For this week’s “art tour”, let me take you to a little known corner of LA. After calling Los Angeles my home for the last 18 years, there is very little of cultural interest I have not seen, and now I am left with the more obscure sightseeing locations, those that even many Angelenos don’t know exist.
One such place is the Japanese Garden, that a friend alerted me to. It took us the best part of two years to arrange an outing – our schedules never seemed “to meet” – but, even if off-season, with nothing quite in bloom yet, grabbing a day we were both free, her toddler in tow, off we went to explore.
There is an area, towards downtown LA, called Little Tokyo, a hub of Japanese food venues and culture. This garden, though, is tucked away in Van Nuys, in that swath of LA called the Valley, where, to my knowledge, Japanese are not represented in high numbers. Go figure.
Other than wishing to visit Kyoto in the Spring, admiring the odd bonsai and a passion for some contemporary Japanese literature, I can’t claim to know much about Japanese gardening. Or gardening in general. But the feeling of serenity bestowed by walking around a traditional Japanese garden is unmistakable.
It turns out there is a reason for it: these gardens were traditionally built by the ruling elite to create a mood appropriate to worship and contemplation. The defining characters of most of today’s gardens owe a huge debt to Zen Buddhism which was brought from China to Japan in the 13th century.
Every element of a garden is rife with symbolisms. A body of water is meant to symbolize the sea, such an important part of Japanese life.
As Dr. Koichi Kawana, the landscape architect who designed the garden, explained: “Combinations of pine, bamboo, and plum are used in decorations to mark the New Year and the most auspicious occasions. Bamboo is an evergreen also and is credited with auspicious characteristics similar to those of the pine, while the plum is thought to embody the qualities of vigor and patience since it is the first to bloom after a severe winter”.
The tea ceremony, a ritual that used to be at the center of Japanese social life, is meant to be enjoyed in a quiet atmosphere which is why the tea house is always built in the inner sanctum of the garden.
Cranes are said to live a thousand years, hence are a symbol of good fortune.
In order to reach-the essence of things, all non-essential elements must be eliminated. Color is avoided whenever possible.