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Book Review: The Art of the Japanese Garden

Last Updated: 2/20/2006

Christian Tschumi has been kind enough to offer a review of a recent book.

The Art of the Japanese Garden, by David and Michiko Young; Boston, Portland, Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005. By Christian A. Tschumi There are a lot of books on the Japanese garden, and if you are into gardens, you most likely have at least a couple of them on your shelf. So should you buy this book too? Well, it depends what you are looking for.

The Art of the Japanese Garden by David and Michiko Young is well written and beautifully illustrated. It is a great book to acquaint yourself with the topic and learn about Japan’s most important gardens. So is it just another ‘Introduction-to-the-Japanese-Garden’-type of book? Not quite. There is some exceptional strength when it comes to illustrating the topic. The sketches by Tan Hong Yew are a great help in understanding the concept and layout of the gardens, especially when he depicts them from a bird’s eye perspective. The sketches are detailed enough to make sense of the gardens, while at the same time interpreting and stressing the essence of the places, hence clarifying tings for the viewer. And even the many stone settings are wonderfully depicted.

The overall organization of the book is simple and logic. After an overview of the historical development and an outline of its basic elements and design principles, a catalogue of the major works is presented. These gardens are then organized by types, such as Zen temple gardens or warrior gardens, and within these chapters appear in a historical chronological order. The text is extremely well composed, concise and direct. Especially informative is the introduction part, although brief, it provides a good basis for material presented thereafter. And a wonderful help right at the beginning is the flowchart with a chronology of Japanese gardens. Another strong point and big plus of the book is chapter on early graveled courtyards, a pretext to the Japanese garden that many of the other books on the topic unjustly neglect, as the Youngs correctly point out. This certainly helps to better understand the various historical roots of the dry landscape or karesansui gardens.

As most books this one too has its flaws and deficits. The chapter on the basic elements and design principles, exploring the grammar of Japanese gardening as the Youngs suggest, is probably trying to be too comprehensive while remaining a bit shallow at times. For example on the one page devoted to vegetation there is few specific plants mentioned and hardly ever a botanic name. The topic of artificial hills (tsukiyama) is covered in a single paragraph, and the same is true for ponds and streams. And when earlier in the book the authors are explaining the etymology of words such as teien (garden) it would certainly be desirable to actually show the discussed Chinese characters. A minor glitch but still unfortunate is that the illustration of Byôdo-in and some of the photographs from Keystone show a state of the garden that no longer exists as it has been restored to its original state, now featuring an all pebble beach in front of the main hall (not shown in Yew’s illustration).

And finally, maybe the books weakest point is the end, the chapter on more recent gardens, where we learn very little about what the 20th century had to offer. Not even Zuihô-in (1961), though prominently featured on the title page, is discussed in this section. Three rather weak and unexciting pages at the very end of the book are then dedicated to modern residential gardens. There are certainly many more interesting gardens then the ones presented here, especially in the residential segment!

A note regarding the book’s title, for those of you who think they have heard this one before (as I did!). One of the true classics of the fi

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