In his newest book, author and photographer Stephen Mansfield takes us on a tour of 25 gardens in Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, including gardens in less-touristed regions such as Okayama, Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Kagawa, Shiga and Okinawa. A variety of gardens are covered, from the modular to the traditional, and in settings ranging from residential, temple, pond, teahouse, landscape to rock and dry gardens. When I first discovered this book, I admit I was skeptical. I wondered if we really needed another book on Japanese gardens. But you won't find any of the "usual suspects" of Japanese gardenry like Ryoanji, Katsura Rikkyu, and other "National Treasures" which have already been given plenty of ink elsewhere. Here, you'll find inspiration and, if you're like me, you'll discover "new" gardens to revitalize your interest in the subject.
In poetic text that is never precious and often illucidating, Mansfield offers detailed descriptions of the outer forms and inner meanings of these varied spaces. He artfully delves into each garden's history, landscaping features and elements, literary and artistic significance, cultural relevance and metaphorical meanings. The book is smartly divided into five sections that help the reader understand and appreciate the gardens they cover: 1. A Sense of Nature, 2. The Modular Garden, 3. Landscape Gardens, 4. Requisitioning Space, 5. Healing Gardens. It also includes a helpful list of historical periods and a comprehensive glossary for those who might be new to the art of the Japanese garden.
Though it could profitably be used by landscape designers, gardeners and architects, this is way more than a possible how-to book if making a Japanese garden is something you aspire to. And, though it is beautiful and could very well be used as a travel guide, it is far more than that as well. Rather, due to its more contemplative approach, this book is akin to a classic like Gouverneur Mosher's "Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide" (Tuttle, 1964), but with the addition of stunning photographs, also taken by Mansfield. The photographs are a revelation--these are not slick, manipulated digital images, but rather, Mansfield deliberately used only 50mm and 124mm lenses so that the camera could record the garden scene much as the human eye would view it.
While countryside and temple gardens are show-stoppingly gorgeous, the somewhat overlooked gardens of Tokyo bloom under Mansfield's insightful eye as well. In an age of hyperconsumption, overcrowding, pollution and waste, Japan's Master Gardens shows us that urban gardens offer precious refuge where time can stand still and humans can become revitalized within the simplicity and artistry of nature, even when on a small scale.
Particularly compelling are the entries on such Tokyo gardens as the Canadian Embassy garden and Shinjuku Gyoen, offering vastly different and often contrasting approaches to landscaping and use of space, light, terrain and materials. I especially appreciated this section as I live in Tokyo, and have often taken its gardens for granted. When the fast pace of the city wears on me, I visit a garden or a shrine with space and greenery and immediately feel at ease. Because of Mansfield's book, I have an even deeper appreciation of these sanctuaries and plan to make a visit to a garden soon with out-of-town visitors. I'll have them read Mansfield's entry on the garden first.
Happily, this book is not a romanticized vision of Japanese gardens and their traditions. Mansfield, a long-term resident of Japan, admits that "Japanese cities can be a shock to the visual senses, with their wastelands of uncoordinated structures and poorly maintained surfaces. Streets, balefully devoid of greenery, disfigured by cobwebs or high-tension wires, often look unfinished. Visual distraction, over-crowding, noise and chemical pollution add to the sense of degradation. Where you might expect to find cities that embody a discreet prosperity, they speak of a poverty of taste. How can gardens survive in such traumatized environments?'
This is an excellent question, one not before asked in such a book. To Mansfield's mind, it is exactly in such environments that gardens can, and must, survive. The challenge is for today's Japanese gardens (indeed, gardens in urban locations around the world) to restore a degree of serenity to the urban landscape. Mansfield shows us that Japan's resourceful landscape designers are well equipped to work with whatever they might have, building on tradition and also departing from it in exciting and innovative ways. He reminds us that the garden is not a final destination, but rather a point of departure for the spirit. This is something Japanese master gardeners understood ages ago, and which today's master gardeners embrace.
When I can't make it to an actual garden to unwind, I'm lucky to be able to open Mansfield's book and be transported just the same.