The appeal of the Japanese garden really became established in Britain towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and with its unique blend of hard, man-made elements with softer natural features and deliberately calm atmosphere it has remained a firm favourite ever since. Many of the traditional elements of the true Japanese garden have specific cultural and often spiritual significance, making a fascinating study in itself, but it is not necessary to fully understand all of these to introduce something of the feel of the Orient to your own plot. With water forming the focal point of the whole scheme, there are few better ways to capture the atmosphere of Japan’s gardens than by creating a Japanese themed pond for yourself.
Moving water is a key component – traditionally prized for its ability to take our minds off day-to-day concerns. There are plenty of suitable styles which you can use and predictably, bamboo features heavily in many of the popular features for the Japanese water garden– with the Shishi-Odoshi (Deer Scarer) or Kalehi (Japanese Fountain) being the most commonly seen on offer.
The Shishi-Odoshi is a pivoted length of hollow bamboo on a wooden frame; water is pumped into it until the weight eventually makes it tip, emptying the water into the pond and the rear of the device knocking against a stone or wooden “stop” as it returns to begin filling again. The Shishi-Odoshi was originally designed for the rhythmic noise this makes – as a way to protect crops from grazing deer – but it has long since been adopted for its stylish elegance as a water feature in its own right. The Kalehi is a fairly simple bamboo spout, often splashing water onto a chozubachi or flat stone basin. There are a number of pond kits available that contain all you need to get started – containing the feature itself, a suitable pond pump and appropriate piping.
On a practical level, since plants play a very much smaller role in Japanese water garden landscaping, the splashing of moving water adds oxygen – much to the benefit of the fish that are an almost essential feature in oriental ponds.
In the typically Japanese way, the movement needs to be balanced by an area of calm water to inject a spot of reflection into the garden and lend the whole pond a feeling of quiet and tranquillity. The planting scheme around the water’s edge would normally be chosen to embody the changing seasons – azaleas and flowering cherries for the spring, summer irises and Acer for the warmth of its autumnal foliage.
In the main, Japanese landscaping adheres to the “less is more” principle – with individual features typically being positioned for maximum effect and are often highly symbolic. Many of these have their ancient origins in the rich mythology of ancient Japan; a stone, for instance, placed in a cascade represents a fish travelling up the waterfall to become a dragon. Even the smallest pond will have frog ornaments – designed to mock any demon that might wish you harm – while in large Japanese water features, zigzag bridges and stepping stones are often included to make sure that no evil spirits follow the unwary. Dragons and demons may not be exactly high on your own list of concerns, but adding a hint of these details can certainly help get the right feel.
An island – even if it’s a very small, symbolic one made of a well-chosen stone supported on brick pillars – is another feature that you might like to consider and if you have sufficient space, try to make sure that you can’t see all the water from any one vantage point. Japanese garden design is big on journeys – often using lights and carefully placed focal items to lead the visitor through the site; keeping part of the water hidden encourages a feeling that there is always something more to see. Finally, using Shioridro (bamboo screening) or Shiba-Gaki (thin timber screens) around the pond will finish the whole thing off with a definitely authentic look.
The true Japanese water garden is an art-form in itself which demands considerable skill and understanding on behalf of the gardener – and typically takes many years to develop. Adding a Japanese theme, however, is an easier proposition. With modern pond liners and the wide range of readily available pond supplies, bringing the sight and sound of Japan to any garden is probably easier now than it has ever been at any time since our fascination with the home of the Samurai first began.