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What Can Japanese Gardens Do for People?
2014 Conference by North American Japanese Garden Association

• The North American Japanese Garden Association’s 2014 Conference took place in October from the 16th to the 18th at Chicago Botanic Garden. According to NAJGA’s website, Japanese gardens are found in at least 53 countries, and North America alone has more than 250 gardens. NAJGA’s conference serves as a venue for exchange of information and ideas about Japanese gardens, and several hundreds of specialists and devotees attended it. Pre and post-conference events were also held, and on October 15, about 100 attendees visited the Anderson Gardens where visitors experience authentic Japanese gardens.

• This year, the conference focused on how Japanese gardens can better serve visitors in terms of nurturing mental health and physical wellness, and contributing to humane society. In the three-day conference, 37 speakers from five nations had discussions on the subjects.

• The guest speaker was famous landscaper Hoichi Kurisu. He has designed and built many Japanese gardens in the U.S. and other countries, and received the National Landscape Award given by the White House twice. His works include the Anderson Gardens in Rockford and the Legacy Garden in the Midwest Buddhist Temple.

• Kurisu was raised in Hiroshima and came to the U.S. after he graduated from college. His father was a gardener and landscaper, so he started to work with his father. The more he worked, the more he was fascinated by soil and plants. In the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, having Japanese gardens in one’s home was common in the U.S. When Kurisu saw those gardens, he thought, “They are not Japanese Gardens.”
• He returned to Japan to study about Japanese Gardens and thought that he wanted to bring back Kyoto’s fantastic traditional gardens to the U.S.
• He was introduced to Kenzo Ogata, a leading landscape architect in Japan. One day, Ogata took him to a garden, which was different from Kyoto’s traditional one, but its impression was indescribable. Fresh sunbeams came through the trees and rested on the green moss, and on the fence side of the garden was soothing water sound and leading to another area of the garden. The garden was really what he had had in his mind.
• The garden was called “zoki no niwa”, which was created by a harmonious space with native plants.

• After he talked about the impersonal society dominated by new technologies and stressful life, Kurisu questioned the audience, “As a Japanese garden designer, this is what we are supposed to do.” He referred to a book written in the 14th century and said, “We might find some answers.” The book wrote, “Follow the request of the stone,” that means, “study the nature and follow the nature.”
• He showed a photo of a beautiful forest, which he often stopped and watched. However, he said that few people would want to get into the forest because of poison ivy or hidden snakes. That is a reason why people prefer gardens, and landscapers artfully arrange a garden with an interpretation of nature.

• Kurisu made a sketch of a garden drawn from the forest. The trees expressed upward power to the top and downward to the ground. The bottom of the forest was cleaned and created a nice open space. The slanting ground produced a dynamic power.
• He said that a harmonious, comfortable space was created by the triangle system. The system has been utilized in many art forms such as flower arrangement and Japanese classical dance.
• He also spoke about the importance of “ma”, which means an empty space or interval of space and time, but it has more profound meanings. For example, there are many comfortable spaces or intervals in noh play. The space and intervals are also used in Japanese gardens. However, creating “ma” is not easily achieved.
• Kurisu quoted words from kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro, “There are two kinds of “ma”. The first one can be taught, but you must go on to master the second by yourself.”
• Kurisu said, “Human beings have dark spots such as jealousy or agony. We have to conquer them one by one. When you take them out from your heart, nothing is left inside, and then you also call it ‘ma.’”
• “That ‘ma’ brings you receptivity and awareness. Without the second ‘ma’, you cannot feel the receptivity or awareness from your surrounding nature. The awareness is able to extend to even the universe,” he continued.
• Kurisu said that the Japanese garden with the second “ma” would be called as a healing garden, where visitors are able feel enlightenment.

• After Hoichi Kurisu’s speech, Kendall Brown, President of NAJGA and author of “The Japanese Gardens of North America”, said to Chicago Shimpo, “Mr. Kurisu designs gardens with such depth, complexity, and subtlety. Sometimes it’s hard for us Americans to see those qualities. But here he talked about his own life experiences, his views of the world, our problems that Japanese gardens fit. I think that makes it much easier for us not only to understand, but I really appreciate the deeper restorative power and potential of Japanese gardens.”

Photo above is the forest that Kurisu often stops and watches, and the below is a sketch Kurisu drew from the forest. He explained the triangle system and "ma" to transform a forest to gardens in a comfortable way. The images are borrowed from Kurisu's presentation.

Hoichi Kurisu, guest speaker at the conference