Landscape Architecture Magazine



Decoding Japanese garden design one stone at a time.


“Squat and move it counterclockwise, clockwise, repeat, and repeat again,” Tomohiko Muto says as he motions to the American landscape professionals gamely trying to move a chunk of Columbia River Gorge basalt. The centerpiece rock they’ve selected for their project forms a natural water basin, the result of a depression created at the break point of columnar basalt. The stone’s heft eventually requires a dolly.

Under the guidance of Muto and other instructors from Japan, the students are engaging in tactile learning at a new program developed, in the main, by Sadafumi Uchiyama, ASLA, the curator at the Portland Japanese Garden (PJG) in Portland, Oregon.

Like many of his predecessors in Japan, Uchiyama hews to tradition in the Japanese gardens he creates. But his latest endeavor reveals an iconoclastic bent. Through an unusual seminar first offered this past summer as part of the PJG’s new International Japanese Garden Training Center, he hopes to debunk the long-held myth that “90 percent of Japanese gardening is secret, unteachable,” he says. “I dispute that.”

Instructor Kazuo Mitsuhashi (left) helping participants select stone for their projects. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Uchiyama is a third-generation gardener. He studied with his grandfather, father, and uncles in Japan, as the craft is not taught in schools or universities. But at age 18, rather than join the profession, he left Japan to see the world. He worked on planning and reforestation projects in places such as Yemen and became aware of landscape architecture. In 1988, he came to the United States, earned a BLA and an MLA at the University of Illinois, and stayed. Seven years later, he joined the PJG, a return, in essence, to his roots.

The intensive, hands-on training course that he and PJG colleagues created brings to fruition an idea he carried around for 20 years: teaching North Americans the gardening skills and approaches that lie inside Japanese garden masters’ heads. The resulting 12-day immersive seminar, which this year had 16 participants, plus four instructors and several translators, is designed around his belief that a majority of Japanese gardening know-how can be taught. What cannot, he says, “the body learns” through experience.

Until now, most anyone seeking in-depth guidance from Japanese master gardeners had to travel to Japan, says Kristin Faurest, the director of the Japanese Garden Training Center. That requires time, money, Japanese language skills, and finding a master under whom to work. The PJG seminar, called Hands and Heart, teaches Japanese aesthetics, garden history and design, stone selection and placement, Japanese tool use, and pruning. Participants also engage in a morning tea ceremony to understand a Japanese garden’s cultural underpinnings and observe how Japanese garden masters behave. Kazuo Mitsuhashi, a Tokyo native and a tea garden craftsman for more than 40 years, says, “I hope students learn not just the material we teach but who we are as Japanese people and how we present ourselves, in ways that can lead to their own practice in the garden.”

Yamaguchi teaching pruning. Photo by Kristin Faurest.

The audience for the seminar is mainly midcareer professionals working in public Japanese gardens in North America, which is who attended the pilot seminar in 2016. But Faurest says the program’s focus has broadened given the interest among landscape design and construction professionals as well as students. Seminar leaders believe the ecological principles that Japanese gardening has encompassed for 1,000 years—gardening in tight spaces, managing stormwater in aesthetically pleasing ways, and planting trees in clusters and at angles as they thrive in nature—are relevant to all 21st-century landscapes, Japanese or not.

Among Uchiyama’s challenges is helping instructors articulate their thought process. Craftsmen in Japan aren’t trained to teach, he says. That means Japanese gardening “isn’t accessible to people who want to learn it,” he says, “and nothing’s on paper.” (At Japan’s universities, students generally can only study Western landscape architecture, which was introduced in the 1920s.) “Garden craftsmen are poor at explaining,” he says. But they can learn, as he himself has. He strives to get instructors to answer the question he was forced to consider years ago when a University of Illinois teacher asked him why he moved a rock a certain way. “I never thought about it, I just did it,” he says.

Compounding the teaching challenge is the fact that Japanese garden craft, as described by Marc Peter Keane in a talk this past summer in Portland, is “free jazz,” with few rules. Uchiyama tells students that in placing rock, 20 percent can be learned from a textbook, but 80 percent is “application that often diverts from or contradicts the norm.”

After four days of classroom and studio work, this year’s students were bused to Smith Rock, a quarry in southeast Portland. They were told to dress for hard labor. Under the guidance of an instructor, each of four groups was given three days to design from scratch a tsukubai, a place for guests to purify themselves before attending a tea ceremony. It contains a short path leading to a water basin surrounded by stones traditionally meant to hold specific objects such as a lantern. In Japan, says Uchiyama, the national exam for garden craftsmen allots students only four hours, working alone, for the same task.

To plot the site, teachers suggested that students first decide on basin placement. “Back up, get a wide-radius view,” the instructor Muto, from Kyoto, gently told his group. Then, “kneel up close to where the basin will be and take in the view, the trees behind.” Uchiyama urged his group, “Less talking. Use your eyes.” Students have the pick of the rock yard. Moving heavy rock themselves is new to some participants, and that’s intentional. In Japan, garden craftsmen design, install, and maintain their creations themselves.

Bonnie Bruce, a landscape designer from Portland specializing in ecological gardening in small spaces, says that learning about the weight of stone and its importance to the whole will cause her to design differently.

Steven Pitsenbarger, a gardener at the Japanese Tea Garden at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is used to physical work. Halfway through the seminar, his biggest takeaway was a design module where participants were asked to bring a real-life problem to the group. Referring to a sunken garden space he’s been wrestling with, he says, “The group not only gave me ideas for what changes are possible to make, but how to look at the process of deciding what changes need to be made.”

Sadafumi Uchiyama, ASLA, left, leads a seminar on Japanese garden design. Participant Alan Johnson and instructor Tomohiko Muto look on. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Uchiyama knows he can’t teach everything in less than two weeks. In the next few years, the PJG plans to begin offering beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, twice a year, with the hope that participants will attend all three seminars over a several-year period. “I know the complexity, the challenges,” he says. Other attempts to teach this art have failed owing to cultural differences, he says. Traditional craftsman that he is, he plans to be “slow, deliberate, and careful” about the program, learning from trial and error, and getting it right.

Apply for the 2018 seminars, July 19–30 (intermediate level) and September 20–27 (beginner level), at

Kyna Rubin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.