A Samurai's Garden

Yotaro Ono says it is not necessary to fill every space in a garden.
Yotaro Ono says it is not necessary to fill every space in a garden. (By Rebecca Hale)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

I've been to a few slide lectures on gardening over the years, some better than others, but one held the other evening takes the cake.

It was at the Japanese Embassy's Japan Information and Culture Center on 21st Street NW, and began with Yotaro Ono stepping on stage in samurai regalia. He pulled out the feudal warrior's best friend, a curved sword, and began slashing the air with it. (And here I'd thought it was going to be about pruning azaleas.) Ono then staged a series of kata, mock fights with his opponent, a martial artist from Idaho named Anthony Abry. The cries were alarming but, thankfully, Ono had switched to a wooden sword.

I was spellbound, not just by the unexpected display, but by the fact that three days earlier I had met Ono in his blazer and slacks at the National Geographic Society. In the Explorer's Hall museum on M Street NW, the 63-year-old landscape architect from Kyoto has created his vision of a warrior's garden, on display until April 29.

Ono, you see, is both designer and martial artist. In an interview he spoke of the linkage between art and war and the fact that great samurai such as Miyamoto Musashi applied the same mental rigors to garden-making, writing haiku and painting as to dispatching a foe.

As I watched his stage fight, it occurred to me that Ono could combine his talents in other ways: He could cut a swath through America, taking out all the tacky, misbegotten "Japanese" gardens that afflict the landscape. You know what I mean: The scattered, neglected gravel that needs a raking, a weeding and a way to exclude the cat. The puny stone lantern fashioned from a concrete mold and tipping to one side. Or the sad little arched bridge planted between isolated garden beds.

Please understand, I'm a huge fan of successful Japanese-style gardens in the West. They can, when well done, create a space where plants and structure come together to form a composition both artistic and serene. This is surely the ideal of any garden. But to achieve that you have to start with design integrity and reject the idea that a Japanese garden can be evoked when characteristic elements are used merely and excessively as props.

At heart, said Ono, the garden is a vehicle for creating a feeling. "For example, if you were born by the sea and you live in the city, remember what you felt" in childhood, he said. Or go for a walk in the countryside and observe, carefully, how nature arranges trees or the placement of rocks, or pebbles in a stream. Then synthesize that in the garden but in a simplified, even abstract way, he said.

One of the most common mistakes, he said, is in thinking that every available space must be planted or decorated. He moves to a copy of a famous painting by Musashi, of a shrike perched on a naked branch. The bird is surrounded by the nothingness of air. It is only through considering void that we comprehend mass. This idea is being lost in Japan, he said, where people are adapting Western ideas of stuffing gardens with plants.

Admission: I haven't been to Japan, but I have seen and read enough to get a sense of the aspects of Japanese landscape design that produce universal landscapes of crafted serenity. If I were setting out to create a Japanese-inspired garden, these would be some of the principal considerations:

Indoors and Out

There should be a close and seamless connection between house and garden. The transitions between indoor and out are especially important and deserving of well-crafted masonry or decking, or stones chosen for their scale, beauty and character. Fences and gates can be used as screens to direct eyes and feet.

The house is used to frame views of the garden, both from indoors and in areas around the house. I have a friend with a rowhouse garden just 16 feet wide who created a central meandering path to the garden shed. The shed was cleared of most junk, and a dimly lighted lamp was positioned in it to create the notion of a distant hermit's hut.

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