When we told the taxi driver “Jardín Japonés,” he put the pedal to the metal and zoomed. Everyone knows the Japanese Garden in Bueños Aires, even in a city of a hundred parks. If we’d said “Belgian Square” or “Croatian Corner” it might be a different story, he might have crinkled his brow and shaken his head, but this is a real landmark. Once you see those bright red gates you don’t forget them. They are distinctive and alluring, suggesting that experience of exotic and calm awaits you if only you care to come hither.
Rain had been falling, so we expected to have the place to ourselves. In fact, the premises were full to bursting with people gathering to hear some ambassadors giving speeches to the accompaniment of Japanese easy-listening hits. A pleasant side effect of this big event, though, was that entry was free. The usual fee is 150 pesos, which is less than US$4 but I’d forgotten to bring enough cash with me for both the admission and the taxi ride. Already our expedition was propitious!
We passed through the magic gate and found ourselves in another, better world, pausing to read the big sign explaining how the place came to be. It was a pretty simple story: the Japanese Argentine Cultural Foundation secured a title to two hectares; the gardens were completed in 1967 and inaugurated by a State visit to Argentina by Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko.
What do you need to make a proper Japanese garden? Well, it turns out you need seven basic elements: water, rocks, bridges, gates, stone lanterns trees and fish. You also probably should be well versed in Japanese, geomancy, botany and steeped in several centuries of gardening tradition.
According to custom, the pond or ponds should be of an irregular shape and this one is. The Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making), the earliest text published on such matters (in the 11th century), recommends arranging the water feature:
“It is a good omen to make the stream arrive from the east, to enter the garden, pass under the house, and then leave from the southeast. In this way, the water of the blue dragon will carry away all the bad spirits from the house toward the white tiger.”
Another approved practice is to have an island in the middle of the pond. This serves as a stand-in for Penglai-Mountain-Island, the home of the Eight Immortals of Daoist belief. The island may include a little waterfall, in which case the water should face the moon to reflect its light. The one here seemed to fit the bill.
Rock is the yang to water’s yin, and there were plenty of rocks here. Sakuteiki says that rock placement is the most important part of gardening and even claims that the rock has its own ideas about what it wants to do; it’s the gardener’s job to humor it– kowan ni shitagau is the term. John approves. He tells me that the Japanese understand rocks. Some stuck right up out of the pond, I have read this is to suggest a heron or a leaping carp. Others lie low, indicative more of earth or a pillow, though you aren’t supposed to sit on them. Mostly they blend into the landscape pretty well.
There is something lovely about a bridge: the symmetry of the arc and also of the reflection, plus the nice sense of elevation. In a Japanese garden, it is not only a way to keep your feet dry but also a symbol of the path to paradise and immortality. Some are wooden, aged and cure in the elements for that wabi-sabi flavor. Others are stone or covered in earth and moss. These ones are wood painted red, following Chinese tradition.
Here and there I saw great stone lanterns and wondered what they were for. It turns out these are ishidoro or dai-doro. Originally they were used as votive lights at Buddhist temples, with the flame representing the Buddha and the whole representing the body’s return to the elements after death. In the sixteenth century, about the time when tea-houses became popular, they were used more generally to decorate and light the gardens.
Garden Fences and Gates
The garden is definitely an enclosed space. I think it has a fence but if so it seems like a benign encirclement rather than a cage. Perhaps that’s because the fence is not visible or noticeable from inside the garden due to all the foliage. The gates, as mentioned, are striking and red. There is also a gate in the pond for some reason.
Just as John was going crazy about the rocks, I noticed a delicious smell. It was coming from a juniper tree that was not exactly bonsai but seemed stunted and twisted by the elements, though this must have been an artificial effect because it wasn’t exactly growing on a wind-blown cliff in Norway. Further on, there were various other trees, most of them helpfully labelled both in Spanish and in Japanese. We had all the usual customers: cherry, plum, peach and pine. There were also some Argentine natives and eucalyptus. There was a whole corridor of cherry trees that must make a confetti-strewn aisle in spring, an excellent opportunity for hanami — the festival devoted to viewing the transient beauty of blossom.
The very first Japanese chronicle Nihon Shoki includes the following remarkable news update: “The Emperor Keiko put a few carp into a pond, and rejoiced to see them morning and evening.” This was somewhere between 13 BCE and 130CE, which shows you how long this koi-pond business has been going on. There must have been limited entertainment options if he was that enthralled. The fish we saw were lumpish and dull. If John wiggled his hat they chugged their way over and opened their mouths. Then they shut their mouths. Then they went underwater for a second. Then they came back up and opened their mouths again. Once or twice I thought they gave him a stern look. If you ask me, Emperor Keiko, or Ootarashihikooshirowake no Sumeramikoto as his friends called him, might have hired some musicians or acrobats. If he delighted in these goons, I feel sorry for him.
So, to sum up: water, rocks, trees, a stone lantern, gate, fish. These are the basics. You might want a teahouse (you might not). I would also recommend a cat. This one looked very comfortable and blended in pretty well.