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How Do Japanese Gardens Stimulate the Mind?

Japanese gardens are a thing of beauty, but can they take us on a psychological journey as well as a visual one?

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The natural world has been a source of calm and serenity for as long as we can remember. There’s nothing quite like being in the great outdoors and being at one with the world around us to really shift our perspective and clear our brains of the unwanted or the stressful. Gardens, with their intricately designed aesthetics and carefully chosen elements, are not only a source of relaxation and natural landscape, but a place of contemplation. 

Japanese gardens are especially known to evoke these kinds of feelings from their viewers and have a rich history that reaches as far back as over 1,000 years go. While Eastern cultures have long been aware of the many benefits that these gardens have on the mind, it’s only recently that this philosophy has transitioned to Western culture and Japanese gardening has become a keen hobby for so many, with Japanese plants and Japanese garden tools more popular than ever. But just what is it about a traditional Japanese garden that evokes such responses from us?

The history of the Japanese garden

One of the deep rooted beliefs when it comes to Japanese gardens is the concept of green space as a calming presence, both for the mind and the body. In fact, many Japanese gardens are known as ‘Healing Gardens’, mainly due to the Eastern idea that landscape and nature can physically impact and improve our health. In western society, we are often removed from the natural world whether we like to believe it or not; we live side by side with the outdoors as opposed to integrating with nature and all it has to offer. 

The Japanese garden takes this concept of unity with the natural world and elevates it to something resembling a small, personal paradise for the individual. This paradise is achieved in two ways.

Firstly, by the design of the garden itself, which incorporates specific elements to ensure maximum relaxation and to encourage specific psychological patterns to occur. Secondly, by the way in which the viewer is encouraged to interact with the environment and how they perceive the space. 

In traditional Japanese beliefs, the garden becomes an anthropomorphised being that becomes alive thanks to the involvement of the viewer. They and the garden share an intimate experience wherein the garden comes alive and the viewer is opened up to new ways of perceiving the world.

A Japanese garden, therefore, is designed to evoke a sense of wonder and serenity that is difficult for us to access in our day-to-day lives. The Japanese garden experience is the opposite of that. It is peaceful, personal and deep.

Imagination

The design of a Japanese garden is crucial to how the individual experiences it. The intricacy with which each plant is placed and each choice is made is vital in creating a series of patterns that evoke the imagination, no matter how small the space. Even the tiniest gardens are able to create layers, texture and patterns in order to evoke this response. 

It is these layers and differences in each and every corner that allow the individual to actively engage with the experience in front of them and move through the space with a sense of curiosity and creativity. The combination of stones, water, leaves, paths leading to fountains and the contrast between carefully planted flowers and moss left to make its own path. These elements do not allow you to be a passive bystander, but an active participant. 

Discovery

The Japanese garden is supposed to be designed with an element of mystery, to keep the viewer exploring and wondering. It is not supposed to be a static experience, but rather an adventure where in order to see everything, there will always be an element of surprise. However, it is not just the process of physical discovery that makes the Japanese garden so special. The journey of mental discovery is just as special and extremely personal.

A Japanese garden offers the perfect environment for a journey of self discovery and reflection. Zen gardens, for example, are specifically designed for providing a meditative space. Every type of Japanese garden, however, offers a space removed from the outside world and is the perfect place to be still and contemplate, even if you are not necessarily inspired to perform a yoga routine or meditate. 

Sensory engagement 

A Japanese garden is a sea of sensory discovery, created to link both the mind and the body as one fluid entity. The combination of both man made elements as well as wild, untamed areas such as moss and other greenery is not only a feast for the eyes, but also all of our senses. Each specific aspect of a Japanese garden is meticulously planned in order to achieve this sensory experience. 

For example, the way that Japanese gardens utilise texture and materials not only carries specific spiritual meanings in Japanese culture that are said to aid the mind, but also provide a push and pull for our senses. Various plants allow us to feel and see, flowers offer us a beautiful spell, whereas hidden fountains and creeks give us an auditory experience that is soothing and stimulating. 

Effects on the mood

It should be no surprise that a tranquil space such as a Japanese garden can evoke a feeling of peace and calm for the person experiencing it. However, research has actually proven this to be the case. A 2013 study, testing several different types of gardens including a Japanese tea garden, revealed that the tea garden evoked the greatest emotional responses from their audience. It was reported that it lowered their pulse rate and had a soothing effect on their mood shortly after visiting.

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Ultimately, Japanese gardens exist to blend the human mind and emotion with the natural world and everything that entails. It provides a unique balance of manmade intervention and also allows nature to run its course in a way that reminds the viewer that we are truly connected to the world around us. For many people, not just in Japan but also in the West, gardens are seen as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, whether it’s to find a spark of creativity, de-stress, or even become excited by something so far removed from the modern, metropolitan world. 

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