Studies

To Dream of Green Brocade

A Day in the Life of Gert van Tonder, Moss Gardener

At the age of twelve, I stumbled upon an otherworldly moss-covered mound in the bush of my native South Africa, which led me to embark on a parallel career track in Kyoto, where I could continue working as an academic neuroscientist while beginning my formal training as a moss gardener.

As a child, I would never have dreamed of one day owning a historical Kyoto home with a classical Japanese garden, yet here I am today, still staring out from the engawa (veranda) of the living room as if seeing the garden for the first time. Every square inch outside is covered in moss or stone, like a primordial reminder of a time when the earth’s crust settled and the first green appeared. A few pine trees and other plantings round off the picture. As I look again and again, the garden itself seems to instruct me on its art.

Kyoto is an ideal setting for training in the Japanese arts. Not only are the right materials available, but there is a treasure trove of masterworks to examine—a foundational pillar of learning. Mastering Japanese artistry, however, comes through physical practice and imitation rather than through logical analysis, and this can take many years. You have to be quiet and pay attention, because you may just miss the master’s flick of the wrist, the tiny revelation of a particular trade secret.

The daily engagement with my garden has revealed another pillar: learning from the material itself. By constantly looking at and interacting with the stones, moss, and trees, their many possible shapes and combinations are revealed.

Responding to these observations, one slowly acquires an individual way, one’s own trade secrets, within the classical canon of techniques and style.

  • Engawa: Literally “green edge,” the veranda—akin to a wooden deck—that flanks a living room and looks out onto the garden. It typically can be closed with sliding doors, or the doors can be removed, connecting the outer garden space seamlessly with the interior.
  • Moss: The familiar, compact green growth that covers the ground, stones, and tree branches. In the context of Japanese gardens, “moss” more specifically refers to the few durable species that are intentionally cultivated as ground cover, most notably haircap moss (Polytrichum commune), known in Japanese as ‘杉苔’ (cedar moss).
  • Bonkei: Planted tray landscape. An arrangement of moss, small rocks, and sometimes very tiny trees into a miniature landscape in a ceramic container similar to the more widely known art of bonsai, the main difference being that the impression of the landscape is the focal point, not a single tree or tree cluster.

Another difficult skill lies in resisting the temptation for embellishment. The garden should look “sparse,” in imitation of the mountaintop dwellings beloved by the immortal sages that inspired Chinese literati, harking back to the earliest fabled rock gardens in the Himalayas and from there, back to the dawn of human civilization in the Sumerian mountain paradise described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Keeping the garden minimal is not mere artificiality—in fact, it’s about imitating the effects of the forces of nature. If it is to resemble mountaintop ecology, the gardener must reenact the blizzards, fog, ice, and beating sun that would twist the trunk of a pine, weigh down its branches, and stunt its growth while sweeping away dead leaves. Trimmed in this way, the right amount of sunlight and fresh air innervates the space, leaving moss to thrive just as it would on a mountainous summit.

 

“The garden itself seems to be instructing me on its art”

Viewing location is equally vital for delivering the full aesthetic impact of a Japanese garden. For me, the quintessential viewing position is inside the house. Here, the flooring of a traditional house is elevated about two feet aboveground. Seated on the veranda, one does not look down onto the garden, but into it, as if looking into the horizon. Sparsely pruned trees allow one to see deep into the back of the garden, adding to a sense of its completeness as microcosm. Inside the house the earth, stone, and wood of the garden have been transformed into a rectangular wooden lattice framing the garden. Each rectangle can be filled with earthen walls, paper sliding doors, or tatami reed. With little decoration inside, the hand-finished surfaces bring out the natural beauty of these materials; with every square inch covered it does not appear lacking, but luxurious. The rectilinear wooden beams of the house contrast with the rugged shapes of the pines, but also reveal a transformation from instinctive to logical, being born of the same wood. The flowing expanses of moss and clipped hedges naturally transition into the rectangular logic of tatami floor mats and paper sliding doors.

There is hardly any furniture in my house. Three slender wooden benches can be placed together as a large dinner party table, lined up as a work surface or training desk during moss workshops and classical painting lessons, or serve as seating in the back of the room during concerts and other events. When not used, they are lifted onto hooks above, blending away into the wooden ceiling boards. Any utensil can readily be pulled from built-in drawers and closets. One only uses what is necessary. In moments of creative chaos and social events—just like the seasonal upheavals of growth outside—the emptiness brims with living energy. Like the spring tide retreating, the hand of the gardener and housekeeper then brings it back to its usual empty form.

“It’s about imitating the effects of the forces of nature”

Just as the hoarding of too many prized rocks, trees, and utensils can clog the household, greed and grudges can clog the flow of thoughts. Every day I start again, trying to shape my character into a more complete form, but being ephemeral the mind makes this no easy task. For some, the path leads into monasteries where the mind pins itself down through rigorous practice. For me, still drawn to the tangible, the narrow path of moss gardening offers a crutch as I limp toward some wider understanding. Through observation, imitation, repetition, the rectangular frames and natural shapes in this living environment embody the logical and instinctive aspects of mind. Both are formed of the same consciousness—just exposed to different forces of nature. This requires thought and action and a close affinity to nature.

About Gert van Tonder

South African born Gert van Tonder is a moss gardener and neuroscientist specialized in the scientific study of human visual perception. After completing a Master’s degree in electronic engineering in South Africa, Gert embarked on a three year internship at the Uwe-oto landscaping company in Kyoto, while also enrolled for doctorate in neuroscience at Kyoto University. Training in Japanese gardening techniques with Uwe-oto gave him an opportunity to work in some of the top Kyoto gardens, at subtemples of Myoshinji, Daitokuji, and various other venues.

Gert was associate professor in visual psychology at Kyoto Institute of Technology for eleven years, and visiting professor at Stanford and Princeton Universities for several years. In 2012, the Humanities Council of Princeton University distinguished him as a Whitney B. Oates Fellow for excellence in his graduate course, titled ‘Visual Perception and Aesthetics in Japanese Gardens. Currently, he is an external researcher at the Graduate School of Psychology at Kyoto University, but his main occupation is the design and maintenance of moss gardens. Gert’s neuroscientific analyses of Japanese gardens have been reported in academic and media outlets including Nature, BBC, National Geographic, The New York Times and NHK World.

Gert is married to Japanese artist, Ai Akino. They have a daughter, Nora. In 2005, they bought and restored a historical house in Kamigamo – Kyoto’s oldest neighbourhood – where they currently live.

 

The Way of Moss

Walking the Path of a Moss Gardener

Gert van Tonder brings expert knowledge of human visual perception into the world of moss gardening to reveal many fascinating layers at which the Japanese garden functions as a work of art. Living in Kyoto’s oldest neighbourhood, Gert offers a chance to experience the finest in traditional Japanese architecture and landscaping, with the rigor of the temple monastery but in the relaxed setting of a family home. Contact the travel@theartoftravel.net for art and culture-focused journeys to Japan, or visit theartoftravel.net.