Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

To hide and reveal: the paradox of nihon teien

As a teenager, growing up in Northern California, I often went with my family on outings to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. A number of different things, in accordance with our individual tastes, attracted us; for me, as an aquarist and aspiring ethological ichthyologist, the Steinhart Aquarium was a guaranteed hit.

Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco

Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco: To see it is to taste green tea and sesame cookies....
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But before we left the park, there was one feature that we all had to visit: the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden.

Covering five acres, the tea garden actually is fairly large, but not nearly so large as it seems. This owes to one of the techniques that define nihon teien, or Japanese gardening, whose secret lies in a paradox: It is precisely by filling and breaking up space that the artist-landscaper enlarges it.

Japanese garden

Japanese garden: A path to nowhere? Only one way
to find out....
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First to hide, then to reveal, harmoniously dramatic elements of landscape and ornament: Here is the conjuration that transforms five acres of California parkland into what seems part of an emperor’s estate.

Artfully mingling a multitude of hillsides and ravines, wood-railed paths that twist and coil upon themselves, meandering streams overarched by bridges and filled with carp and koi, ponds, waterfalls, Buddhist statuary and pagoda-crowned pavilions with rocks, trees and a hundred kinds of plants and flowers, the garden offers a surprise behind every turn. From nowhere can the eye command or the memory contain its every feature, and to this it owes its wizardry.

Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco

This gardener laid out eddies and currents in sand
to simulate water.
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Not all such gardens are alike. Water may be a nearly universal element in them, but as we see above, actual water is not required: Some gardens use patches of bare earth, scored into patterns suggesting ripples and waves, to represent water symbolically. But one feature is common to them all: tranquility. Here, embowered by “the best of nature’s handiwork in a limited space,” one may sip green tea and nibble sesame cookies or serenely stroll from scene to scene, and feel that one has sojourned to the Japan of a former and less frantic age.

And if this is not magic, what is?

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