Peace and Harmony in St. Louis?

| Senior Scene Editor

We always want what we can’t have. This is a pretty widely accepted fact of life, hence the old adage “the grass is always greener on the other side.” In most cases, this doesn’t actually refer to grass, but in this case you’re allowed to take the phrase literally.

Many of the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ landscapes have been revered for their beauty and authenticity. The Japanese garden in particular has garnered national attention and is known as the largest traditional Japanese garden in North America. While this is certainly a feat in itself, shouldn’t this garden be compared to its counterparts in Japan, rather than the U.S.?

St. Louis’ 14-acre Japanese garden is called Seiwa-en, which translates to “garden of harmony and peace.” It captures several essential components of Japanese landscape art, including the ancient principles of simplicity and asymmetry. For centuries, Japanese people have had the highest regard for the simplicity of nature and have sought to recreate it and capture its spirit. Japanese gardens are meant to do just that—capture the spirit and whimsy of nature in its purest form.

For example, rocks in the garden are most often found in groups of 3, 5 and 7 to represent the imperfection and asymmetry of nature, yet patrons are meant to stroll through the gardens without noticing this, as they are meant to be too caught up in the seemingly unaffected tranquility of the landscape. This is an old concept in traditional landscape design, which the St. Louis Seiwa-en, for the most part, upholds beautifully.

In some ways, St. Louis’ Seiwa-en is similar to Japan’s famous Koishikawa Korakuen, located in the Iidabashi district of Tokyo. While Koishikawa was constructed during the Edo period, Seiwa-en was built in the mid 20th century but was modeled after Japanese gardens of the Edo era. Both gardens feature a large lake with man-made islands in the center. Both are large strolling gardens, which reproduce scenes from traditional Japanese art and poetry in miniature, as authentic Japanese gardens are meant to do.

Both represent water in all its forms, as traditional strolling gardens should; Seiwa-en and Koishikawa juxtapose large and small bodies of water, as well as still and moving water. Visitors of both gardens can enjoy not only the central lakes, but the waterfalls and streams as well.

Seiwa-en, however, combines this wet garden style with dry gardens. Dry gardens, more commonly known as “Zen gardens,” are smaller and consist of sand and rocks rather than water and islands. The rocks are meant to mimic islands while the sand represents the water, and is often raked into careful designs to simulate the ripples and lapping waves of the ocean. In Japan, it is rare to see these two garden styles combined into one landscape, but Seiwa-en takes this risk. Though not quite traditional, the blend of these two styles is subtle enough that even staunch Japanese traditionalists would not be offended.

The main area in which Seiwa-en falls short of all traditional gardens in Japan is the reflections off the water. Japanese gardens are meant to have highly reflective water surfaces to create strong reflections of the surrounding foliage. The lakes of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace’s East Garden are some of the strongest examples of this. The water is kept so clear and so still that every cherry blossom petal is visible in its reflection.

These essential reflections create a sense of timelessness as forms continue on endlessly in the water, which adds to the tranquil meditative qualities of the garden.

Unfortunately, Seiwa-en’s lake is murky and entirely non-reflective, which makes the beautiful trees and flowers seem to stop abruptly, interrupting viewers’ thoughts and feelings.

While Seiwa-en might be missing certain elements that famed Japanese gardens couldn’t do without, it is still as authentic of a Japanese experience as you’ll find here in St. Louis. So in this case, yes, the grass is slightly greener on the other side, but why not take advantage of the still-very-green grass on this side of the world instead?

Seiwa-en is open during the Missori Botanical Gardens’ normal hours: 9am-5pm daily, except December 25th. Admission: $8 for adults, different rates may apply for special events. Check www.mobot.org for more information.