100 Seconds – Niwaki Gardens 4/14/21

Making a garden is a form of art and escape from human woes, letting nature carry, subdue, and astound us with its boundless beauty. Each garden reflects local culture and its individual gardener, a human creation that always should be organic and protective of wildlife.

Of all garden styles, the Japanese garden is designed to foster heightened mindfulness, serenity, and meditation, in keeping with Shinto/ Zen ideals. It is made possible through evolution over millennia of Japanese flora and fauna, aided by its damp and cool climate with defined seasons. Even with props like stone lanterns and curious rocks, this way of creating outdoor space is very difficult to achieve in dry or tropical macroclimates.

Throughout the centuries, the niwaki garden in Japan has played a very profound role, but its influence can also be seen worldwide. Vincent Van Gogh’s art derives so much from Japanese art prints depicting landscapes, both wild and niwaki gardens.

The Japanese garden requires precision and persistence to maintain; all the while as it strives to look completely natural, as if it were always there. Instead, it requires great skill to create a living metaphor of nature, that in truth, is a work of living art. However, the foremost Japanese gardens require training and plenty of monks, staff, or volunteers to tend each leaf, shrub or tree — following the thousand years old practice of niwaki.

What is niwaki? Most outside Japan have never heard of it, yet the style is quite recognizable in gardens imitating its Asian cousins. A Japanese person would likely translate “niwaki” to English as “garden tree”. But if you take a look at a Japanese garden, what you see is so much more than just a garden tree.

What are the principles of niwaki for a garden and by extension, for your life?

The act of gardening in itself is a cleansing and uplifting activity, requiring concentration and patience, emptying the mind of stress, our fear and flight brain chemicals. Zen monks make excellent gardeners.

Key virtues in niwaki are patience, diligence and perseverance.

Unlike us, less is more, so the number of plants they use is relatively small. Common trees suitable for niwaki include pine, yew and box. Applying niwaki ideas makes some pretty stunning shapes of trees and shrubs. A technique called “cloud pruning” (where tree branches look like clouds) is heavily influenced by nature. Form becomes natural sculptures.

In niwaki, the whole idea is to harmonize the trees in accordance with their surroundings, creating outstretched branches and rounded canopies by trimming, clipping, and pruning. Moss, rocks, sand, gravel, and water create the impression of large landscapes in miniature, drawing inspiration from mountains, waterfalls and rivers.

These gardens of such delicate beauty and profound ideals cannot insulate nor excuse a society from its history. Sadly, like so many other countries, Japan disdained other nationalities, blindly obeyed autocracy and the military, dominated women, and quested for empire. I still find this contradiction shocking between the ethos of these gardens and the well-documented brutalities and carnage committed by the Japanese during World War II to both ‘enemy’ civilians and combatants. A dear friend somehow survived the Bataan Death March when a POW.

Although the virtues exemplified in niwaki of creativity, meditation, love of nature, tranquility, and mindful activities like gardening cannot shield a society against hate and violence; but without these virtues, we would be lost with the worst of ourselves.

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