The Nezu Museum in contrast to so-called Japanese gardens in the western world.

On a weekend day in early March, I visited the Nezu Museum in Tokyo’s Aoyama area.

I am not a great fan of museums. I never was.
While I have no problem with paying 500 Yen for visiting a garden, I have with paying 1000 Yen and know I will only visit and enjoy half of the facilities.
But like the people from the North of Germany say: Wat mutt, dat mutt.

This time was the second time I visited the Museum and already knew that the garden functions as an extension of the exhibition halls with masses of exhibits.

Moss covered lantern in the Nezu garden.

I always fear when foreigners visit the museum that they will think this garden represents a traditional Japanese garden and that they will go home and build one of the so-called Japanese gardens with lots of lanterns, buddhas, and pagodas.
I do not like them.. And I do not call them Japanese gardens. I am still searching for an appropriate term for them, which expresses that the owner hoped to build a Japanese garden but failed.
Sorry for being this straight, but someone has to (and we people from the North of Germany are known for being straight with using a minimal amount of words..).

A Japanese garden is not made by putting a couple of rocks in space, surrounding them with gravel, placing a curved bridge with no connection to anywhere and decorate everything with 10 Buddhas and 3 lanterns.
These gardens have their right to exist, but often not the right to call themselves Japanese gardens.

No lantern, pagoda or buddha needed!

Everyone who loves to look at pictures of traditional gardens in Japan will understand what I mean.

However, the Nezu Museum has a lot of these objects in its garden and it is not looking like the above-mentioned gardens at all!

A pagoda next to a teahouse.

How come?
We could guess it is because of the superiority of Japanese garden builders…
But I do not like it when anyone says that only Japanese can build nice Japanese gardens. There are too many examples out there where foreigners (foreign companies) did a really great job in creating an authentic-looking Japanese garden outside of Japan.
What I have to admit is that there are people without the sense for a good design. But to some degree, this sense can be trained by watching lots and lots of pictures and experience great gardens by visiting them. What helps too is learning from someone who is able to make great gardens. Observe from scratch how such a person is building a garden and ask questions about why setting a rock this way and not in another or why arranging flowers like that. This already helps a lot!
But back to the Nezu Museum and its fine garden.

A teahouse next to the pond with seasonal flowers in front.

The skeleton of the garden dates back to the early 20th century when Nezu Kaichiro bought the land, built his mansion and created the garden.
However, it was destroyed by fire bombings during WWII and needed to be re-created later.
What didn’t change was the style and the structure of the garden: it was a nature-like strolling garden with a pond in the middle.
That’s why today we have a pond as a central element with several paths leading around it and buildings placed here and there on the grounds.
It is neither a karesansui (dry landscape) garden nor a small garden like a tsuboniwa (courtyard garden).
What it has though, are several small tea gardens attached to the teahouses.

A lantern is lighting up the way to the teahouse.

When someone is planning a Japanese garden at home, he/she is often planning it as only a small part of the whole garden.
Here is where the first mistake happens…

A small garden in another style should either be skillfully connected to the other parts of the garden or it should be enclosed in a natural way.
If this was archived, putting too much in too little space can still easily ruin the garden later.
The Nezu Museum’s garden is very large and all objects are placed in great distances to each other except in places where it makes sense to assemble them like on the Potalaka Mountain, which is looking like a Buddhist temple site.
All other elements are wonderfully placed on the grounds like forgotten objects half recaptured by nature.
When putting a lot of elements like pagodas or lanterns in a small open space like a gravel garden, it looks too unnatural and not Japanese.

Nezu Museum, a nature-like retreat in the middle of Tokyo

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When the first stand-alone dry landscape gardens were created during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), the empty space or void became very important in these gardens. Sometimes more important than the rocks and plants placed in the gardens itself.
In the Nezu Museum, we have some void as well. The man-made nature can take it’s place and emphasize the objects.

A frightening face placed on the ridge ends of roofs.

When building a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand where and why the objects were traditionally placed.
Why and where to put a lantern? What is the purpose of a tsukubai? Are there buddhas in normal gardens? And what style of buddhas are used? Where are pagodas usually placed?

In the Nezu Museum, some of these rules were not followed. It’s still a Museum and wants its objects to be seen. There are many religious figurines along the roads, however, because they are not placed in a very obvious way, always alongside the path next to a bush or hidden in the undergrowth, they do not distract the eye.
Tsukubai are only found next to the teahouses, pagodas are always set a little bit far from the visitor up on a mountain.
And the smiling Buddha with a big belly? You can search for it, but will not find it..

A Buddha statue on the grounds of Nezu Museum.

I think although, or better, because the Nezu Museum is not what we call a traditional Japanese garden and doesn’t inherit a stone garden, it can teach a foreigner, who is planning to build a Japanese garden at home, a lot about how to find and create the Japanese spirit.
The garden can teach how to set objects effectually without disturbing the Japanese atmosphere, how to create interesting aspects and eye catchers in a garden, for example an interesting pathway, or how to use the topography of a garden or create a perspective to lead the visitor’s eye.

An informal garden path leading up to a resting place.
Creating an accent in a garden path.

I hope someday when I ask the Google Image Search, I will not see too many „not to be named Japanese gardens“ anymore but more real Japanese-looking and nice self-made gardens out there in the world.

Our goal at Real Japanese Gardens is to show the traditional gardens of Japan and let the world know about their beauty.
In our guidebooks, we want to educate about history, elements and the structure of the gardens described. By watching the pictures and reading the descriptions, you can learn what kind of objects are placed in which kind of garden and what kind of purpose they have.
We firmly believe in what is called Onko-chishin (温故知新) in Japanese – creating new things and discovering new truths by learning from history and tradition.
Visit our homepage for more beautiful pictures of Japanese gardens and have a look at our guide books!

Only very few lanterns are used in the garden of Taizo-in, which was built from 1963-1966.
Ryugen-in’s dry landscape garden without any unnecessary objects.
Toji-in with a pond garden. There is a hand-washing basin in front of the main building and a tsukubai and lantern near the teahouse on top of the hill.

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For more inspiration you can have a look into the following books:

Nezu Museum, a nature-like retreat in the middle of Tokyo

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Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design

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庭師とあるく京の隠れ庭 (Walking with a gardener through the hidden gardens of Kyoto) in Japanese

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Zen Gardens: The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno, Japan’s Leading Garden Designer

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Hidden Gardens of Japan 日本の秘庭

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和風建築 を彩る 庭園手法 (An Approach to Color in Japanese Landscape Architecture) in Japanese

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