Ryoan-ji Zen Garden, Kyoto, Japan, illustrates the harmony between earth, land and sky, which is typical in Zen gardening. (photograph by Q.T. Luong, courtesy Terra Galleria Photography).

As an island, Japan historically endured long periods of isolation. But an early outside influence was brought by missionaries who journeyed there in the 12th century to preach Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhism introduced spiritual simplicity and Taoism, the interplay of yin (soft) and yang (hard), as forces of nature. The Japanese formed the word, wabi-sabi, to mean simplicity, beauty and harmony in life and with nature. This notion contributed to a distinctive art form, which included painting, writing, architecture and gardening, and music.

Japanese painting is mainly watercolours. Valued for the smooth flow of colour and texture and therefore for depicting nature, they portray subjects like a monk contemplating a waterfall or birds nestled in wind-blown trees. Haiku, a 3-line style of poetry, is filled with myth and paradox in order to capture an instant of a person interacting with nature. Calligraphy, or sho, imbues words with personality.

Architecture and gardening use natural materials and the focus is on the interaction between indoors and outdoors. Zen gardening is a "dry style" garden, where rocks form islands and sand resembles flowing water. Islands symbolize longevity and good health, connected and crossed by bridges to reach the seas, metaphorically offering different perspectives on life.

In traditional music, which accompanies dance or pantomime, the notes represent the 5 elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, and are played, in turn, on 8 instruments of bells (metal), stone chimes (stone), ocarina (earth), drums (leather), stringed instruments (silk), wind instruments (wood), mouth organ (gourd) and flute (bamboo).

Western culture has since adopted these art forms in daily life. Zen gardens soothe us, calligraphy adorns our most stylish stationery, and Haiku poems help to express our innermost thoughts.

Learn more: Japanese Gardens in The Canadian Encyclopedia
Themes in the history of Japanese garden art