Like all cultural touchstones, Japanese gardens have a language all their own, with elements of style that are reflected in the way a garden is designed. A novice may not know the vocabulary, composition, and subtext present in a garden, but they can still appreciate the harmonies taking place within the space. For those who wish to learn more about the language of Japanese gardens, Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design offers garden designer and author Marc Peter Keane’s insights. It isn’t all-encompassing, nor is it a paint-by-numbers tutorial for creating a Japanese garden. Instead, Keane presents a survey of over 130 gardens, celebrating their elements and educating readers on the language of Japanese gardens.
Ma is the Japanese word for the breath of a garden, and it could be said Japanese Garden Notes has a spirit that’s evocative of the gardens displayed. Keane balances the roles of artist and curator with style (and event a bit of humor). Off-center captioned photos are interspersed with full-page splashes, and each page highlights different concepts at play — including zurasu, for “off-centered.” Readers who have visited a Japanese garden will learn new vocabulary for elements they’ve experienced: kutsunugi ishi, for the stone where one removes their shoes, karenagare, a dry stream that creates the illusion of water where it would be difficult or impossible to create a stream, shakkei, the borrowed scenery glimpsed beyond a garden’s borders.
Keane is also a master photographer, and the book features artful shots of mossy lawns and rolling hills, autumn trees punctuated with crystalline waterfalls, and raked stone gardens with ripples that seem to emulate a pond frozen at a single moment. Equal attention is given to smaller focal points: a cluster of ferns adorning the roof of a wall, maple leaves scattered like confetti over lichen-speckled stepping stones, a tsubo niwa garden glowing like a precious jewel in a courtyard. Keane punctuates these photos with pithy notes. The Japanese garden is a green monochrome, but “when flowers bloom, let them flood,” writes Keane, highlighting the way gardens feature beds of azaleas, sprays of cherry trees, and stream banks lined in irises. On the happy serendipitous elements that occur in Japanese gardens (including the cluster of ferns), he writes “if it wants to be there, maybe it’s alright.”
Architectural structures are at play in Japanese gardens, including Philadelphia’s Shofuso, and Keane devotes an entire chapter to educating readers on how buildings work in concert with the meticulously planned gardens. Verandas become stages for audiences to watch the garden, shoji screen doors and windows become picture frames, and teahouses become intricate sculptures. In certain cases, the lines blur between house and garden as water flows up to the edge of porches and structures rest against river-smooth plinth stones.
Japanese Garden Notes ultimately acts as a jumping-off point for audiences interested in learning more about Japanese gardens, and offers inspiration for casual observers, garden design students, and aficionados. It is a book which can be returned to as both aesthetically pleasing and as a reference for some of the world’s most renowned gardens. It is available online at Stone Bridge Press and Amazon.
This review was written for an advance copy of “Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design” in return for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions on this book are the reviewer’s own and are not influenced by the author, the publisher, or any of its affiliates.