Nippon Day 1: Exploring the Japanese Garden

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the first Nippon Day post. As someone who is interested in all aspects of Japanese life and culture, I am always curious, and therefore, learning more and more about Japan. Since I imagine you might share my interest, I am excited to tell you what I have learned in these occasional detours from Washoku. So here it is, for you to enjoy, the first Nippon Day post. 

The Japanese Garden

Living in an area that is a favorite destination of vacationers, I am used to summers being crowded and busy. Our local economy is driven by the tourists who visit during June, July and August, so it is very rare that my family and I get much time during the summer to do much else besides work. After all, it is important to make hay while the sun shines. This means that people are often asking me about different activities that they might be able to enjoy and I have never been able to do them. "How is it out on Schoodic Point?" they might ask me, and my response would have to be, "I don't know, I've heard it's nice." The world of summer day activities is a mystery to me.

 Stepping stones in the Azalea Garden.

Stepping stones in the Azalea Garden.

That being said, this summer is a different story. I won't go in to detail, but suffice to say that I find myself with a bit more time on my hands this year. In celebration of enjoying the summer months, my sister, mother and myself went on an excursion to the Asticou Azalea Garden on Mount Desert Island. Only a Stones Throw away from Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, many tourists drive right by this wonderful garden without even knowing it's there. Aside from being a beautiful destination, I had an ulterior motive for wanting to go there, it is inspired by the traditional Japanese Strolling garden.

The tradition of gardening in Japan has been highly prevalent for a very long time. Emperors and nobles created elaborate and beautiful gardens designed for enjoyment and recreation, monasteries made them to encourage mediation and thought. Today in Japan, many of these original gardens are National Treasures. Some visited by hundreds of tourists, others restricted to those who have applied and proved they are worthy.

Wether motives are for pure enjoyment or higher ideals, I cannot imagine being impervious to the vibrations of a Japanese garden. Unlike the grand gardens of the western elite, such as at Versailles, the Japanese gardens tended towards subtle manipulations, celebrating the beauty and variety of the natural world.

The history of gardens in Japan is long, so today I am going to focus on three types, the Paradise gardens of the Pure Land Buddhists, the Rock Gardens from the tradition of the Zen, and the strolling gardens, from which the Azalea Garden drew its inspiration. 

Pure Land Buddism is the most popular form of buddhism in Japan today. Practitioners believe that a monk by the name of Amitabha, who achieved nirvana, took a vow to bring people who spoke the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" upon death to a paradise. This is over simplifying, but if you're interested in learning more, you can read about it here. Originating in the late Heian period (794 to 1185), the Paradise Gardens of Japan were meant to symbolize the beauty of the Paradise promised by Amitabha. They featured a lake with an island at the center, reached by way of an arching bridge. They are simple and serenely beautiful. Moutsuji Temple in Iwate Prefecture has one of the few remaining Paradise Gardens in Japan, and if the photographs are anything to go by, it must be a wonderful place to visit. 

 The edge of the stone garden at the Asticou Azalea Garden on MDI.

The edge of the stone garden at the Asticou Azalea Garden on MDI.

The Japanese Rock Gardens are very famous world wide and I am sure you have an image of one in your head. This style became popular in the 14th century after a monk built zen gardens in five major monasteries in Kyoto, and it remains a popular form today. They usually involve white sand that has been grated, with groupings of rocks, and sometimes moss and manicured trees, jutting up from the sand. It looks like a vast expanse of water surrounding solitary islands. The gardens are meant to facilitate meditation, viewed from a bench or seated porch. The most famous example is from Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. 

Strolling Gardens, or Promenade Gardens, were a creation of the Edo period (1600–1854), and were made to compliment the great houses of the social elite. They usually involve a path that goes in a circle around a pond or lake, taking the visitor through carefully arranged scenes and views. Often they took advantage of features in the distance, like mountains, to bring the illusion of the gardens being larger than they really were. With the help of fences, winding pathways, bamboo and buildings, the maker of the garden could hide aspects of the scene until it was at its best advantage. Shugaku-in Imperial Villa in Kyoto is a beautiful example of an Edo period Strolling Garden.

If you're planning a trip to Japan, here is a list of famous gardens that you should try and see. If you're interested in seeing a Japanese style garden, but are not going to shell out the cash for a trip to Japan, here is a list of ones you can find in the US. The Azalea Garden is not on that list because it is a Japanese inspired garden. However, it retains the feeling that Japanese Gardens are famous for. The feeling that you are in a wild and natural environment. They employ minimalist manipulations on the plants and landscape, enabling the visitor to forget that they are in a manmade garden. 

Built in 1956 by Charles K. Savage, a resident and owner of the Asticou Inn, it has delighted locals and tourists for decades. The Asticou Azalea Garden encourages its visitors to keep it a peaceful place, and it is possible to go there on a busy day and hardly feel like you are in a public setting. There are many plants that are native to our area, and others that are Japanese in origin, but the mix is wonderful. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.00. So if you're in the area, especially if you're planning a trip to Mount Desert Island, you should make time to see the beautiful garden as soon as possible.

We went in midsummer, but I plan on returning during every season to enjoy the fall foliage, winter snowfall and spring blossoms. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about the gardens of Japan. If you would like to see more pictures of my trip to the Azalea Gardens, you can see them all on my Facebook page.