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Sunday, June 11, 2000


Haven't got the yang of Japanese gardening

I came home the other day and noticed my neighbor had cut my grass, trimmed my trees and watered my plants. This is normal. I apologized profusely, thanked Ueda-san repetitively and she said, as always, "Oh, it was nothing."

My yard has always been a dense, untamed wilderness. Who knows what lurks inside that jungle -- things that sting, bite and have venom. Possibly even tigers. I've never seen exactly how Ueda-san does it, but I imagine she enters the jungle in one of those head-to-toe protective bee outfits, with a bazooka in one hand and pruning shears in the other.

There is a Japanese word called "shakkei" that means using the surrounding scenery, such as your neighbor's yard, as background to enhance the view of your own garden. No wonder Ueda-san cuts my grass, trims my trees and waters my plants. It finally dawned on me that the tigers probably don't match her Wisteria. And that's how I was embarrassed into gardening.

As any gardener knows, gardening adds an entirely new perspective to life, mainly the perspective of plant parenthood. You realize that you will never be able to take another vacation in your life. Not only did you spend all your savings buying nature to put in your garden, but you'll need extra money to buy gardening tools to dig out that bush in the middle of the sidewalk that you never noticed was there. And not to mention the dirt you'll have to buy when you discover that nothing grows in Japanese soil.

Then you'll need to spend a number of hours each week pruning, pulling and coaxing your plants to grow. You may even start talking to them. I don't recommend talking to plants because I have discovered, they don't listen. Before I left town for a couple of days last week I said to my plants, "Look, the water is right next to you, just reach over and take a drink." I even left a note on the lattice: "Take water once in the morning and once in the evening," I scrawled as if it were a doctor's prescription to emphasize this was a life or death situation. When I came home the plants were thirsting to death. That's when I realized I had delved headfirst into plant parenthood.

Ueda-san, who is no doubt delighted to retire the bee outfit and bazooka, has complimented me several times on my flower garden. And I can sleep easier at night with a clean shakkei conscience. But as much of an improvement as it is, my garden is missing something. It seems empty. It lacks soul.

Compared to the Japanese gardens most of my neighbors have, my garden lacks consciousness. My garden has too much yang. It needs a better balance of yin and yang. A Japanese garden is supposed to look like it's been around for 100 years. Even though I put in my garden two weeks ago, it looks like it was installed, accessories included, yesterday. It almost looks like I could have bought it at the convenience store. Or maybe even the drive-thru window at McDonald's: "I'll take the Garden Burger with the lattice on the side."

My garden lacks the contemplative mood of a Japanese garden. It has no "wabi," an element of the historical that suggests the passage of time like moss-covered rocks or stones worn smooth by river currents.

My garden lacks "yugen," that brings atmosphere to the Japanese garden. Yugen is beauty, but in its understated form. In the Japanese garden, beautiful things are profound. They need not be shown outright. A beautiful object, such as a stone lantern, will be partially hidden, just peeking out from behind the fronds. My flower garden has loud, "in your face" beauty, like a face on the cover of a glossy women's magazine. Pursed red lips, heavy mascara and bright purple eye shadow.

My garden has no "shibumi," that quiet, calm mood of the Japanese garden -- that floating, misty feeling that a Monet painting gives you. My garden, rather suggests a child's birthday party with clowns, helium balloons and bursts of applause. You can even see that one obnoxious child waving his hand in the air saying "Look at me!"

All of this prompted me to keep digging in my backyard, the old jungle, searching for lost cities or anything I could use to make a Japanese garden, a garden with soul. I was elated to discover something that never used to seem so extraordinary -- moss!

The solution is simple. I'll put the Western garden on the sunny side of the house and a Japanese garden on the shady side of the house. And never the twain shall meet.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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