On a weekend day in early March I visited the Nezu Museum in Tokyo’s Aoyama area.
I am not a great fan of museums. I never was.
While I have no problem with paying 300 Yen for visiting a garden, I have with paying 1000 Yen and know for sure I will only enjoy half of the facilities.
But as we people from the North of Germany say: Wat mutt, dat mutt.
This time was the second time I visited the museum and already knew that the garden functions as an extension of the exhibition halls with masses of exhibits.
I always fear when foreigners visit the museum, that they will think this garden represents a traditional Japanese garden and that they will go home and build one of those Japanese gardens with lots of lanterns, buddhas and pagodas.
I do not like these.. And I do not call them Japanese gardens… I am still searching for an appropriate term for them, which shows the owners hope to build a Japanese garden but failed.
Sorry for being this straight, but someone has to (and we people from the North of Germany are known for being straight with using a minimal amount of words..).
A Japanese garden is not made by putting a couple of rocks in a space, surrounding them with gravel, placing a curved bridge with no connection to anywhere and decorate everything with 10 buddhas and 3 lanterns.
Everyone who loves to look at pictures of traditional gardens in Japan will understand what I mean.
However, the Nezu museum has a lot of these objects in its garden and it is not appearing like those above mentioned gardens at all!
We could guess it is because of the superiority of Japanese garden builders…
But I do not like it if anyone says only Japanese can build nice Japanese gardens. There are too many examples out there where foreigners (foreign companies) did a really great job in creating an authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan.
What I have to admit is, that there are people without a sense for a good garden. But to some degree this sense can be trained by watching lots and lots of pictures and experience great gardens by themselves by visiting them. What helps too is learning from someone who is able to make great gardens. Observe from scratch how such a person is building a garden and ask questions about why setting a rock this way and not in another or why arranging flowers like that. This already helps a lot!
But back to the Nezu Museum and its fine garden.
The skeleton of the garden dates back to the early 20th century when Nezu Kaichiro bought the land, built his mansion and created the garden.
However, it was destroyed by fire bombings during WWII and was recreated later.
What didn’t change were the style and the structure of the garden: it is a nature-like strolling garden with a pond in the middle.
That’s why today we have a pond as a central element with several paths leading around it and buildings here and there on the grounds.
It is neither a karesansui garden, nor a small garden like a tsuboniwa.
What it has are several small teagardens attached to the teahouses.
When someone is planning a Japanese garden at home, he/she is often planning it in a small size on a part of the grounds.
Here might the first mistake happen…
A small garden in another style should either be skillfully connected to the other parts of the garden or it should be closed up in a natural way.
If this was archived, putting too much in too little space can still easily ruin the garden.
The Nezu Museum’s garden is very large and all objects are placed in great distances to each other except in places where it makes sense to assemble them like on the Potalaka Mountain, which is looking like a buddhist temple site.
They are all wonderfully placed on the grounds like forgotten objects half recaptured by nature.
When putting a lot of objects in a small open space like a gravel garden, it looks too unnatural and not Japanese.
When creating the first stand-alone dry landscape gardens during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573, the empty space or void became very important in these gardens. Sometimes more important than the rocks and plants placed in the gardens itself.
In the Nezu Museum we have some void as well. The man-made nature can take the place of it and emphasize the objects.
When building a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand where and why the objects were traditionally placed.
Why and where to put a lantern? What is the purpose of a tsukubai? Are there buddhas in normal gardens? And what style of buddhas are used? Where are pagodas normally placed?
Of course in the Nezu Museum some of these rules were not followed because a lot of objects should be seen. We can see many religious figurines along the roads, but because they are not placed in a very obvious way, always alongside the path next to a bush or hidden in the undergrowth, they do not distract the eye.
Tsukubai are only found next to the teahouses, pagodas are always set a little bit away from the visitor up on a mountain.
And the smiling Buddha with big belly? You can search for it, but will not find it..
I think although, or better because the Nezu Museum is no traditional garden anymore and don’t inherit a stone garden, it can teach a foreigner, who is planning to build a Japanese garden at home, a lot about how to find and create the Japanese spirit.
The garden can teach how to set objects effectually without disturbing the Japanese atmosphere, how to create interesting aspects and eye catchers in a garden, for example an interesting pathway, or how to use the topography of a garden or perspective to create some if the visitor is able to read the garden in the right way.
I hope someday when I ask the Google Image Search, I will not see so many „not to be named Japanese gardens“ anymore but more really Japanese and nice self-made gardens out there in the world.
Our goal at Real Japanese Gardens is to show the traditional gardens of Japan and let the world know about their beauty.
In our guidebooks we want to educate about history, elements and the structure of the gardens described. By watching the pictures and reading the discriptions, you can learn what kind of objects are placed in what kind of garden and what kind of purpose they have.
We firmly believe in what is called Onko-chishin (温故知新) in Japanese – creating new things and discovering new truths by learning from history and tradition.
Visit our homepage for more beautiful pictures of Japanese gardens and have a look at our guide books!