The worldユs first gardens may well have been made of coral. Natural clusters of underwater beauty that could be glimpsed through the glass of the water. Perfectly tone-coordinated balance and formed, they were refined to a degree that may have suggested the presence of the divine. Those living in the coral islands of Okinawa have been well placed to observe these marine gardens, learn from them and requisition their treasures.
Where the shelves of bookstores groan with the weight of expensive coffee table books on Japanese gardens, or learned treatise and manuals on design theory, little if anything has been written about the Okinawan garden. These sunlit plots do not invite the attention of academics, architects, or the lucrative commissions Japanese landscape designers receive from hotels, high end inns, the owners of wealthy residences, or Buddhist temples. Discussion on the topic of innovation or the direction of the Okinawan garden is virtually non-existent.
Gardens are an expression of the Okinawan character. There is little of the introspection associated with their Japanese counterparts. These gardens that have never known a snowfall are a setting for the good life. Less intertwined with art forms such as pastoral poetry, literature and landscape painting than traditional Chinese or Japanese gardens, the Okinawan garden, nevertheless, touches on the essence of island culture, its tastes and preferences, and what it means to be Okinawan. With the exception of gardens created for aristocrats and nobles, they may have fewer syntactic correspondences with artistic endeavors, but their links to the daily lives of Okinawans are strong.
Private suburban gardens in mainland Japan, with their pseudo-English flower baskets, plastic pots, planters, ornamental tables, chairs and caf parasols that no one ever sits under, can seem sterile. Okinawan gardens by contrast, are used and lived in. People sit drinking beer and awamori – Okinawaユs rice-based firewater – beneath shady trees, on white plastic chairs or on their tile or wood verandas; signs of old wells, weather-beaten wooden tables, cement water tanks, piles of unused and broken roof tiles, garden hoses and clay pots convey a messy impression because these are thoroughly interactive gardens. Within the garden walls, which are plot boundaries rather than design confinements, the owner has complete freedom over content. If a rock sits in the middle of a medicinal herb patch, or a cement water tank anchors the center of a banana grove, then so be it.
In these permanent sub-tropics, each tree decides when it is autumn, so there are usually dry clusters of leaves here and there, creating an unkempt or naturalistic impression. Which is not to say they donユt have ornamental, decorative and horticultural touches in common with gardens elsewhere. The gardenユs decorative touches, however, reflect climatic differences, but also disparities in taste and cultural preference: Wind chimes dangle from salt-encrusted beams and eaves, shells, and fragments of coral are displayed on wooden shelving or placed on the tops of walls, and shisha lions, instantly associated with Okinawa, sit astride the orange roof tiles of houses, or on the walls or entrance post. The ornamental touches of course, can in the wrong hands, degenerate into bad taste. Cement frogs, wheelbarrows, collections of pearly conches, and the brick-a-brac of the chandlerユs store (glass balls wrapped in nets, buoys with painted faces) are not uncommon.
If the gardens reflect climatic and horticultural differences, there are also disparities in taste and cultural preferences. Red hibiscus, mauve and yellow bougainvillea grows out of the earth or from large ceramic vessels. Banana, mango, tamarind, papaya, fig, and trellises of bitter melon provide fresh produce and a feast for the eyes. Water troughs made of stone, are used as basins for water plants, some covered with thin canvass roofs. Despite the retaining walls, which are almost never changed, there is a sense that the garden contents can be moved around if required. Even the stones, with some exceptions, are not so huge to deter replacement or remodeling.
The variegated greens seen in clumps of aspidistra and large, healthy looking cycads are complimented by the red and yellow flowers of hibiscus, creating a truly Okinawan garden effect. Itユs a managed effect to be sure, but one that manages to look quite natural. Okinawaユs frequent sun and rain create miniature rainbows under the foliage, prismatic effects that are not only spellbinding to see but act as fertilizer rays, providing light and heat to the undersides of plants.
Walls are more than the geometric, rectilinear design elements found in Japanese public and private gardens; here they serve as typhoon breaks, to provide privacy, act as shelves for flowers, plants and creepers, and stand in as sturdy trellises for vegetables like marrow. And they look quite different. New walls have a bleached appearance, as if they have just been raised from the seabed; they quickly acquire a honey tone. Very old walls darken to a volcanic gray. They rarely collapse and, unlike the clay and bamboo fences of Japanese garden fences, can last a good half-century before adjustments need to be made. Aesthetically pleasing, even ornamental to a degree, within the context of their very different all year sub-tropical island milieu, these Okinawan walls are living structures.
Most private gardens eschew grass and gravel in favor of sand, which drains quickly, and once tamped, remains compact beneath the feet. Where there is grass, it tends to be different, a hardy, tightly matted variety similar to pressed dwarf bamboo. A feature of older gardens, occasionally replicated in newer ones, is the presence of a Chinese-style screen wall, facing the entrance but within the garden itself. In China

Resembling jungle undergrowth, its broad-leafed plants, potted and strategically placed, would not have looked out of place in any modern office reception area or sun filled living room. Despite several trips around the island, Iユve never come across any large plant nurseries. The islanders here, I suspect, simply drive out into the countryside and help themselves to whatever flora strikes their fancy. And this with little negative environmental impact, as the speed of replenishment is astonishing.
Though private gardens are often the most absorbing to look at, there are a small number of formal gardens in Okinawa. Naha even has its very own Chinese garden, the Fukushu-en. A botanical garden park, its replicas of buildings from the province of Fukien, are connected by carp ponds, moon doorways, stone paths and fantastically shaped rocks. It’s a good introduction to some of the influences that have been soaked up elsewhere in the islands.
Used as a large second residence by the Ryukyu royal families, Shikina-en, a large formal garden in Naha, was constructed in the 18th century. Udon Palace, a set of wooden buildings and terraces with red tiled roofs, stands near the entrance to the garden. Its fifteen rooms were where Chinese delegates gathered for the coronation of Ryukyuan kings. A circular landscape garden, its leanings are more towards China than the Japanese designs of the same period. A hexagonal Chinese-style pavilion, known as the Rokkaku-do, dominates the center of the pond, connected by a stone pathway and an arched bridge. Ryukyu limestone walls shore up the embankments of the pond.
The entire garden was painstakingly reconstructed after being virtually obliterated in WW11. Looking at pre-war photos of the garden, the current restoration is an astonishingly faithful one, right down to the wooden buildings and pavilions. Adding a touch of authenticity to the site, the stone bridges, built in the Chinese style, were largely reconstructed from the remains of the original. In 2000, the garden was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ishigaki Islandユs Miyara Donchi, located down one of the lanes of the old quarter of Ishigaki port is a samurai-style house in a part of the world not generally associated with the architectural tastes of Japanese military elites. Built in 1819 by the magistrate for the Yaeyamas, one Miyara Peichin Toen, it is the oldest surviving such building in Okinawa. The worn, salt-encrusted wood of the building and its villa, the antique furniture within, look out onto an Edo period stone garden, a dry landscape arrangement that seems to owe more to China than Japan. Behind the Chinese-style screen wall that greets visitors once they step into the garden, is a shallow pond supporting water plants, and small, jagged rocks. These bear a strong resemblance to suiseki displays. The term suiseki literally means メwater stoneモ (sui, water; seki, stone). Originating some two thousand years ago in China, interesting, rare or well-formed stones were placed and displayed in watered trays. The Okinawans, who were almost certainly exposed to this refined pastime at a later date than the Japanese, adapted these forms to their own tastes.
A fondness for stones, the sharp, spiny rocks of their own coral islands, so different from the smooth, moss covered variety found in Japanese gardens, typifies this and many other Okinawan gardens. If rocks represent mountains, in Okinawa they also evoke coastal cliffs and offshore formations. Never far from the sea, these stone arrangements are doubtless modified versions of the complex, interlocking rock piles found in classic Chinese gardens. The coral and limestone compositions of the Chinese garden consisted of fabulist piles of energizing rocks full of blowholes, scooped surfaces, cavities and hollows, a playful effect still much beloved of the Chinese.
At the very tip of Hokuzan, the most northerly tip of mainland Okinawa, Asumui, a sacred prayer site for shamans and priestesses, is a mysterious looking limestone landscape, seemingly of Chinese provenance. A sorcererユs world of sharp, pitted rocks and wobbly paths, it is a fascinating place to visit as it provides insights into some of the geological influences that may have been adapted in Okinawan gardens. Okinawan gardeners were able to find similarly shaped rocks along their own coastlines, or submerged just below the shallow, transparent waters.
The Chinese influence, however important, should not be emphasized at the expense of native Okinawan instincts. Although there was symbolism embedded in the gardens of the Okinawan royalty, the adoption of Chinese forms was mostly visual and aesthetic. Complex notions like the belief among Taoist scholars that a private garden, メsimple, formless, desireless, without striving,モ was an articulation of a yearning for a graceful, happy, long life in retirement, had little place in the exuberant, flower and plant filled gardens of these islanders. Metaphysics have never much appealed to the Okinawan mind.
Most Okinawans would feel more comfortable with the sentiments of the Ming era writer and gardener Wen Zhenheng, when he wrote that gardens should be places where the visitor can メforget his age, forget to go home, and forget his fatigue.モ


ANA and JAL both have regular daily flights to the Okinawa mainland and to relatively large islands like Miyako and Ishigaki. Outer islands are best reached by ferry, though a few have small airports. The Chinese garden of Fukushu-en is along Nahaユs Matsuyama-dori. The Southeast Botanical Gardens, near Kadena Air Base in Okinawa City, is home to over 2,000 species of plants. Yanbaru Annetai En, a sub-tropical forest park near Nago city in the northern region of the mainland called Hokuzan, is a good introduction to the flora of the islands. Saumur is located down a lane off Route 58, a short distance from Hero Beach. Mainland Okinawaユs Tamagusuku district is a fine place to peer into the hillside gardens of private houses, with their fruit trees and profusion of subtropical plants. Look out for blue signposts in English for Miyara Donchi, just a five-minute walk from Ishigaki port. Ishigakiユs Banna Forest Park in the southern interior of the island is a good introduction to the flora of the Yaeyamas. The best guide to the islands is Kenny Ehmanユs ヤOkinawa Explorer,ユ now in its second edition and published by TK2 Productions. ヤSouthern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawaユ published by University of Hawaii, is an excellent anthology of writings from this area.

Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, Feburary 2008