(This article was originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of SHAKKEI, The Journal of the Japanese Garden Society, NAJGA's affiliate organization in The United Kingdom. The author is the Honorary Vice-President of the Japanese Garden Society.)
I recently attended the second conference of the North American Japanese Garden Association, which was held at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was invited to give a lecture, my subject being Japanese Gardens in a Healing Context, in which I referenced and showed images of gardens the JGS has built at Willowbrook Hospice, Hatch Mill Nursing Home and Bury Hospice. I also showed Maureen Busby’s rooftop garden at the Great Ormond Street Hospital which members of JGS look after. Jill Raggett, who attended the first conference two years ago, was also a speaker in Chicago, so JGS was well represented.
The North American Japanese Garden Association was formed a few years ago by Steve Bloom, CEO of the Portland Garden; Jeanette Schelin, Director of the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden in Los Angeles; and Dr. Kendall Brown, Professor of Asian Art History in the School of Art at California State University Long Beach. Steve Bloom was the first President of NAJGA, Kendall Brown being the current President. The Association is different from JGS in that its members are representatives of the large public gardens in the US and Canada: people who are garden designers, garden constructors, garden maintenance specialists and also some academics in the field of Japanese arts. Essentially a professional and trade organisation although there are a few members of the general public who have an interest in Japanese gardens. This was their second bi-annual conference, the first being in Denver in 2012.
The NAJGA membership profile reflects the different nature of Japanese gardens in North America when compared with the UK. There are many more public gardens, mostly much bigger than anything we have in the UK (that at the Chicago Botanic Garden covering 17 acres for example), consequently requiring a significant body of experienced professionals to look after them. In addition, new large gardens are being created, with recent ones focusing on healing. Also there are clearly some very significant private gardens that similarly require expert maintenance.
The five themes of the conference were: Health and Wellbeing, Design and Maintenance, Garden History, Education and Cultural Programming, and Business in the Garden. The 37 lectures were grouped into these themes, with sometimes four lectures going on at the same time, spread over the three days of the conference.
The conference was set up and run by Diana Larowe, Executive Director of NAJGA and her assistant, Kanako Yanagi. It was organizationally complex and was extremely well run in all aspects. The venue was excellent - Chicago Botanic Garden is huge, well endowed and consequently well cared for. It has a 17 acre Japanese garden with many old and well pruned pines. I suspect all the Japanese gardens in the UK would fit into this space.
There were 200 delegates, mostly US citizens including a significant number of Japanese, some Canadians, some Japanese from Japan and two of us from UK (Jill Raggett and myself). Delegates were generally ‘in the trade’ with only a few ordinary folk who just had an interest. As well as NAJGA members described above, there were representatives of large garden companies in Japan and representatives of the Garden Society of Japan, an association of leaders of garden companies, and Dr Makoto Suzuki, Director of the Tokyo Nodai Center for International Japanese Garden Studies. And JGS, of course. Jill Raggett attended as an academic at Writtle College, having also presented at the first conference in Denver two years ago. I attended as a representative of the JGS (though self-funded).
Clearly Japanese gardens are a significant source of employment for many people in the US and Canada. There were specialists in building Sukiya-style buildings, ‘aesthetic pruners’, even specialist moss growers. In the UK we are tiny minnows in comparison, with no trade organisation, nor sufficient numbers to warrant forming one. This was a surprise to the US delegates I spoke to.
It was a great opportunity to meet and network with a wide range of people from the delegate group. Meeting the delegates was one of the main reasons for attending – the chance to meet important people and establish relationships with them. In return there was a very strong interest from the garden representatives for us to visit them and several potential speakers were interested in being invited to speak in the UK.
The plenary sessions were excellent. The opening one was from Hoichi Kurisu, a highly revered designer of gardens in the US including many ‘healing’ gardens. ‘HK’, as he is known, talked about the increasing need for gardens as more and more people live in cities, predicted to be 80% by mid century. His theme was the need for more ‘ma’ or space in our lives, gardens being a very good source.
On the final day Dr Tomoki Kato, head of the largest garden company in Kyoto, spoke about the role of garden companies in maintaining the important gardens in Kyoto. His company looks after Murin-an amongst others and he explained how they had been undertaking serious long-term pruning work to restore the garden’s ‘Shakkei’ line to what was originally intended. He explained the company philosophy of considering maintenance as ‘fostering’, giving it a different connotation and long-term aspect, with a corresponding change in attitude of the company workers.
A final plenary session was hosted by Portland Japanese Garden, with Steve Bloom, Chief Executive Officer; Sadafumi Uchiyama, Garden Curator; and Diane Durston, Curator of Culture, Art and Education at the garden. Steve outlined a plan to set up a Japanese Garden Institute for Japanese Arts and Cultures, based in Portland. This would include an Academy for training in Japanese garden techniques and skills, with certification for successful attendees.
I attended all the sessions on Healing and Wellbeing, learning of several major and very successful projects in the US, mostly designed by Hoichi Kurisu. All these projects were on a huge scale, dwarfing what we have done in the UK. However people were genuinely impressed by what they saw that we had achieved on very small budgets.
On the final day, I took part in a formal signing of the Accord between JGS and NAJGA. At the same ceremony another Accord was signed between NAJGA and the Garden Society of Japan.
Value to JGS
It was undoubtedly important for JGS to be seen at the conference, as it puts us ‘on the map’ so to speak. The public signing of the Accord signalled our importance. Personal contacts are particularly important and we will be following up on these over the coming year.
There was great interest in Shakkei and our plan to have it available via Pay-Pal (I had taken as many as I could carry, including some of our 20th anniversary edition as well as some copies of the Visions of Paradise booklet). Once Shakkei is available more easily overseas I think that we could expect, maybe initially by invitation, contributions from NAJGA members.
One outcome of the conference is a potential trip for JGS members to gardens on the West coast of Canada and the US. Managers of gardens there were very keen for us to visit and I am sure we would be made most welcome. This will be followed up in the coming months.