Nami Urano 2024.03.13

A style of gardening that renews our sense of beauty and order

The gardeners of Shosei-en, in Kyoto, are practitioners of Art and Science

What comes to mind when you hear the words “Japanese Garden”? Mossy ground without a weed in sight, cleanly swept fallen leaves, or perfectly pruned trees? If that’s the case, when you set foot in Shosei-en, the garden featured in this article, you might be surprised to see grass growing and fallen leaves scattered on the ground. Understandably, your first reaction might be “this place isn’t very well cared for,” but what you are witnessing are the results of the daily trial and error painstakingly undertaken by a team of gardeners.

The English version of this article was translated by Sarah Burch
and edited by Judit Moreno (FabCafe Global Editorial Team).

A garden that’s conscious of biodiversity

Shosei-en, the garden of Higashi Honganji Temple, is located about 10 minutes on foot from JR Kyoto Station. Created as a retreat for the former head of the temple in 1653, the garden has been carefully managed by Ueyakato Landscape, who have practiced a care regimen that has adapted to changing patterns of garden usage over its 365 years of history. Led by gardener Yosuke Ota, Shosei-en is now operating under the theme of being “a garden that is conscious of biodiversity.”

Yosuke Ota, a gardener from Ueyakato Landscape. As long as it’s something found in nature, he’s apparently up for taking a bite.

While Ota was specializing in biology in university, his school held a project to remove the invasive bluegill fish from the university pond by draining it. However, the bluegill persisted even after the water was drained, and it ended up taking about 2 to 3 months to eradicate them. This experience made Ota realize the difficulty of exterminating invasive species no matter how many of them were killed. In garden management, “removal of invasive species” is the golden standard, but the act of taking lives without using them for any other purpose didn’t sit well with him. Not to mention, the grounds of Higashi Honganji Temple are quite expansive. He would mow one section and move onto the next, but by the time he was done the section he’d previously worked on would already be growing wild again. There were times when he seriously wondered if he would spend the rest of his life just mowing grass.

It was around this time that Ota decided to adopt the temple’s slogan as his work policy. Higashi Honganji Temple releases messaging on the preciousness of life, and he was particularly inspired by 1998’s slogan of “separate but together” as he realized it was an excellent description of natural ecosystems. He decided he could further reflect the teachings of the temple by concentrating on the garden’s natural ecosystem and changed the management system accordingly. In the seven years that have passed since rethinking the garden’s policy on using agricultural chemicals, they have been able to stop relying on products such as herbicides and pesticides.

Aiming to create a place where visitors can feel a sense of both life and death, Shosei-en’s garden has carefully preserved two withered juniper trees that were planted over 365 years ago as symbolic trees. Ota told us that it’s impossible for a broad-leaf species to stand for 100 years after their death, as they usually rot and topple over in around three years. On the other hand, since junipers are coniferous trees, they produce resin which makes them less susceptible to bacterial disease.

Giving control back to Nature: Japanese Browntail Moths and the Camellia

– What sort of initiatives are undertaken when it comes to creating a biodiverse garden? Ota told us about a specific episode where he dealt with a huge outbreak of Japanese Browntail moths.

Ota: Shosei-en has a few teahouses located on the premises. They are surrounded by tea trees, camellias, and sasanquas, which experienced a large outbreak of Japanese Browntail moths. These insects travel from leaf to leaf in a colony of about 30, and the caterpillars have glass-like hairs which irritate the skin on contact. Scratching can cause the hairs to break apart and cause even more itching. They’re very troublesome. During the outbreak, they ended up devouring all of the camellia leaves before finally gathering on the mud wall and starving to death. It was a bizarre sight. We were finally able to ward them off using copious amounts of insecticide, but even if we changed the brand or used a higher concentration, they’d always come back in around two weeks. Eventually, the plants were almost at their limit due to all the chemical damage. Their leaves were getting brown spots and they nearly died.

It was around that time I came to the realization it was likely we had too many camellias in the garden. In the wild, camellias usually flower while tucked away in the shade of large trees growing in mountain thickets, so they don’t need that much sunlight. Although a human may desire to plant a camellia in a specific place, it may not be an ideal location for the plant. Camellias burn if they get too much sunlight, so they grow many leaves and become bushy in order to protect their trunk. (This is a phenomenon that occurs in many household gardens.) In the end, I realized it was becoming a vicious circle where the overabundance of leaves provided a larger food supply which led to an increase in caterpillars.

We started by pruning all the overgrown branches and leaves while removing any camellia that were growing in unsuitable locations, allowing the plants to return to a more natural form. This resulted in a steep decline in the number of moths, and we haven’t had another large outbreak these past five years. I’ve even noticed an increase in spiders, which are natural enemies of the Japanese Browntail. It goes without saying but insecticides don’t discriminate, so useful insects are also killed along with the pests. Unfortunately, the first bugs to return to the camelia were always the moths. The useful bugs always took a little longer to come back, which led me to hypothesize that excessive use of agricultural chemicals may increase the likelihood of creating a vicious circle.

It is common for human-centric systems and social orders to overpower nature, but that doesn’t mean the two always have to be at odds. Ota and his team practice identifying the underlying cause of the strain and work to restore the balance. This has resulted in them being able to fundamentally eliminate resource consumption that had previously seemed inevitable.

A Kurogane holly with damage from sooty mold. Nectar excreted from the Red Wax Scale causes the leaves to turn black from mildew. There are parasitic wasps that prey on scaled insects, and we were hoping they would fly in but as Shosei-en is like a land-based solitary island, they didn’t end up coming. We could have released wasps into the garden manually, but usually they end up going after useful insects after disposing of the pests and the loss of life is too great. Knowing that it’s important for maintaining his emotional health, Ota is willing to be patient with the garden’s progress as he sees his work as a long-term effort that will span 100 to 200 years.

Actively renewing our sense of beauty in response to changing natural environments

– The mission of “preserving traditions” goes hand in hand with traditional techniques and culture. Optimizing technology and culture is essential to meet the simultaneously changing times and environment.

Ota: As the times change, so do the people who visit the garden and their purpose for doing so. With this in mind, I believe the garden should also change accordingly. In the past, we have cut down large trees because they were overgrown, but this has affected other ecosystems. One example of this is the maple tree. Maple trees usually grow their branches sideways while shaded under larger trees in the valley. When they lose the cover of these principal trees, their branches start growing upward and, similar to the camellias, they start to grow many leaves to protect their trunk – losing their traditional maple tree appearance in the process. Some of them had trunks that were burned due to direct sunlight exposure in the summer, causing the trees to painfully wither.

A second change we observed after the cutting down of large trees is an increase in grass growth due to lots of direct sunlight on the ground. However, having areas with direct sunlight exposure and no grass at all seems strange to me. I think it’s only natural to have grass in this new environment, so I am trying to see if it’s possible to maintain the grass by daring to leave it.

Upkeep of the lake’s southern island (Minami Oshima), where a lot of grass has grown due to light exposure.

– As natural environments and human values continue to change, Ota and his team are using trial and error to find the sweet spot of intervening in nature while flexibly interpreting which core traditional values should be upheld. They are also working towards “updating the human sense of beauty.”

Ota: There is a lot of broomsedge bluestem, a non-native species that would usually be removed, growing on the lake’s southern island, Minami Oshima. However, stemming from the temple’s teachings of “life is precious,” I wondered why foreign plants couldn’t be received just as warmly as people who come to Japan from foreign countries. I thought something beautiful could be achieved if a means of allowing non-native species to remain in a way that harmonized with native species could be devised. Based on that hypothesis, I have been trying to find a way for these species to coexist only on this specific island since there is limited impact on the ecosystem. There’s something almost cozy about how the brown grass sways in the wind as the winter season approaches.

Indeed, species like plum and southern magnolia trees were originally non-native species from China. It seems strange to me that we are willing to accept non-native species that were brought to Japan many years ago but have such a dislike for ones that have been introduced in recent years. That’s why I’d like to make a space in this garden where even non-native species can thrive. An interesting aspect of incorporating grass into the landscape is that the place it appears changes with each year, which means the landscape also dynamically changes accordingly. The landscape will be different each time people visit the garden, so I’d love for everyone to come and see it.

Upkeep of broomsedge bluestem growing on the lake’s southern island.

Landscape design and bacteria control

Ota’s previous specialty was biotechnology, and he’s taken on the challenge of creating “beautiful landscapes” while regulating the environments of animals and plants at the bacterial level. An example of this is spreading pine needles on the ground.

Ota: Shosei-en has a lake with black pine planted along the shore. As this species is generally used along beaches as a windbreak, these were probably planted in Shosei-en to create the impression of beach landscape. Weeding around the pine forest was previously a facet of my job, but I tried my hand at devising a method that would lessen this burden.

In colder seasons, black pine trees have a care regimen that involves plucking away the pine needles before they turn brown. In addition, plucked pine needles that have fallen on the ground must also be removed. Black pine have weak acidity, which is something that moss likes, so pine needles create a good environment for moss and fungi. However, if the fallen pine needles are all removed, the soil becomes neutral, an environment preferred by bacteria and weeds. This means that weeds will most likely grow in the area.

As an experiment, I decided to see what would happen if the pine needles were left on the ground. After just one year, it was no longer necessary to perform extensive weeding in the area. What’s more, when the green pine needles are plucked, the ground becomes bright green in the middle of winter and reflects like a mirror when the light hits it. As the silhouettes of the trees are clearly highlighted, it makes for some very beautiful scenery. Conversely, green pine needles will turn brown when they fall during the warmer seasons, dynamically changing the color of the ground and making for an interesting landscape.

Picking pine needles.

Black pine soil covered with pine needles.

Lots of moss can be seen amongst the pine needles.

The pine forest (photo by Ota).

Considering human and financial resource shortages from the perspective of environmental optimization

– From speaking with Ota, it seems much of his team’s work comes from battling grass and weeds. But when did such thorough weeding become the norm for Japanese gardens?

Ota: I believe this practice accelerated during the high period of economic growth around the mid-1950s. Whether it’s through using herbicides or mowing grass, gardening is a money-earning profession. When easy-to-understand labor and earning wages become linked, to put it in extreme terms, consideration of the ecosystem falls by the wayside. I’m sure there were methods of managing a garden without having to use fertilizers or chemicals in the past, but they’ve fallen into disuse. I don’t even know myself, so it’s been a process of trial and error.

At the same time, the number of gardeners has decreased. It’s unrealistic to expect both human and financial resources to be allocated to mowing grass at a time when large amounts of money aren’t readily available like they were in the mid-1950s. I think it’s necessary to try and challenge yourself to see how low maintenance or no maintenance you can operate while utilizing the natural systems that are already in place. I find myself always thinking about what is beautiful for both humans and other living things while trying to figure out just how far I can go.

As industries are experiencing a shortage in both financial and human resources there are many questions that need to be asked. Are “essential” tasks truly required? Are we trying too hard to solve things with humans alone? Are there solutions that can be resolved by co-creation with other species? The challenges faced by Ota and his team provide us with much food for thought.

During a tour of Shosei-en held in September.

Nami Urano

Nami Urano(Loftwork Inc. / FabCafe Kyoto Marketing Div.)

After graduating from university, Nami began her work at the creative company, Loftwork, where she was in charge of planning and managing business events and community management. At this time, her focus was on encouraging industry and university collaboration, specifically between Japanese companies and international universities. In 2018, Nami moved to Loftwork in Kyoto where she is in charge of PR, marketing, and recruitment. In 2020, Nami was involved in the launch and management of FabCafe Kyoto’s project-in-residency program, COUNTER POINT. From 2022, Nami launched SPCS (“Species”), a community that explores the uncontrollability of nature. Nami is interested in creating chaos in place, taking inspiration from her personal experiences of living in Folkehøjskole, Denmark, experiencing a kibbutz in Israel, and the fermentation club activities she co-hosted with chef Momoyo Morimoto.


Loftwork magazine Subscribe for stories in designs and innovation monthly.