There was a strange pattern on the ground in front of us. It looked like someone had painted into the pale gravel, with skill, but a slightly shaky hand. Dark, parallel lines formed a semi-circle and then continued into the distance. We stopped. If we walked on we would destroy this intricate design. Or was this what was intended?
My Englishman and I had only been in Japan for a few days, but the extreme consideration for others with which everyone moved here was something we were already very much aware of. We certainly did not want to be the ignorant foreigners who trampled on, so we just stood there, unsure what to do.
We stood in the pleasant shade of tall pine trees. To catch the bullet train heading south-west from Kyoto we had been up since sunrise. Now we were at our destination, the Ritsurin garden, a historic stroll garden.
A slow, repetitive noise seemed to come closer. Then we saw him, a gardener who rhythmically moved a wide bamboo rake from side to side to sweep a thin and almost invisible layer of pine needles off the path. He brushed right through the lines on the ground because they were only water which had been spread to avoid dust clouds. As he slowly moved towards us, it felt as if we were watching an art performance.
This was the moment when I first realised that the otherness of Japanese gardens has something to do with the way they are tended.
In the many gardens we visited during our trip I noticed that an enormous proportion of daily gardening seemed focused on cleaning of all kinds. In a country as spotless as Japan this came as no surprise. What was unexpected were the methods they used. At Saiho-ji, the famous moss temple, I observed a gardener removing recently fallen leaves and other dried plant matter – perhaps even dust – from the surface of moss. In the subtropical climate of this part of Japan moss frequently covered large areas and this garden was known to contain numerous species.
The gardener held a besom, the traditional broom made from brushwood. Bent low, he rapidly moved the broom’s head parallel to the ground in a semicircle, not unlike a scythe. His movements were so precise that he never touched the fragile moss plants but created an air current which was just strong enough to gently blow the dead plant matter across this soft carpet of moss. It was fascinating to watch. As I was standing there, I thought how much easier and quicker it would be to use a mechanical leaf-blower. Clearly, this was not the objective here. I sensed a strong connection between the value of manual labour and the value of a garden.
There seemed to be a consensus in Japanese society that even the simplest task if performed well was a source of pride and recognition. In Kanazawa at the Kenroku-en Garden I noticed a group of gardeners. Squatting on a mossy surface and chatting in low voices they scanned the ground for seedlings of other plant species and carefully pulled them out. Their movements were minute but deliberate and precise. Despite the monotonous simplicity of this task they were fully focused and even seemed to be enjoying what elsewhere might have been considered a punishment.
More complex gardening was performed with equally relaxed control. At the entrance to the ancient Daisen-in temple I noticed a gardener high up in a pine tree. Automatically I thought ‘Niwaki’ and assumed he was pruning the tree following this very Japanese method which was becoming more widely known in the West. But, as I came closer, I realised the gardener was not cutting branches. With pinched fingers he was pulling off pine needles. Gradually he thinned the visual appearance of the entire tree. Even from his precarious position in the crown of the pine the gardener seemed to know precisely which needle was to remain and which one needed to go. The gardener was like a sculptor who chiseled his vision from a block of marble. Only here, it was a collaboration with a tree.
Early one day we arrived at the magnificent Ginkaku-ji temple garden in Kyoto to find neatly uniformed gardeners busy performing their morning routines. Predictably most of them were equipped with besoms. But there was one gardener who carried a long bamboo stick. Intrigued I followed him until I saw that he dipped the tip of the stick in between rocks along the edge of the pond and I realised he was breaking up fresh spider webs. How strange, I thought.
Time and again I was surprised that Japanese gardeners apparently followed a secret code, a common vision according to which they shaped their environment. But of course we in the West also had such a vision, such a horticultural norm, except that mostly we were too far immersed in our own culture to recognise it as such.