Japanese Garden Notes…a review

One hundred magnificent gardens from Japan. One hundred thirty design elements. Marc Peter Keane.
A person could stop here and persuade many garden aficionados to pick up a copy of Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design (Stone Bridge Press, Albany, CA, 2017). But there is more. This is my early contender for garden book of the year.

There is not a gardener, of any kind, anywhere, that would not benefit from owning this book (and it must be owned…libraries are destined to lose their copies) and keeping it close at hand. It is that rare book that can be enjoyed all at once like cool water on a hot day, or returned to repeatedly for savoring in sips, like a fine, single-cask bourbon.

The book’s value to gardeners far exceeds what its modest title conveys. It is a rich source of information and advice for ANY kind of garden and not only those that are “Japanese” or so inspired. It is not just about “design”. It is elemental, fundamental, foundational in its approach to what gardeners do and why. It informs all gardening and garden design. If you’ve adopted these techniques instinctively, you’ll learn why they work and how to use them intentionally–and better.

From its beginning, “The gardener creates a design that submits gradually to nature’s touch,” to its last page, Japanese Garden Notes captivates. Keane moves seamlessly back and forth between dozens of gardens. Some are recognizable, others a delightful new discovery. The photography is exquisite, the text, poetic.

The book is divided into six major design topics that function as baskets to hold the tips and techniques of Japanese gardens and design. It is intensely visual. The text is sparse and often poetic. Combined with the captions on the photography it does an eloquent job of conveying what Keane wants us to learn. (And for you book fanatics, though many of the photographs are full page, the use of white space throughout the book is fantastic and enhances, rather than constricts, the content).

There is perhaps no culture that gardens with more thought, feeling, and care for the fine details. Because of this, people are often intimidated by Japanese gardens. In a fast-paced world, gardening this way is very deliberate and thoughtful. The Japanese have always known this but it’s cultural dissonance for many of us. This is one of the takeaways of the book. Gardening can be literally meditative and therapeutic.

It’s not too dramatic to say this is the distillation of a lifetime’s work. Keane has been doing this for decades, including 20 years designing and installing gardens IN Japan. Several of the most popular books on the subject are written, or co-written by him. More than most “shinnichi” (=Japanophiles), he knows whereof he speaks.

This is NOT just a “garden” book. It is a meditation. It is a love letter. It is the world’s longest haiku. Enjoy it at the speed you wish. It will leave you looking for more…and you can find it on page one.



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