On October 24, 2015, Kyoko Kurita, Professor of Japanese in the Dept. of Asian Languages and Literatures at Pomona College and Co-Principal Investigator of EnviroLab Asia, brought her students to visit the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden in Pasadena, CA. Here she reflects upon the trip. 

What is a garden? The very idea of it expresses the relationship of people with their natural environment.  In the West, Versailles is often cited as a prime example of how the power of reason, expressed in symmetry and geometric pattern, dominates garden design, and therefore the world.  A Japanese garden, or a Zen garden, expresses a very different relationship between humans and the natural environment: more of a dialogue or a negotiation, a skillful accommodation of what nature provides, featuring balanced asymmetry among other aesthetic principles.

On a pleasant autumn weekend, the students in my class, “Time & Space in Modern Japan,” and in my Advanced Japanese class, went to Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden to see an example of how Japanese traditionally expressed the relationship between Nature and humans.

Japanesegarden_students in structure

The current Garden and the tea house on the premises unfortunately do not retain the original design, drawn by a Japanese immigrant nearly a century ago.  A fire in 1981 destroyed the tea house, and the highway and urbanization around it have gradually been encroaching on the peaceful environment.  In recent years the garden has been suffering from a serious drought, and although there is still a pond by the tea house, most of the vegetation looks rather parched.  The meticulous grooming of the trees and bushes that symbolizes a traditional Japanese garden is not present here.  What the visitor can glean from this place is a blend of the Japanese and Californian approaches to taming the natural environment.

Nevertheless, in this garden of mixed heritage, in the midst of declining natural surroundings, we transported ourselves for a while into an ideal world where the humans and Nature happily coexist.

Each student took a picture of one area of the garden, and wrote a story or a poem, using the image as a starting point of their musings.  My hope was that this would enact to some degree the way in which the idea of a garden, Japanese or Western, manifests one’s own construct of the relationship between Nature and humans.  And that the students would in the future try to incorporate that dream into reality in one way or another.