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History and Meaning of Japanese Gardens


Japanese gardens are inspired by nature, and in studying nature we are not trying to imitate it, but rather appreciate the lessons that nature hold about life, the cosmos, and humans' place in the natural world. The gardens are not "collections" of plants, but rather "arrangements" which evoke scenery. 


Japanese gardens are also intended to celebrate the 4 seasons: Spring is the period of rebirth, Summer is the season of green, Fall gives the chance to look back, and Winter is the time to rest, to see the scaffold of the leafless trees, and to see how snow dresses the evergreen plants. 


Historically, the first signs of a Japanese Garden can be seen as early as 10,000 BC  which took an animistic perception of the natural world. Religious practices took place within nature and were based on sacred stones and ponds. This oldest form of Japanese garden making was called "ishi wo taten koto" or erecting stones. 


In 710 AD, continental garden art was introduced to Japan from Korea and China.  For the next 300 years, the "pond & island" style of Japanese gardening were used, as a place to locate Shinden Residences. This element can be now seen at the Kikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge, Alberta.


Around 1200 AD a new landscape form, "dry gardens" were used in Zen Temples and Samurai residences. 


The Kohan Reflection Garden is an example of the "Stroll Garden" which comes out of the Edo Period from about 1600 AD-1868 AD. The design elements include enclosures and entries. At the Kohan a series of hemlock trees have been formed into a hedge which functions as it's enclosure or to create a world apart: a place to relax and restore. The entrance to The Kohan is a Gatehouse and denotes a sacred place or sanctuary. This building also sets the building aside from the outside world. The Middle Gate marks the division between the outer and inner garden, or is a symbolic entering of a deeper state of contemplation. 


Each feature of the garden is symbolic.


Japanese revere the beauty of stones-stones shaped by nature. Rocks symbolize longevity and the forces of nature. Some also think that rocks represent mountains above clouds.....and also the emotional obstacles  to empty "mu", namely anger, desire, and ignorance. 

Water symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder, and continuity. Bridges are privileged sites. 

The pine tree represents longevity and determination. The Japanese Maple creates beauty all year round. Peonies are symbols of prosperity, because at one time only wealthy Japanese could afford to have them in their gardens. Bamboo means strength.