‘a day in a japanese garden.’ is the sixth installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world. However, this last post is taking on a slightly different form – a descriptive account of sketching in Japan.
I had toured many gardens throughout my trip to Japan. I saw large, sprawling imperial gardens dotted with garden ponds. I walked on paths lined with cherry trees, filling the air with that subtle, sweet scent. There were also modern gardens with large expanses of thick grass, perfect for walking around in barefoot. Even the more austere zen gardens had their charms – the meticulously raked pebbles contrasted against large, mossy rocks. There was most assuredly something for everyone.
But despite all the grandeur of these massive gardens, one tiny square of Japanese history stole my heart above all others: Murin-an.
As a part of the requirements for this trip, I was told to keep a sketch book. Throughout the month and a half in Asia, we would stop different places, take out our books and sketch the world around us. Up to this point, we had been in Tokyo for a week. While I reached full sensory overload taking in the city, I was excited to be in Kyoto for tours of ancient gardens. Tokyo is very fast paced. There is a tension in the air that accompanies most large cities. People everywhere, trying to get to work, school, and places beyond. Kyoto is also a large city, but much less dense. Your eyes are corralled by the expanse of massive skyscrapers. Like Tokyo, most surfaces are covered in LED lights. And like Tokyo, people are everywhere. But somehow, it feels lighter. The air has a distinctively fresh feel. When the sun shines, it illuminates a faint presence of humidity and maybe a small amount of smog, that gives everything a soft appearance [it also makes your pictures look amazing]. I could go on forever….
But back to the garden. As I said, we had toured so many different types of gardens that morning – most of which were large, ancient gardens that had existed since the samurai days of Japan. They were overwhelming in a way. Seeing trees that were almost 1,000 years old does a lot to put your sense of time into perspective. Most of these gardens are in excess of several acres – miles in fact. Murin-an is less than an acre. It’s a very small garden, by Japanese standards. But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in design.
The gates to the garden are small. Most people had to duck to enter. The entry area is filled with pea gravel. It was slushy from water that continued to drain out after a previous rain. My feet sunk as our group trudged towards another doorway. Upon entering the secondary gate, we started down a meandering path flanked with thick vegetation. The smell of flowers filled the air. Songbirds swirled around our heads, singing sweetly. We followed the path to a small tea house that had been in the garden since the 1890’s. It was dimly lit with rice mat flooring. Although it was beautiful, the air was stagnant because the building was not all equipped with any sort of air conditioning. From there, I ventured out in the garden to experience its’ delicate spaces.
The design is a mix of Japanese and English styles. A border of lush shrubs surrounds a highly manacured green lawn. A small creek meanders in and out of the planted areas, cutting the lawn into what appears to be a scale representation of small mountains. The whole view is framed by architectural branches of maples, that appear as silhouettes when backlit by the sun. I immediately sat down to sketch.
If you research Murin-an, what I have just described is a very iconic view of this garden. It’s like the ground opened up and this beautiful landscape emerged from deep inside the earth. I wanted to sketch it in a way that captured the delicate contrast of the various textures, yet capture how they work together to form such a perfect composition. So many pieces of this garden, including this area I was sketching, are roped off to prevent public access. This is in the interest of preservation. While I appreciate it, the limited access forces you to use your eye in a more intensive manner as you can only get so close. I had to sort of imagine walking around in those tiny hills – what I would see, what I would hear and how that would transfer into the sketch. I then started layering in the clusters of rocks. They were slick from water splashing out of the stream. They peaked out of the toes of the hills, carving out the path for the moving water. It was obvious they were expertly placed, adding to the delicate perfection of this specific view. Spilling over the rocks were the various types of shrubs. Red and pink Azaleas followed the stream from beginning to end. I wanted to capture the stream in a way that looked dynamic, as if you could hear the water slowly moving over the pebbles below. The garden is also surrounded by a massive wall of green trees – maple, pine, and gingko, just to name a few. Capturing the needles and the leaves, although far away is important to relaying the balance of texture that is so carefully planned in Japanese garden. Nothing is ever placed there by accident.
I sat there, sketching for what felt like an eternity. There is so much finite detail in a garden of this nature. Moss, flower petals, and fallen leaves dot the flower beds. The light and shadow creates so many variances of light and dark, creating areas of interest within the context of the garden. I just remember Murin-an making me feel as if I had achieved absolute peace. The breeze was light as we were completely surrounded by a tall wall of foliage. After a morning of hustle and bustle in Kyoto – inhaling bus exhaust, riding in hot subway cars, this garden was an oasis. Despite my efforts, my sketch couldn’t even begin to fully capture that feeling of contentment at that exact moment. But it was a reminder that it happened.
I knew we couldn’t stay there forever. Eventually, my professor grabbed me and we headed to the next place – which of course, was equally beautiful. But of all the landscapes we visited, nothing compared to elegance of Murian-an. Regretfully, I lost track of my sketchbook that held so many memories of a wondrous country. But the experience of drawing that space, the attempt to capture my feelings through pencil and paper – is with me in a different way that is more real than any photograph I ever took. Sketching it required me to actually study the details that made it special, forever etching it and the feelings I experienced into my memory forever.