Botanic Gardens, Gardens

Gentle Acts of Nature, Time and Man: Three Japanese Gardens

January 17, 2015


“…there are those who, attracted by grass, flowers, mountains and waters, flow into the Buddha Way.” (Dogen)

At the end of each year I am provided with an analysis of my blog by WordPress. Included is information about what day of the week I most often post (Friday), which pieces were the most popular (Kensington Gardens, UNESCO’s Garden of Peace, Two Boston Rose Gardens), number of viewers (enough to fill eight sold out performances of the Sydney Opera House) and in what countries those viewers reside (to date 150 out of a total of 196, with the notable absence of Greenland so should you know anyone who lives there please send them my way).


You might be wondering how such analysis leads to a piece about three Japanese Gardens located in three very different places (Montreal, Canada, Saint Louis, Missouri and Tallinn, Estonia). Encouraged by WordPress to review my 2014 literary output (while being duly reflective with the advent of a new year) I spent an evening viewing images from my travels.  There, embedded in other places, were three Japanese Gardens, visited in three different seasons.

It is a garden style about which I know very little.  Many years ago, I had the opportunity to observe the construction of the 10,000 foot Tenshin-en Garden, a contemplative viewing garden designed by Professor  Kinsaku for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. An urban sanctuary, this compact space contains many of the elements found in larger gardens, including 200 rocks and 1,750 specimen plantings. To the best of my knowledge it is the only Japanese Garden in the city.


Unlike Tenshin-en, the three Japanese Gardens I visited are stroll gardens meant to be experienced by entering and walking in them. Two are described as tea gardens, while the largest, located at the Missouri Botanical Garden, contains elements of both styles. Ranging in size from six to fourteen acres each garden represents a journey revealing life’s mysteries while illuminating the expressive and sacred qualities of nature.  As such they present the perfect metaphor in which to begin a new year.

Seiwa-en, the “Garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” was dedicated at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1977. Designed by Professor Koichi Kawana, the garden encourages personal exploration and interpretation with a lake as a main feature, following a style popular among the Japanese feudal lords of the 17th and 18th centuries.


The garden offers the world in microcosm with thoughtfully designed waterfalls, islands, subtle landforms and both open and enclosed spaces.  Raked dry gravel beds, minimally planted, contrast with broad lawns and specimen plantings.


The contemporary Japanese garden at Montréal Jardin Botanique was designed by Ken Nakajima as a  tea garden.  Its pure and simple environment is framed by sinuous lines that reinforce a spirit of serenity and harmony.  These are balanced by vistas providing opportunities for discovery. It opened in 1988.

According to their website, “a visit to the Japanese Garden requires an open mind and spirit. Visitors should go right to its heart; to meditate, to collect their thoughts, to feel and touch the beauty of the stone, water, plants and various architectural elements which make up the garden.”


In 2011 the first authentic Japanese Garden opened in Tallinn, Estonia.  Like Montreal’s Japanese Garden it is a tea garden whose “story” replicates the road that people take through life.  One is encouraged to enter at the same location one departs.

The garden is located in Kadriorg Park and is still in development. As such it provides an opportunity to view the plantings (1,192 trees and 928 shrubs) before they mature.  Its designer, Masao Stone, is said to have been inspired by Tallinn’s roof-line.


According to the Japanese American Museum, Japanese Gardens were introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Their popularity has been constant and today there are 250 throughout the country. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is the oldest formal Japanese Garden open to the public within the United States.

The North American Japanese Garden Association lists 53 countries throughout the world containing Japanese-style gardens.


While the traditional Japanese Garden combines characteristics developed over many centuries, reflecting differing influences that prevailed during distinct historical periods, many contain key common elements which include:

Water: Found in many forms, water contributes to the expression of nature and symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity in the hereafter.   Occupying a place of choice within the garden, water features are precisely oriented with respect to the sun to enhance reflection.


Stones: Symbolizing duration and the omnipresence of natural forces, stones anchor the garden to the ground and give it a specific personality. Laid out according to strict rules, defined by their shape and size, stones are often intertwined as gender specific pairs.  Each stone is believed to have a soul and the best gardeners know how to understand and set each stone to express its soul. The type of stone used within the garden is the most important element in the design.



The Lantern: Originally intended to guide visitors during nocturnal celebrations, lanterns became a leading element in the Japanese garden with the advent of the tea ceremony. Their light is considered the light of knowledge which clears away ignorance.


Bridges: Privileged sites within the garden, bridges may be built of wood, bamboo, earth or stone. Designed in harmony with the surrounding landscape, bridges offer the visitor a prospect upon which to linger and absorb the beauty of the landscape.



Plants: Associated with moving thoughts and the universal forms of life, plants are imbued with deep symbolism and nurtured to assume the physical form needed to express their meaning.  Trees are pruned to their essence and the leaves of autumn prized.  Plants articulate seasonality and are carefully chosen and situated to highlight the rhythms of nature.



Carp: Considered “living flowers” carp have been cross-bred in Japan for more than 100 years and are highly valued.  Their symbolism is linked to positive qualities related to courage, overcoming adversity, the ability to attain the highest goals, and strong character.


The Japanese Garden encourages an open mind and spirit and each season, like each time of day, provides moments of intense beauty waiting to be captured by lovers of art and nature. Each visit provides an opportunity for introspection and the prospect of a new beginning.


Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Pam Steel January 18, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    I have always enjoyed Japanese gardens and I so appreciated both your photos and the succinct description of the elements and meaning that are often included. You have probably visited the Asticou Gardens on Mt Desert Island — another stellar example of Japanese Gardens in the US. Thank you for letting us travel with you!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco January 19, 2015 at 12:31 am

      It’s a pleasure! I visited the Asticou Gardens several years ago on my way to New Brunswick. I’m planning to return this summer as part of a new project.

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