Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Touch of Japan in Seattle

What a beautiful autumn we are living through here in Seattle. It seems that the weather wants to make up for the miserable August... The sky is high, leaves are starting to colour and the warmth of the days keeps my thoughts away from the coming rainy and cold season.

The great blue heron.

We seem to have found a new favourite - a couple of times, my daughters and I have visited the Seattle Japanese Garden, which forms a part of the Washington Arboretum. There is something special to tempt the girls: a packet of fish food can be bought for one dollar at the gate, and then they can feed the koi/carps and small turtles swimming in the pond. As the garden is quite small, just 3.5-acres, so I can stroll around myself and leave the girls to the fish and the turtles. Also, on our first visit we were lucky to see the great blue heron hunting frogs amongst the waterlilies.

Turtles basking in the sun.

The Seattle Japanese Garden was designed in 1959-60 by Juki Iida, a designer of over 1000 Japanese gardens worldwide. He also supervised the building project, selecting more than 500 huge boulders by himself from the Cascade Mountains, wrapping them into bamboo mats to avoid damage during the transport to the gardens. He placed the rocks according to his plan and also arranged thousands of plants to represent different scenes found in Japan. There is also a small tea house, donated by the people of Tokyo and re-built after a fire in 1973.

As so many esthetically interested people, I do find Japanese gardens very appealing - serene, beautiful and timeless. I have visited several gardens in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Kamakura, and found them completely breathtaking. I also have read about them and their symbolism, but I still always feel how limited my understanding about them is. Like so many of its finest expressions, the Japanese culture takes time to understand and to reveal its meanings. Sometimes I wonder if it really is possible to understand another culture and it's expressions without being born into it, or at least having lived within it for a long time. Cultures do take time; it is extremely difficult to change perspective from one's own and to be sensitive enough to catch the finer nuances of another.

Path with moss.

The Seattle Japanese Garden, like so many other fine Japanese gardens outside Japan, is a lovely reminder of the beauty of the original gardens. A graceful and even handsome achievement on its own, it still is only just that - a reminder that gives you a hint of how the real thing might be. And that, naturally, is unavoidable; just look at the huge conifers surrounding the garden and you directly know you are not even near Kyoto or Tokyo. And it is not just the vegetation, also the light falls differently here than in Japan.

An old, beautiful wisteria trellis.

Not wanting to sound too severe, there is always some of this in gardens made in different "styles" around the world - the English, the French, the Mediterranean, the Japanese, the Italian... the list is long. Private or public, these gardens often are like exotic pieces that are "neither/nor": they are neither part of their surroundings by blending in the natural and cultural landscape, nor convincing for the viewer as their environs directly give away the real location, disturbing the intended effect. And here we tread on dangerous paths... as much of the history of gardens of course is about how stylistic influences have been used and developed further by the garden designers and architects to suit the aesthetic and practical purposes of the gardens being created.

Despite the words above, a well executed garden, as the Seattle Japanese Garden and so many others, can give true pleasure for the visitor, without the costly investment in visiting the originals in their countries. They of course have an important role in learning their communities more about the faraway countries and their cultures. And by offering something that not many gardens in Japan do - that is, letting the children to feed the carps - the Seattle Japanese Garden hopefully even transfers the enjoyment of the Japanese garden art to the next generations.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a nice time in your blog, with a lot of beautyful pictures!

nilla|utanpunkt said...

You know, August was terrible here in England, and as awful in my old home country, Sweden. And now you tell me it was the same in Seattle. Isn't that amazing? A world-wide bad August!
Have a great day, Camellia

Anonymous said...

I love the UW Arboretum and thanks for putting up pics of the Japanese garden. Our last trip there was rather dramatic - we (including our then-toddler daughter) watched in horror as a great blue heron hunted, speared, and eviscerated one of the beautiful carp! It was nature's food chain at its most intense.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Even here, my comments from yesterday don't who up, strange. But - Karen, when we visited the gardens the heron took a big, fat frog. My girls looked on very interested and a bit disgusted when it slowly ate up the whole frog. The girls probably think of this garden more as a place to see and feed animals!