Meet Shunmyo Masuno, Zen priest and modern garden designer

Masuno gardenZen Buddhist priest Shunmyo Masuno of the Kenkoh-ji Temple in Yokohama is the man behind some of the most breathtaking modern gardens  in urban Japan. He is also the last active garden designer in his order.

Video: The Zen Gardens of Shunmyo Masuno

Masuno is bringing the spirit of the traditional Japanese garden into the hectic world of the modern Japanese.

Masuno: “The fact that time is moving faster means that it is getting more and more difficult for people to take control of time, or even just to take time off and relax. And it is precisely this dilemma which led to the demand for gardens today to be sanctuaries of contemplation, where one feels embraced by nature. In essence, gardens which provide people with peace of mind, a sense of stability and a feeling of contentment. It’s no longer enough to merely provide a green zone here, or an occasional floral embellishment to a skyscraper there. What we need today are gardens that can reach deep into people’s hearts.”  

He brings traditional garden design precepts into the scope of the modern landscape architect.

Masuno: “Fundamental to Japanese garden design is the belief that all things in nature, be they stones or mountains have life and we must honor these lives that exist beyond ourselves so every single, independent characteristic of the thing considered must be discovered, brought out and reawakened to life. A landscape architect must attempt to identify this special character of a given object and honor its worthiness by assigning the exactly appropriate role to play, so in a Japanese garden, crooked or curved trees are viewed as equally valid, as are stones which symbolize movement. We honor the heart of the natural object.” 

Garden-making for Masuno is an intensely personal exercise.

Masuno: “There is a Zen proverb that says if a poisonous snake drinks water, it is changed to poison. If a cow drinks water, it is changed to milk. That means that it is up to me whether the same water I drink is changed into poison or into milk. If my heart is not addressed, I can’t just create beautiful gardens full of spirituality. Therefore, such gardens are also a mirror of myself. They are myself.” 


Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden

“Rough standing stone… a stream meandering…a dream without end,” wrote the 14th century priest and garden designer Muso Soseki. “How lovely, the setting for elegant play and serene pleasure.” 

Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden – YouTube.

For more than a thousand years, the Japanese garden has been a haven of tranquility and a preserve of natural beauty, a vehicle for contemplating life and a wellspring of artistic inspiration. The garden today remains a place apart, serene, symbolic and sensual.

“A place like this is a device that takes you from the world that you’re actually living in and removes you. It was designed to create a mood, to bring one to a state of poetic creativity.” - Makoto Ooka, poet

“More than being an influence in my work, gardens give me energy. It’s a kind of self-affirmation and what I like most about gardens is that they don’t exclude people, just as music must not exclude people.” – Toru Takemitsu, Composer

“One should just sit quietly and look at a garden. What you see depends on what you bring to it.” - Sobin Yamada, Abbott of Shinju-an



Paris dedicates garden to Nelson Mandela

Mandela inaugurated a garden in Paris

Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë and South African minister of culture Paul Mashatile  inaugurated the “Nelson Mandela” garden in the center of the capital last December 19.

A plaque for Mandela was unveiled as famous African saxophonist Manu Dibango played and French actor Didier Bezace read extracts from Mandela’s writings.

“We are very happy to be here and we will continue to work with the French people and strengthen our cooperation and perpetuate what Nelson Mandela has taught us,” said Mashatile. The garden is located in a perimeter still under construction, as part of the redevelopment project des Halles, which will be completed in 2016. But about half of the 4 hectares of greenery is now open to the public.

via Mandela inaugurated a garden in Paris.

Updated post: NZ Japanese garden is going into “storage”

Japanese garden at the Auckland Zoo

Auckland Zoo plans to remove a Japanese garden gifted by a sister city 24 years ago to make way for Tasmanian devils.

Former head gardener at the zoo Stephanie Hay says the move is an insult to Japan and the people who were involved in the garden’s design.

via Garden is going into storage |

“It’s probably a bigger insult to continue having a Japanese garden that won’t be well taken care of. Commitment to regular maintenance is part of what makes a Japanese garden the real deal.”  

Update: Auckland City Mayor Len Brown is to apologise to the Mayor of Fukuoka and the local Japanese community for the demolition of a Japanese garden at Auckland Zoo – a gift from sister city Fukuoka 25 years ago.

Mr Brown faced a small but rowdy protest at the first council meeting of the year, but it was a diplomatic issue that got him off to a bad start with official business in 2014.

The mayor refused speaking rights to the Friends of the Fukuoka Friendship Garden, whose pleas to retain the Japanese garden at the zoo he rejected last year.

Mr Brown tried to push the group off to a committee to speak, but they turned up in large numbers, including prominent members of the Japanese community, leading to a backdown by the mayor.

Read more here: Mayor to apologize over zoo’s Japanese garden

Vertical gardens breathe new life into densely populated Asian cities

Apart from the environmental benefits, urban plantings also make us feel better, said Hassell, citing biophilia, a hypothesis that suggests there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

“Scientists are not quite sure why but it seems to have a measurable effect. People love gardens,” he said.

via Vertical gardens breathe new life into densely populated Asian cities | South China Morning Post.

Oudolf’s cosmology of perennials

A cosmic tale of birth, growth, fortitude, mortality and rebirth. Perennials in the garden have a way of impressing upon us how the big wheels of the universe turn in a way that stolid evergreens and even deciduous shrubs and trees cannot.

Photo via

One of their biggest champions in the garden design scene right now is probably Dutch designer Piet Oudolf who is known for his painterly compositions of perennials as blocks of color and texture in the open landscape.

Photo by Herman Wouters for the New York Times

Photo by Herman Wouters for the New York Times

He imbues his perennials with a cosmological persona, departing from the mundane categories used by botanists for classifying flower heads for example, (i.e. raceme, panicle, umbel) to invoke themes of  heaven and earth — much like an ikebana floral arrangement would in a more concise format.

In his 1999 book “Designing with Plants” (co-written with Noel Kingsbury), he offers the following observations:  

  •  SPIRES “thrust our vision skywards, reminding us of other realms, connecting heaven and earth. Spire-shaped flower heads add lift to the garden, severing its bonds to the earth.”

  • UMBELS “are, in a way, the opposite to spires, their gently rounded shapes counterbalancing the energy of the sky-seeking spires.”

  • DAISIES “remind us of the sun, not just because of their shape but also because they are so often found in sunny places: meadows, fields, and prairies.”

In seeing other-worldly meanings in the physical structure of perennials, Oudolf also invites us to contemplate the changing nature of their beauty.  A summer garden with perennials is easy to love but just as easy to dismiss if you’re only looking at the brilliance of the flowers. Oudolf believes that like a truly beautiful human being, a perennial can be just as interesting in its other stages of becoming.

“The sensitive gardener will observe that there are many more stages in the life of a perennial that are deserving of study and appreciation than simply the flowers — buds, unfurling leaves, seed heads, autumn foliage, winter’s skeletal remains.”

An Oudolf landscape is then capable of transforming from a colorful impressionist painting to something reminiscent of a monochromatic landscape work from China’s Song Dynasty era where only the forms matter.


Mitate: Old is New Again in Portland’s Tanner Springs Park

In Japanese aesthetics, the term mitate is one of those ideas that have evolved several layers of meaning with the passing of the centuries and the flowering of several forms of Japanese artistry.

The most concise definition for this term is perhaps “seeing anew,” according to Japanese garden design writer Marc Keane.  In Japanese gardening, this commonly translates to putting into a different use picturesque, old materials like fallen roof tiles and fragments from artifacts like stone pagodas and bridges.

Clay roof tiles at the Portland Japanese Garden pavilion.

That sounds a lot like the Western idea of recycling except that the main intent is not so much utilitarian as it is artistic. The old material is reborn not just into a new function but into a new kind of beauty.

Sometimes, it’s the new aesthetic expression that matters above all else. So a fallen roof tile can be repurposed to serve as pavement material in a garden pathway — possibly as an edging that will serve as an erosion control feature  —-   or for nothing more useful than symbolizing moving water at the edge of a dry rock garden.

There is also a broader meaning of mitate which goes above and beyond the realm of transforming physical objects. Japanese culture writer Haruo Shirane calls it “visual transposition.” Here, it is only the imagination of the poet and artist which changes the aesthetic identity of the object perceived, usually within the context of a cultural glossary shared with the reader or viewer.

In spring, white azalea shrubs in full bloom along a slope can either just be appreciated at face value or re-imagined as snow drifting down a hillside in late spring. The re-imagination is more potent of course if there is the clear intent to transpose snow for azalea.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Shirane also sees the mitate concept at play in the common garden design practice of representing famous literary scenes and miniaturizing famous landscapes in the arrangement of rocks, water, artifacts and plants.

A hedge representing Mt. Fuji at the San Francisco Tea Garden. Photo courtesy of

A hedge representing Mt. Fuji at the San Francisco Tea Garden. Photo courtesy of

At the Tanner Springs Park in Portland’s Pearl District, one finds both these levels of mitate flowing through the design, seamlessly merging in spirit with the modern, practical ethos of sustainability in landscape design.

Perhaps the most striking example of mitate in the park is the art wall of undulating rusted metal and fused glass that borders its east side. The metal are old railroad tracks, 368 of them to be exact, set side by side on their ends to simulate a gracefully crumbling wooden fence.

 Or this wall of industrial sculpture could be the billowing trunks of trees in the lost Pearl District wetland. Tanner Springs is a blast from the Pearl District’s not-so-distant past, when it served as wetland catch basin of the southwest hills. The march of industrial activities drained and obliterated all traces of this old natural habitat although perhaps, some aquatic wildlife, in the recesses of their collective specie memory, never quite forgot about the old Couch Lake in the Pearl.

A “resident” blue heron in the park. Photo courtesy of Tom Good,

The second mitate-mono (mitate object) in the park is something that it has in common with a lot of downtown streets and with the Portland Japanese Garden (where it is actually held up as the textbook example of mitate). The cobblestone pavement that winds across the park started out life in Portland as ballast from ships coming into the city’s rivers.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

In busy city streets  where pedestrians and cars have to dance the precarious ballet of the crosswalks, these ballast-turned cobblestones slow the motor traffic down.  The line between utility and beauty blurs with their use in a garden setting at the Japanese Garden and in Tanner Springs. They still serve to slow us down but only so that we may be able to smell the wisteria, awaken our sense of touch or reflect on a lost wetland utopia.

The cobblestones provide a textural and visual cue to stop and ponder this water feature at Tanner Springs.

The cobblestones provide a textural and visual cue to stop and ponder this water feature at Tanner Springs. Photo courtesy of