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Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Nature naturalized in Japanese gardens


INCOMPARABLE JAPANESE GARDENS, photographs by Gorazd Vilhar, text by Charlotte Anderson. Tokyo: IBC Publishing, 2008, 192 pp., with 159 full-color plates, ¥5,500 (cloth)

If we compare the "incomparable," we will discover that the difference of the Japanese garden depends upon the Japanese, very different, attitude toward nature. Two attitudes toward nature are everywhere possible: you confront it or you accept it. This is illustrated in gardens West and East. In the former (think Versailles), nature is but the rawest of materials to do with as you will. Trees are in ordered ranks, paths are straightened, a form is imposed.

In the latter (see any of the 75 Japanese gardens here beautifully photographed), nature is accepted and adopted as a model. But as Charlotte Anderson tells us in her interesting introduction, one of the earliest garden manuals, the 11th-century "Sakuteki," recommends "looking at nature's most beautiful landscapes for inspiration, yet it advises that a garden should reflect nature, not copy it."

Nature is thus not only accepted, it is also naturalized. Just as the flowers in ikebana ("living flowers") are presumed to be more flowerlike than any natural bloom (even though those seen in ikebana are, having been picked, either dead or dying), so the Japanese garden is to be more natural than nature.

To achieve this desired effect, gardening in Japan reached the unexampled heights that Gorazd Vilhar's photographs well illustrate. At Kyoto's Shinya-in, river stones are laid in a pattern to create the impression of a flowing stream. In Myoman-ji, a Buddhist monk rakes wavelike patterns in the sand of the dry landscape garden. At the Shugaku-in, the view of the distant mountains is appropriated and brought within the focus of the garden design.

From here one may follow the Japanese garden as it mimics Mount Sumeru, the center of the Buddhist world, with its sand-pile reconstruction at Kennin-ji. It is then but a step to later gardens (such as the Koraku-en in Tokyo) that are so crammed with replicas of famous world sights that they seem like some ancestor of Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride.

Making the garden more natural than nature has its limitations. Anderson tells us of a man-made mountain in the Ritsurin Koen up which workmen with full buckets of water scrambled so that when the lord walked by there would be a splendid waterfall coursing down.

Earlier garden design, however, kept the semblance of nature itself and it is this which is so ably caught on these pages.

Vilhar and Anderson have an impressive repertoire of books doing this — several volumes on Kyoto, one on Tokyo, one on festivals, another on shrine and temple offerings, as well as some beautiful bound postcard collections.

"Beautiful" would be perhaps the word to describe this work, in that Vilhar follows the beaux-arts tradition of creating that which is traditionally pleasing.

To this he adds his own accent, one necessary to all photographers photographing here, the Japanese technique of "selective vision," finding the angle from which the power line, the parked bicycle, the vending machine, are not visible. Wide-angle Japan, showing all the clutter, is not often seen because it is not widely photographed.

Rather, the view is selected, or restricted. Just as the "Sakuteki" counsels a reflection rather than a copying of nature, so, such splendid beaux-art photographs as these, reflect nature naturalized.



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