For centuries there have been few people on the earth who loved, appreciated and respected nature more than the people of Japan. The Shinto religion, Japan’s oldest religion and one of two major religions in Japan today, is basically a combination of ancestor and nature worship. The appreciation of nature may not be as strong today as it was a few decades ago, but it’s still strong. 

I recently watched a movie titled “The Last Samurai” in which Tom Cruise played the role of a U.S. military officer in the mid-1800s. That officer was hired by the government of Japan to go to Japan and teach the army of the Imperial government western military techniques to help overthrow an opposing army of samurai warriors. After a short period of training the Imperial army went into battle against his advice and he was wounded and captured. 

He was nursed back to health in a remote mountain village where he observed the life of the samurai and in one scene, which is the scene I’ll remember from the movie, he said to himself something to the effect that “I don’t understand the culture and customs I’ve seen here, but the beauty, harmony and serenity of the place bring about a sense of reverence.” There are many places in that small island nation where I’ve felt the same. But there are three places in particular which have been designated as Japan’s “Three Great Views” that elicit that feeling. 

A couple centuries ago after visiting these special places, and other places of significant beauty, some would try to emulate the scenes in miniature on their own property. These represented some of Japan’s earliest “landscape gardens”. Many, including myself, often describe Japanese landscape gardens as representing larger scenes in miniature. This is often, but not always, true. Some gardens are designed to have the opposite effect, to give the appearance of a much larger garden by using what is called “borrowed scenery”, usually nearby, or even somewhat distant mountains. One such garden is Entsu-ji in northeast Kyoto. 

On the east side of the relatively small stroll garden is a long well-trimmed hedge and beyond the hedge a grove of cypress trees with branches trimmed well up the trunks. The hedge and the trunks form a sort of frame and in that frame one sees Mt Hiei in the distance serving as borrowed scenery. At Ritsurin Garden, my favorite garden in Japan, the view across a large pond to mountains well beyond the actual boundary of the garden and what connects the garden to the mountains is the blue sky thus making the mountains and the sky as much a part of the garden as the pond. 

Using borrowed scenery one can consider the garden to be as large as desired and nature’s natural beauty and man-made beauty work together to create large and beautiful gardens where there’s almost always exceptional beauty, harmony, serenity and a sense of reverence.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.

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