My energy renewed by the sea air and sunshine during the crossing to Itsukushima (or Miyajima meaning Shrine Island as it’s more commonly called), I make a couple of decisions. I decide to stroll in the direction of the giant torii first. After that, I will simply wander wherever my feet lead without much forethought and be present wherever I am.
Before I get to a good spot from which to view the torii, two pruners tackling a young, shoreline pine catch my eye. It’s a scene familiar all over Japan. Agile, uniformed men wearing split-toed shoes perched on ladders, making trees appear more natural.
What visitors looking at Japanese garden landscapes may not realize is that the vista is more than meticulous grooming and sophisticated garden design. Although it doesn’t look it, a Japanese garden scene is fundamentally unnatural because it is manipulated and cultivated according to refined aesthetic rules which reach back for centuries.
Within a Japanese garden view, symbols are created from living and organic things. In both Buddhist and Shinto traditions, mountains are sacred, islands representative of eternity and pines symbolic of immortality. All are believed to be inhabited by kami (or spirit). Therefore, the raked gravel may denote an ocean or river; a sculpted tree may epitomize a mountain or a dragon. A rock may embody an archetypal animal or reference another landscape.
Thus, people find Japanese gardens affectingly beautiful for the same reasons they find cathedrals awe inspiring: for their architecture, iconography, design and invocation of the gods.
Over time, the shoreline pine these pruners tackle today will look as if the wind has created its curvature and blown away obstructing branches to best reveal its muscular lines. This Miyajima pine is more than a tree; it’s a work of art.