Stepping Stones in Japanese Gardens


Stepping stones are a fairly common in Japanese gardens, and one feature that can be successfully used in gardens outside of Japan. There are a couple of guidelines when incorporating stepping stones into the landscape plan.

Stepping stones are not well-suited to primary walkways because of the limited and potentially uneven walking surface.  Stepping stones are best suited to secondary or optional paths, and can offer an aesthetic aspect that needs consideration.

The layout of stepping stones is important in creating a visually pleasing, as well as functional, effect. From a functional perspective, stones need to be set so that walking across them is not too unnatural. But aesthetically speaking, the stones usually should not be in a straight line, but rather staggered just enough so that they seem like they were nonchalantly arranged.

Keys to selecting good stepping stones includes finding stones that have a flat surface big enough for a foot to step on, nice color, and good shape. The nicest stones do not have very jagged edges, but more of a rounded shape, with flat top, and ideally no dip in the center where water might collect.

The best way to set a stepping stone path is to lay out the stones where the path will be and move the stones around until you get the best combination and layout. Then the stones can be spaced evenly and set.

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Specimen Pine Trees in Japanese Gardens


Japanese garden builders have planted pine trees for centuries. It is hard to beat the stunning beauty that skillfully pruned pines can add to a garden, and it may be tempting for Westerners to plant pines on their property in hopes of capturing this beauty. But there are some considerations to keep in mind.

Pines need a lot of sun and prefer well-drained soil. If the site is mostly shaded and doesn’t get enough sun, it would be wise to plant something else because the pine will not thrive. Soil can be amended to some extent, but pines need good drainage. If the garden is sunny, and the soil suitable, the last site condition to be aware of is the irrigation. Once a pine is established, there is really no need for much irrigation. In fact, over-irrigation often causes problems.

Homeowners usually don’t realize how much skill and time goes into specimen pine trees. If your area lacks a skilled pruner, it might be best to reconsider the use of pines. Even if a professional pruner is available, the pines will most likely not receive the same degree of pruning as they would in Japan. It may be sufficient for the first several years to do minimal pruning, mostly just basic shaping. After several years more detailed pruning may begin, but it may be possible to get a nice-looking pine without being as thorough as they would be in Japan. This is where a skilled pruner can help out.

There are also considerations to keep in mind when selecting the type of pine you will plant. Japanese black pines may be available in the area, but Japanese red pines will most likely not. Japanese white pines may be a good choice for many because they seem to be better suited to a variety of sites, they grow slowly and are fairly fast to prune, not to mention that the foliage is attractive. There are other possibilities like Scots pine, Austrian pine, Jack pine, Pitch pine, Korean pine, Japanese black pine ‘Thunderhead,’ etc.

The key is to make sure the pine will have a chance to thrive on the site. A healthy pine will most likely be more resistant to insect and disease problems. But keep in mind that if there is not a professional available to prune the tree, at least minimally, in several years it could look more messy than stunning.

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Azaleas in Japanese Gardens


Even though people may think of their beautiful flowers, this is not the main reason azaleas are one of the most commonly-seen plants in Japanese gardens. When properly done, groups of azaleas can be sheared into large masses, or individual semi-spherical shapes, adding crisp, clean lines and a voluptuousness to garden compositions.

While specimen trees like pines can be stunning, many Japanese gardens would not feel complete without the added dimension that azaleas provide. The two main possibilities are to group the azaleas together to form one large mass, called O-Karikomi in Japanese, or to plant between one and seven azaleas in a group to form a single semi-spherical shape, known as Tamamono. Both of these uses offers valuable possibilities to garden owners in the West as well.

Many homeowners in the West, while they may desire a Japanese garden feel, may not be able or willing to adopt all Japanese garden planting features, like specimen pine trees. The use of azaleas mentioned above may provide many solutions. Proper shearing and shaping must be done with hand-shears to attain the desired form, but this is a very attainable garden element.

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Japanese Garden Design Principle Number Three


The first tip is to build the garden to be viewed from inside the house. The second tip is to enclose the garden to create a sense of intimacy. The third tip is to USE HIGH-QUALITY STONE MATERIALS LIKE NATURAL BOULDERS.

It isn’t necessary to build a pond or dry landsape featuring complex rock arrangments. But the beauty of natural stone, especially when properly set, is undeniable and adds tremendous impact. Even if there are only a couple of boulders set in a natural way, it is well worth the money to invest in this garden element.

Another tip: If you are going to bring natural boulders into your landscape garden, do it in the beginning. Moving large boulders requires heavy equipment, which can leave a path of destruction if not done during the initial garden construction.

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How to do a Japanese Gardening Internship in Japan


The beauty of Japanese gardens has inspired many people to study the tradition of Japanese Gardening. Reading up on the subject and visiting the gardens of Japan are typical ways that indivivuals get started with their study. But the necessesity of doing hands-on training should become obvious, and when it does the logical questions of how to set up an internship pop up.

There are a number of issues that have to be resolved from getting a visa to stay in Japan while training, to finding a company in Japan willing to employ/teach you. Then there are the variety of individual circumstances people will face. One issue that seems to come last, but should come first, is speaking the language.

While no one expects a high level of fluency, being able to speak at least some basic Japanese is very important. How else will your employer/teacher and fellow workers communicate with you? Don’t expect garden professionals in Japan to speak English. The boss of the company you’re training with may speak some English, but he may not be working with you on a daily basis. And he may not be the best person to learn from.

In my experience, the foreman that you work with everyday, not the boss,  is often the best teacher. Whether the boss, the foreman, or a co-worker, your “teacher” most likely has spent their free time studying the subject they love, Japanese gardening, not English.

Another reason why one should make efforts to study Japanese is because many of the vocabulary used in Japanese gardening does not translate well into English, if at all. There are nuances to be understood in Japanese with many terms that get lost when translated to English.

The long tradition of Japanese gardening is an incredibly deep subject that takes decades to get a handle on. Attaining at least a basic level of Japanese should just be viewed as part of the whole package of studying Japanese gardening.

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Japanese Garden Internship in Japan


When done right, Japanese gardens are like works of living art. Creating such high quality landscapes takes a lot of study and dedication. To some extent reading the right material, and studying the gardens of Japan in person can help to get you familiarized with Japanese gardening. But getting to the point where you can actually build a Japanese garden takes a lot more.

From start to finish, Japanese garden construction and development takes a broad range of hands-on skills. Things like boulder setting, stepping stone placement, planting, path construction, fence building, and garden maintenance need to be learned by doing. This is why doing an internship in Japan is so important.

The term “internship” nowadays is a little misleading. When I trained in Japan, I worked for a Japanese gardening company in Kyoto. I had a visa and a place to live close to the company. I worked everyday, between 60-70 hours a week, for four years. They paid me a salary, which wasn’t much, and expected me to work like a normal employee. Even though it was incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally, I learned a lot by doing. There was a lot of repetition, and many times I felt that it was not the most efficient way to learn. But since there is no ideal situation where instruction and all of the opportunities are given to you, at the time this seemed like the only way to learn.

I would suggest that anyone interested in learning Japanese gardening consider going to Japan and finding employement, either full-time or part time, with a gardening company. It doesn’t have to be in Kyoto, and I don’t believe it has to be full-time. I believe that you could teach english, for example, have a working visa through a language school, and find a learning opportunity on your off days. It may be possible to work with a professional gardener or nursery a couple days a week who is eager to share their knowledge. The more hands-on training you get the better equipped you’ll be to build and maintain a Japanese-style garden.

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Japanese Garden Design Principle Number Two


For a Japanese garden to be successful, it needs to be close the house, and it has to be viewed through large windows or sliding glass doors. The second important principle is to ENCLOSE THE GARDEN. An enclosed garden, viewed from the house, is the basic combination of an intimate living space.

The garden does not need to be surrounded by a high fence that completely screens the outside views. The enclosure may only be suggested. Whether a fence, wall, hedge, or a combination of these is used, there does need to be some enclosure not only for privacy, but also to help with the sense of scale.

As our first tip pointed out, the home is extended out into the garden, and the garden is pulled into the house with a large, open view of the exterior space. With an enclosure around the garden, the living space feels like it extends to the garden enclosure. In Japan, where most residential properties are small, the fence, wall or hedge, may be very visible from inside the house. In fact, the enclosure is often meant to be an attractive backdrop to the garden composition.

Because properties tend to be larger on average here in the Northeast, it is often more appropriate to enclose a limited space outside of the main rooms of the house, and build a Japanese garden there. Not only will you have an intimate garden to enjoy from the privacy of your house, the yearly maintenance cost will be more manageable.

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Japanese Garden Design Principle Number One


The most important Japanese garden design principle is incredibly straightforward, yet often ignored outside of Japan. Everything else works off of this concept, which is, believe it or not, DESIGN THE GARDEN TO BE PRIMARILY VIEWED FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE.

Think about it. When people are home, they spend most of their time inside the house. And yet, most people think, “When I want to see my garden, I will go outside.” And how many landscape designers concentrate on landscaping that looks good from the outside of the house, while ignoring how the homeowner will view the property from the window? Unfortunately, too many.

The Japanese have long appreciated the restorative power of bringing nature into the home by opening up the house to views of an intimate garden composition. In Japan, properties are often small and almost always enclosed by a wall, hedge, fence, or a combination  of these. When planning your Japanese-style garden, make sure you choose the location on your property that works best when viewed from inside. Put in larger windows or sliding glass doors if you have to. Then enlcose a reasonably-sized area outside that room to create an intimate space. This is where the high quality Japanese-style garden needs to go.

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Japanese Gardens: A Source of Inspiration

Japanese gardens have been an immense source of inspiration for us, and Japan’s garden tradition a continuing educational resource.

We have realized that Japanese gardening has a set of well-tested principles that are both universal and timeless.

The value that these principles hold lies in the fact that they can be successfully applied anywhere and still achieve their ultimate goal: to enhance the quality of life at home.

A garden applying  Japanese gardening principles and techniques need not be called a “Japanese garden.” And to be effective, these principles do not need the support of exotic ornaments.

Japanese garden principles are particularly effective at bringing the beauty of nature into the home owner’s daily life.

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Training in Japan FAQs

(The following is taken from an article written by Asher Browne in the March 2007 issue of Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening)

Over the past several years, I have been approached by quite a few individuals who are interested in training in Japan as a gardener or other type of artisan. The steady barrage of questions began while I was working for a gardening company in Japan, and it continues even now. While each individual has a different story and different priorities, I tend to hear many of the same questions, and giving the same answers, I thought it might be helpful to write the most common questions down in an article. What follows is a typical interview with someone who thinks they might like to travel to Japan and train as a gardener there.

Interview Candidate: I’ve heard that you studied in Japan. I have been thinking about trying that, and I was hoping that you could tell me what it’s like and how to set up an internship.

Asher: Yes, I lived there for eight years and trained for four. I worked at two different garden companies in Kyoto. But before I tell you all about my experience, I have a couple of questions for you. First, can you speak Japanese?

Candidate: Well, I know a little from a trip I took there, but I would need to study up.

Asher: I would definitely recommend studying Japanese in preparation for such a commitment. The better you can speak, the more valuable your experience will be.

Candidate: Studying Japanese is something I was going to start doing anyway, but I am a little worried about something else. I don’t have that much horticultural experience. My background is in art.

Asher: Having a background in art is a good thing, and horticulture is just one aspect of what needs to be studied. I, myself, was originally an art student before going to Japan. I don’t think my lack of horticultural experience hurt me in Japan because I learned while I was there. Once back in the U.S., I tried to round-out my experience by becoming a Certified Arborist.

Candidate: Can you tell me about the work and what the arrangement would be?

Asher: First of all, in addition to knowing some Japanese, being physically fit is a basic requirement that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Doing an “internship” means work, and the work is physically demanding. As far as arrangements go, there are quite a few different possibilities. I would recommend finding an education-minded company to work for, and staying there for a long-term period. I have heard of people teaching English on a work visa, and then studying with a garden company in their off days. This enables them to financially support themselves and at the same time study Japanese gardening at a comfortable pace. In my case, I worked for a garden company full-time for four years. The work was hard, and the weeks long, typically 60-70 hours a week. It was an extremely tough work, and I’m not sure it was an efficient way to learn. One thing that was good, however, was the amount of time I spent surrounded by beauty. Just being in so many Japanese gardens enabled me to absorb many commonly-found patterns, and it provided me with a great reserve of mental imagery to draw from in my current work.

Candidate: What companies did you work for? Do you think that I can train at one of those? They are in Kyoto, right?

Asher: I’m glad you asked that because I’d like you to know that Japan’s rich garden tradition permeates the entire country. Although I recommend visiting gardens in Kyoto, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as the best place to train. It is more important to look for an education-minded company, and you shouldn’t worry about what region it is located in. The companies that I worked for both had good points and bad points. With the first company, I learned a lot just by being in gardens and absorbing those important patterns. I also got a feel for how their teams worked. But that company was not education-minded, and they gave me little opportunity to learn real skills. The second company considered themselves traditional, and they were very intense in their work habits and teaching methods. I learned a lot from them, but it felt a little abusive sometimes. I stuck with it as long as I could, and I ended up learning many traditional skills while there. So, again, I recommend looking for an education-minded company. They are hard to find, but they’re out there. I’d also like to mention that learning from more than one company was very valuable. I realized that there are different ways of doing things even in Japan. And from that point on, I was always trying to assess if a certain method was the best way or not. Because I developed this habit, I began to realize that Kyoto’s garden maintenance had a lot to be desired in many instances, despite what Kyoto’s gardeners said. The Adachi Art Museum in Shimane prefecture, for example, is on a much higher level than anything in Kyoto.

Candidate: How long does it take to learn everything? Do I have to train long-term, or can I go to Japan for a few weeks or months?

Asher: After a half-decade training I began to realize that I had only just begun to scratch the surface of the subject. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know in comparison to the whole subject matter. This is especially true once you start to realize that gardening, by itself, is just one minor part of the whole living environment. So if you want to do it right -if you plan to be serious about this- you should be thinking about committing years or even decades to the endeavor.

Candidate: There’s no way I could do that even if I wanted to. I’ve got a family and other commitments.

Asher: I know some professionals who cannot train in Japan long-term because of family or business concerns. Repeated or annual trips to Japan for short-term training is the solution for people like this. Keep in mind that during the rest of the year they are still 100% committed to their training. They continue to study Japanese and they continue to work on their physical fitness. They are also fully committed to learning from sources such as Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Candidate: How do I set up an internship?

Asher: Setting something up isn’t easy. You’ve got to find an opportunity with a company or school, then get yourself over there, and then be able to stay there. You need some kind of visa, and you need to be able to support yourself. During my time there I had a visa because my wife is Japanese. My wife worked, and I also got paid by the company I worked for. I’ve also heard of foreigners staying in Japan on cultural visas. Many foreigners stay in Japan on work visas. For example, you could work as an English Language school and get your visa from the school while you work part-time at a gardening company. This is a good approach, I think, if you can find a company that is willing to work with such an arrangement. I’ve also known some people who studied in Japan while technically being tourists, taking a trip to Korea every three months to renew their visa. A number of people interested in training in Japan have asked me how to set something up. I always refer them to Sukiya Living, Journal of Japanese Gardening. The publisher of this magazine has set up a number of fantastic training opportunities that are available to people who are willing to prepare themselves properly. Sukiya Living can set it all up for you, but for some very good reasons they want you to (1) Pass the easiest level of the Japanese language test, and (2) Subscribe to Sukiya Living for at least one year. Some people might think that these requirements are silly, but I wholeheartedly agree with Sukiya Living and its easy requirements. Here is one reason why: When I was training I knew of people before me who had trained at the same company who were just as serious as I was. Then one year someone came for a very brief period to train. This person was not serious, and it ended up turning into an awful experience for the company. Luckily, the company had already had some good experiences with foreigners, so they realized that this was not the norm. Still, I realized that the “host company” could easily decide that training foreigners is just too much trouble. So I would rather see Sukiya Living set a few requirements before just handing out its valuable opportunities. Besides, setting up an internship and training in Japan are only part of the whole picture. There is also the transition back home and the challenge of putting your knowledge and skills to use. This is also something that Sukiya Living might be able to help you with.

(This is the end of this article. For those interested in training in Japan, I hope that this is of some help or at least something to think about. GOOD LUCK!)

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