Japanese Gardens: a Four Season Celebration of Fleeting Beauty

Spring in the garden
Spring in the garden

An appreciation for passing beauty is essential to fully experiencing the wonders of a Japanese garden in all four seasons. Photo: Aurora Santiago.

The Pacific Northwest has much in common geographically with Japan: mountains, rivers, forests, oceans, islands, earthquakes, volcanos – but our climates are very different. Honshu, the main island of Japan, has a temperate climate with four seasons that are much more distinct than those of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

The seasons are extremely important in Japanese culture – especially in the arts of flower arranging, poetry, cultural festivals, and garden design. They’re expressed in the picture scrolls and flower arrangements (ikebana) displayed in the recessed alcoves (tokonoma) of traditional rooms. Seasonal realities also underlie haiku, 17-syllable poems that attempt to capture a fleeting moment – and the essence of a season. Important festivals mark these changes in the daily lives of the Japanese – throughout history and also in the present.

Similarly, Japanese gardens are planned to change with and reflect the four seasons. This includes careful selection of plants and the festivals to be held there.

Spring in Japan has mild and pleasant weather, and is marked by the flowering and fleeting beauty of many native trees and shrubs -- including Cherry, Plum and Peach trees; Camellias; Azaleas; and Wisteria. The expression, hana-mi (literally “flower-watching”) usually refers to. Cherry blossom festivals, the most important of the festivals that celebrate spring flowers.

Summer is very hot and humid, with frequent thunderstorms. Important flowering plants include Iris, Hydrangea and Lotus. Celebrations include the Iris festival and Bon, a festival that honors the spirits of one’s ancestors.

Fall in the garden
Fall in the garden

Same view as above photo, in autumn.  Photo: Aurora Santiago.

Autumn bring relief with milder and less humid conditions. The weather is sunny, with colder nights. There may be typhoons. This season is cherished for the fall color of Maples and other plants, including Enkianthus shrubs and Ginkgo trees. Chrysanthemums -- flowers that symbolize the imperial family, good fortune and long life – are grown for late autumn festivals, and are displayed in pots at temples, gardens and other public places. Local festivals are associated with the rice harvest.

Winter is very cold and often snowy. Evergreen plants that are especially important include Pine trees and Bamboo. Evergreens contrast beautifully with snow, with stones and lanterns, and with the bare stems of deciduous plants. New Year festivals are prominent.

Japanese gardens are temporal in nature, unlike Western gardens, which emphasize long-lasting color and extended bloom times. Seasonal festivals in Japan celebrate the fleeting nature of beauty – notably the transient beauty of flowers and fall color. In fact, awareness of the changes wrought by time and age is essential to understanding and appreciating Japanese gardens. Unfortunately, this ability is underdeveloped in U.S. culture.

Our Seattle Japanese Garden is closed during the winter months. Also, we seldom have the snow that makes a Japanese-style winter garden so lovely. We are fortunate, however, that the opening of the garden on March 1st brings with it a season poised between winter and spring.

There’s a simplicity in the winter garden that helps us let go of distractions. Here in the Pacific Northwest, in contrast to much of the U.S., we’re surrounded by greenness -- as well as bare branches and empty soil where perennials have gone underground for the season. Moss and lawns have greened up, and conifers reveal their subtle beauties, now that flowers are few. It’s a good time to stop and acknowledge that green is the most important color in Japanese-style gardens, in this and all seasons.

We can appreciate these myriad shades of green even in the sparseness of winter, before the emergence of spring’s lighter, brighter greens. Even in the grayness of Seattle’s winter, bereft of snow, our eyes are able to discern more shades of green than any other color. It’s a color of serenity and peacefulness that endures. In Seattle, where the seasons are less distinct than in Japan, the color green spans the seasons. It ties us to Japan, and the heritage -- across the Pacific and the centuries – of our Japanese Garden.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.