“We would like to express the story in the garden, allowing viewers to enjoy Japanese culture and understand our aesthetic sense.”

Japan Week, an annual showcase of Japan’s many charms, will be returning to Grand Central Station from March 8 to 10. The centerpiece of the event, now in its sixth year, will be a Zen garden––complete with rocks, trees, and white sand––that is created overnight. The team behind this magical project is Yuri Ugaya (the garden designer), Kensaku Yamaguchi (a niwashi* Japanese gardener), and Tatsuhiko Kobayashi (also a niwashi Japanese gardener). Chopsticks NY sat down to talk with them about this garden project.

Could you explain the difference between a Western-style garden and a Japanese garden?

Ugaya: I think the biggest difference is that a Japanese garden calls up the imagination of the viewer. If you don’t have some basic knowledge of Japanese garden design––enough to know that a rock formation can represent a waterfall, a rock might suggest an island, and wavy patterns created by white pebbles signify the ocean, for example––it might be hard to understand the theme of a garden, and your garden-viewing experience could end up being monotonous. Your imagination, however, can open up the world of the garden even without any prior exposure to Japanese design. You can imagine whatever you want when you look at a Japanese garden, and I think that’s a very important part and the great charm of Japanese gardens. In order to express this charm, we use simple materials: rocks, sand, moss, trees, et cetera. Western gardens, best exemplified by French gardens, express beauty through extravagance, by adding colors and manipulating the shapes of trees. In contrast, the heart of Japanese gardens is the beauty of minimalism––how much you can sharpen and refine things. I want viewers to enjoy these differences.

I heard you are planning to reproduce the Zen garden from Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto.

Ugaya: The basic concept and appearance are similar to that of the garden, but we have arranged our version to add a little more impact for viewers. It’s going to be about 40 by 20 feet, so it will be quite a big garden.

What are some of the challenges in creating such a big Japanese Zen garden indoors?

Yamaguchi: When it comes to karesansui (a “dry landscape” style used in China and Japan) or Zen gardens, rocks are the backbones. We had a very hard time finding rocks for the garden here. In Japan, when we drive on highways, we suddenly come upon interesting rocks on mountains, and we often use rocks we found this way. In a way, we shine a light on ordinary rocks. Here in the U.S., there is no such idea, and they don’t sell rocks that we want.

Kobayashi: They sell stone materials for architecture, but the ordinary rocks and stones we want are not considered to have any retail value. But we really want those ordinary rocks! [Laughs]  We love the way a rock sits, its expression, its rough surface, and its weathered texture, but it was hard to make people understand the nuances we enjoy.

Ugaya: We would say, “We want that weathered rock,” and they would say with a laugh, “Oh no, that’s not even for sale.” They just laughed and didn’t want to make deals. It’s probably because they don’t understand our aesthetic sense. We visited about 30 stone providers in three days, and finally we found one provider that carries interesting rocks such as ones with moss and ones in unusual shapes. This provider even had a rock that was cut by hand in the 1870s. At that point, I felt we finally encountered a person who could tell the story of rocks.

If even many stone professionals do not understand the Japanese appreciation of stones and rocks, perhaps it will be even harder for regular people to appreciate the garden.

Ugaya: That must be true. [Laughs] So we have given a story to our garden to make it easier for viewers.

What is the story going to be?

Ugaya: It’s a story about Oyashima (“eight big islands”) that is based on the story of Japan’s origin, written in the oldest Japanese book, the Kojiki. According to the book, the gods Izanagi and Izanami stirred the ocean with a spear and created an island. They landed on the island and got married there. Then they generated eight islands, the beginning of Japan. We would like to express this story in the garden, allowing viewers to enjoy Japanese culture and understand our aesthetic sense.

How will you present the garden?

Ugaya: We plan to put trees in the back as a focal point, which can be seen from passersby on the walkway. I want people to think, “Oh there are trees in Grand Central Station. What’s going on?” We will make it visible from three directions.

Kobayashi: Viewers can enjoy different views depending on which side they stand.

How about lighting?

Ugaya: The lighting plan is still under development, but we would like to spotlight one main rock that we think is most attractive. Also, we want people to see the sand patterns, so we will create deeper patterns to make them more visible. I believe there is no garden like this in the Western world––it can be enjoyed as an artistic piece.

When will you start setting up?

Ugaya: At midnight on the day of the event. We only have ten hours.

While you were doing research and looking for materials for this project, did you find anything you would like to use in a future project?

Yamaguchi: America is huge, and I am amazed that there are so many varieties of stones and rocks in the U.S., so many colors and textures. So I have begun to think about creating gardens using a variety of stones and rocks.

Kobayashi: In Japan, we don’t always see stones as architectural materials, but I think it would be a good idea to make some patterns using various types of stones. It does not have to be a building but could be an interior piece like a countertop.

How about trees? Were they also hard to find?

Yamaguchi: Look at my face. It was so exhausting to find them! [Laughs]

Ugaya: We are going to procure all the materials for the garden locally. We believe that viewers will identify with the garden more if it’s made with local materials. We would like to suggest to them that it is not so difficult to make a Japanese garden with easily accessible stones and trees.

Please pick your favorite Japanese garden.

Yamaguchi: I like gardens made by Mirei Shigemori, a gardener in the early Showa period (1926–1989). His style is described as “Eternal Modern,” and he did not compromise himself just to follow traditions but constantly tried something new. The garden that I love can be seen at the Mirei Shigemori Garden Museum, but you need a reservation to see it. But you can see his garden in Tofuku-ji Temple without a reservation.

Kobayashi: My favorite garden, at the Sento Imperial Palace, also requires a reservation to see. What I like about the garden is the beautiful curved lines formed by the pond and land. It’s an upscale garden designed in the Edo period (1603–1868), and it is elegant.

Ugaya: I recommend Koto-in inside Daitoku-ji Temple. The small garden really calms your mind. When you stand at the entrance, you’ll see a beautiful stone-paved pathway surrounded by bamboo and maple trees. When you go inside, a space with moss, maple trees, and bamboo spreads out in front of you. And a tiny little stone lantern stands alone in the garden. The garden represents a quiet scene in a deep forest on a mountain, and the way in which the lantern is arranged is rather gallant. I have taken many of my clients, including visitors from the U.S., to the garden, and they seemed to be absorbed in the simplicity and overwhelmed by the atmosphere.

Speaking of a quiet atmosphere, we usually enjoy Japanese gardens in serene environments. Grand Central, however, has a lot of traffic and is noisy. How can you create a Zen garden there?

Ugaya: By creating a calm spot inside this busy, noisy area, I want busy New Yorkers to have a moment of relaxation. Just stop by and take some time to calm yourself. It’s okay if it’s just ten seconds, or if you like, you can stay there for 30 minutes, one hour, or more. I want New Yorkers to feel and enjoy the moment.

*Niwa means “garden” and shi means “expert,” so niwashi is used to refer to a Japanese garden expert, someone who can create gardens as well as care for them.


(From left to right)

Kensaku Yamaguchi: Born in Miyazaki Prefecture, he started his career as a niwashi gardener. After working for a major landscape design company in Kyoto, he established his own company, Shougetsusha.

Yuri Ugaya: Born in Kyoto, she attended Doshisha University, Hyogo Prefectural Awaji Landscape Planning and Horticulture Academy, and Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. She currently works as a garden designer and consultant in Kyoto.

Tatsuhiko Kobayashi: Born in Saitama Prefecture, this assistant TV director turned niwashi gardener worked for a major landscape design company in Kyoto. He resides in Kyoto and now runs his own company, Tatsuzouen.

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