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Japanese Gardens and Aquascaping PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steven Chong   

Ohayou~san!! Mina moukari makka?  “Morning!! How are you all doing?” in Kansai Dialect. 

Since the beginning of March I have been touring around western Japan, staying with various relatives in Kansai and Okayama Ken, though spending the most time in Kyoto.  I spent most of my free time touring places with great gardens and scenery-- searching for aquascaping inspiration. 


When it comes to Japanese temples, shrines, and their gardens, Kyoto is rightfully well renowned.  Outside of Kyoto though, I also made my way out to Kanagawa and Okayama in order to see 2 of the “3 Great Large Gardens” of Japan called  Kenrakuen and Kourakuen respectively. (The 3rd is Mito’s Kairakuen in Kantou, eastern Japan).  Of course I also took the chance to take plenty of photos.  Omoroi kara, mina ni misetaru de!  (It’s been a blast so I’ll show y’all!)

Looking through the photos of the Japanese gardens the first thing you will notice is the lack of grass and instead an abundance of  mosses.  The primary ground cover is moss, and there is a large variety of moss species, liverworts, and allies cultivated in the gardens.  These delicate plants are maintained by careful gardeners who can be seen wearing leather boots with softened rubber soles to avoid excess damage to the ground cover.  Their brooms are  even made with light tree twigs in place of a standard iron rake to  avoiding injury to the mosses.  Daily they sweep fallen leaves from the moss to ensure it will not be covered and killed. 

Aside from rocks and sand, a number of trees and bushes form the other visual elements of the garden.  Matsu (pine), takei (bamboo), sakura (cherry), kaede (maple), and momo (plum) take the place of stem plants.  The tough and stiff Matsu with needle leaves is resembles twisted moss-covered wood in our aquascapes.  Kaede and softer trees remind me of Rotalas and Ludwigias species.  Ferns, smaller bushes and a number of other plants find their places.  While Aquascaping and gardening are obviously different disciplines with obviously different available elements, it is clearly visible how they can be connected.

Aquascaping design guides and tutorials from the planted aquarium community cover similar features found in Japanese gardening.  Aquascapers frequently references  visual techniques that include an off-set positioning of rocks and the use of negative space.  I noticed that while the basic composition (types of plants and materials used) are clearly different in Japanese Gardens and our aquascapes, the basic artistic principles are essentially the same. The elements used in both fields serve to present a variety of contrasting textures/impressions to the viewer. 

For instance, the wide and spacious areas in the Kenrakuen Garden consists of  few plants outside of moss, pines, ferns (growing on their own), and small bushes.  There are only a few areas designated for displaying showier trees like ume. Despite this lack of variation in plant types, contrast is built in the overall layout, much like in the aquarium.  Similarly to how Japanese-style Aquascapes are designed considering the need to trim stems, and thus rely on the hardscape to provide the overall shape, in a real garden the same hardscape and foundational structures maintain the overall shape of the garden. Even when a certain tree is not in perfect bloom or autumn color, the overall impression of the gardens remains the same.  A Japanese Aquascape or Garden is designed a similar way to showcase the overall beauty of the scape despite not having all the aquatic plants trimmed or the in full show.

However not all elements found in Japanese gardens coexists with aquarium aquascapes. While many aquascapes rely on plants like Anubias and Cryptocorynes to break up the monotony that results from using only small leaved species, Japanese gardens thrive by using a variety of  small leaf plants that do not require a large center piece plant or tree.  I thought that was strange.

In terms of building contrast though, the more levels of differentiation one can make in the aquarium, the more visual interest is possible.  For instance, if one has a sand foreground, than adding a small plant like Hemianthus callitrichoides (HC) can build one more level of variation to the scape.  You can continue to build upon the contrast levels.  For example,   sand > HC > Hair grass > Crypts > Hardscape > Background Plants. The more levels that are possible, the more contrasting points of interests can be achieved. 

Real Japanese gardens have water, sand, and moss that resemble what we use as our foreground plants.   The difference is garden plants, despite their size, these terrestrial plants appear to have less presence than their comparative aquatic plant counterparts.  HC or mosses attached to driftwood take up more space in an area, but their impact is not as dramatic as small maple trees consisting of small leafs found in gardens. 

There are some garden elements absent in aquascapes that could be incorporated to reinvent aquascaping as we know it.  One example that comes to mind is the use of thin branches, which is usually not present in aquascapes but abudnant in Japanese Gardens. This is the point where an aquascaper should consider what he can do to imitate the things he feels, because it may require innovation from the norm, and the invention of a new way of presenting aquatic plants.

Japanese gardening and aquascaping are different art forms with different resources, but the visual rules and doctrines are shared by both and can give rise to ingenuity in artistic design.  It is up to the aquascaper of how much and how to follow.  The best way to understand and appreciate is to see it for oneself. Itsuka Kansai he asonde kite na~. Honma shizen de kandousuru ya wa.  “Come hang out in Kansai!  You’ll truly be touched by the nature there.”






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