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Japanese culture may well be the most deliberate, self-conscious culture on the planet. One excellent example of this is found in Japanese garden design.

As with ikebana or >bonsai, Japanese garden design aims for a naturalism in which nothing is left to chance, and everything has meaning. If there are leaves scattered on the ground, they were left there to simulate nature’s processes; if a moss garden looks parched and fading, it has been left that way because it is the height of summer; and if there is a mound toward the center of things that seems to be the same shape as Fuji-san, well…that’s supposed to represent Japan’s most famous and revered mountain.

Japanese garden design has evolved over more than a thousand years, and into a number of different kinds of gardens, each one suited to a very particular purpose: Karesansui, Zen or rock gardens, for contemplation; kaiyū-shiki-teien for strolling; roji, to enjoy while participating in a tea ceremony or kaiseki feast ; and tsubo-niwa, small courtyard gardens that may be designed to suggest Japan’s grand vistas – or even the celestial vistas of heaven.

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To achieve each of those effects, there are techniques and guidelines of great detail. Nothing about a Japanese garden is by accident. In that way, Japanese gardens are like three-dimensional, living symbolist paintings or sculptures, in which one thing represents another, or sometimes, even its opposite. For instance, one’s first glance at a Zen rock garden may seem to a foreign viewer as something dry and austere. But look at those carefully raked, curving rows of gravel snaking along, in parallel lines: as they flow around a carefully placed, upright rock, they suddenly are revealed as waves lapping against the bases of the enormous rock formations such as those seen on the coasts of Japan.

Suddenly, the vast white expanse of raked gravel is revealed for what it “really” is: the vast, rippling ocean. Scale disappears, or is reordered; the space in front of the viewer suddenly expands and one is no longer looking at a small, fenced garden; one is transported into a much larger reality. With more contemplation, the rows of rocks undulate, turning from solid rock to endlessly changing water. One’s vision expands.

None of it happens by chance. Japanese gardens, many of them hundreds of years old, are the product of countless hours of thought, deliberation and painstaking care.

Japan’s Zen gardens, which use rocks large and small to such remarkable effect, are just one style; water itself also plays a crucial role in most Japanese gardens, which are, above all, meant to be evocations of Japan’s natural beauty, its mountains and waterfalls, its lush forests and dense undergrowth, all of which are a result of the country’s remarkable mountain geography.

But Japanese gardens are also meant to transcend nature, to acknowledge that the gods – kami in Shinto – that inhabit nature are to be worshipped through nature. Japanese gardens – one word for which is niwa, the word for a place that has been purified for the arrival of the kami – are temples of the natural world.

Japanese gardens are – consciously, deliberately – spiritual places, temples created from not just natural materials, but from the very elements of nature: water, rock, plants, space. The godai, the five elements of all creation, are all present in Japan’s gardens.

Japanese gardens are, of course, pretty as well, and one need not be a Shinto believer, or obsessed with symbolism, to enjoy them. Gardens that were at one time the exclusive province of the Imperial family, going back a thousand years, have become much more open to the general public for all to enjoy.

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When initially brought over from China in the sixth and seventh centuries, these were “pleasure gardens,” places for frolics of the ruling elites. But as with other elements of Chinese culture, the Japanese soon made them their own, so that despite elements of Chinese garden design – arching bridges, water features, little islands and anchoring rocks – the more naturalistic tastes of the Japanese soon took hold.

Nature is what these beautiful gardens evoke for foreigners visiting them for the first time. But knowing that ancient Japanese cosmology was based on the legend of a perfect central mountain, Mount Horai, where the gods reigned in a misty past, makes those rocks, and that mound rising in the center of the garden, take on a deeper meaning. Sitting quietly in a Japanese garden is one of the great pleasures of life in Japan, as it was many centuries ago.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON