanese approach. After following Scarlett Johansson’s character on a solitary train journey to Kyoto, we watch her quietly wander through the temples and pagodas of the gardens. Like the best filmmakers, Coppola and cinematographer Lance Acord take the viewer on a journey by way of the images of stepping-stones in the water lily ponds and the ancient trees adorned with handmade paper blooms. As someone who had never visited Japan, I was entranced by this dreamlike vista. There was something about Kyoto’s beautifully stark wintery landscape that mirrored the incompleteness of, and the loneliness interwoven into, the human relationships in the film; the gardens revealed their own narrative of desire and loss.

On reflection, I realized that my interest in Japanese methods of tending to flora was sparked much earlier, during my teenage years, when my mother began taking ikebana classes. For the duration of her night course, she would return every Tuesday evening with a floral arrangement grander and more avant-garde than the last. I’d never particularly cared for traditional flower arranging, but I immediately connected with the minimalist and disciplined nature of ikebana, in which the composition of flowers and foliage is less evocative of garden beds than architectural structures. My mother’s foray into cultivating a small collection of bonsai, neatly displayed on our kitchen windowsill, extended my fascination with what I perceived to be a strangely ornamental form of simplicity.

Although there are a wide variety of styles within the broader genre of Japanese gardens, it is the attentiveness to asymmetry and natural harmony that has always captured my attention. The Japanese word shakkei, which means “borrowed scenery,” best encapsulates the concept behind Japanese gardening, which is inspired by the wild landscape. In distilling the natural order of the surrounding environment into both public and private gardens, Japanese designers and horticulturalists offer a very different view to the one that I was exposed to growing up in suburban Australia. Where the gardens in my street were created in competition with the natural landscape, Japanese gardens emphasize the beauty in the everyday, railing against excess and producing visual themes that are grandiose in their modesty.

In contrast to the rose bushes, cut grass and potted pansies featured in the gardens of my youth, Japanese gardens are composed of a number of elements, including rocks, sand and pebbles; water features in the form of ponds, cascades and streams; architectural accents such as pavilions, lanterns and bridges; and humble displays of greenery and flowers. Although many aspects of Japanese culture are defined by restraint, orderliness and perfection, gardens do not necessarily follow a strictly manicured schema. Rather, the layout and organization are informed by the principles of the ancient Japanese philosophy of wabisabi.

While a number of writers and cultural scholars have given various definitions of this concept, wabi is generally aligned with the melancholic ache of romantic longing and sabi with the unfolding of time. Placing these two words together evokes an aesthetic of seclusion, imperfection and frugality that sheds light on the visual appeal of objects and landscapes that are blemished, perishing, fleeting and uncultivated. Bearing this description in mind, the fact that I had an overwhelmingly emotional response to the gardens in Lost in Translation probably had less to do with filmic manipulation than with the symbolism of the topography captured on film.

The celebration of inconsistencies and weathering that I find particularly appealing in Japanese gardens is articulated in the focus on miniaturization in both large-scale gardens and the aesthetics of bonsai planting. Although I did not realize it as a young girl gazing at my mother’s bonsai plants, the shaping techniques involved in trimming, pruning and wiring to achieve the twisted and coiled look of bonsai trees also reflect the concept of wabisabi. In representing the natural landscape on a smaller scale, bonsai rely on similar ideas of asymmetry and imperfection in an attempt to leave no trace of the intervention of the human hand. The simplicity of this ethos is something that I find both noble and touching; the absence of physical touch bespeaks an investment in nature to create spaces of contemplation, stillness and reverie.

For me, the appeal of the Japanese way of gardening is ultimately found in this admirable conviction of redefining aesthetic attractiveness. In such environments, one is invited to assess what he or she perceives as visually appealing and to find beauty and grace in the rustic, unrefined and unassuming.