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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.