The Koi (鯉) or Nishikigoi (錦鯉) is the national fish of Japan. It is a colored variant of the normal carp. As such the word koi in Japanese just means 'carp'. The breeding of koi started in Japan in 1820. Since then the fish has become widely popular and it became the symbol of happiness and prosperity.
There are around 190 different koi fish swimming throughout the different ponds of the Japanese Garden. And did you know that the word koi in Japanese doesn't only mean carp but also love, then written as 恋.
There are 225 Japanese cherry trees or Sakura (桜) trees in the Japanese Garden. They are the pride of the Japanese Garden. Every year the garden organizes the O-hana-mi which is the traditional blossoms watching festival of Japan.
The cherry blossom and cherry trees have a rich symbolism in Japanese culture.
First, the cherry blossom symbolizes clouds as when a big cherry tree is blossoming it almost looks like one. As a cloud the cherry tree symbolizes the ethereal nature of life. Thereby it wants to remind the people that they should hold their life as something precious. In the past this symbolism also got corrupted by the samurai and kamikazi pilots who glorified the ethereal nature of the cherry blossom and chose for short, but "beautiful" lives.
Secondly, the cherry tree has also an important societal meaning in Japan. Only a single cherry blossom is nothing special, but together with many more it becomes something amazing. Just like a single human life is meaningless to the world, but by working together you can reach great heights and accomplish your dreams.
Lastly, the cherry blossom also symbolizes beauty, elegance, mortality and the acceptance of fate. That is why cherry blossoms are widely used in modern Japanese art such as J-pop, manga and anime. The cherry blossom is also widely used in the traditional Japanese tattoo art, Irezumi, and is often combined with images of koi fish, dragons, and tigers, animals that have important symbolic meanings in Japan.
The Japanese Garden also has 5 Japanese apricot trees or Ume (梅) trees. The Japanese apricot tree flowers in early-spring and just like the cherry tree has beautiful blossoms except that these are white instead of pink.
In the Japanese tradition the Ume are trees that ward of evil spirits. As such the trees are often seen in the Northeast corner of a Japanese Garden as that is the direction most evil spirits come from.
Plumwine or Umeshu is an very popular alcoholic drink in Japan and is very sweet
The pine tree or Matsu (松) is widely used in Japanese Gardens and our Garden has 25 of them. They are a symbol of long life and eternity, and when they are used in combination with bamboo then it symbolizes the new year.
In the Japanese tradition the pine tree is heavily pruned to give it a certain shape. The tree art or niwaki is limited to a short list of trees in Japan. So while the Western gardening tradition favors variety, the Japanese tradition prefers to perfect a limited number of trees and form them in such a way that they harmonize with the visitors.
The matsu in the Japanese Gardens are pruned as to create the effect of trees standing on top of a windy place like the seacoast or on a mountain (so as they are often found in nature in Japan).
The Japanese maple tree is known by two names in Japan, Kaede (楓) which would directly translate as 'frog hands' as well as Momiji (紅葉) that directly translates as 'turning crimson leaves' or 'baby's hands'. These names come from the appearance of the leaves, which resemble the hands of a baby or a frog.
The maple tree is a very important tree in the Japanese Garden. One of those reasons being the beautiful crimson color the leaves become during fall. They start of as gold yellow to then turn from intense red into a purple color. In Japan these colors are even more intense because of the greater temperature differences between night and day. Just like the blooming of the sakura trees and the wisteria, the changing colors of the kaede has their own traditional viewing session in Japan called momiji-gari (紅葉狩) or 'maple tree hunting'.
During the tea ceremony the kaede is very important. They aren't just used as a decorative element, but the leaves are also used to make candies, which are traditionally served during the tea ceremony.
The common maple, as we know it, doens't exits in Japan, but you can find them all throughout the Japanese Garden. Just like the Japanese maple tree it has a beautiful fall discoloration.
Bamboo or Take (竹) is originally from the Far East and is a very important element in the Japanese Garden. Together with the pine tree and the Ume-apricot tree, the bamboo is a must have element in any Japanese Garden. Their combination is often depicted on Japanese paintings and panels.
To celebrate the New Year the three plants, together referred to as 'Sho-chiku-bai' (初竹梅) often decorate Japanese home. In this combination, the pine tree as a tree that stays green in the winter, symbolizes a long life and eternity. Bamboo is vrey flexible and sturdy as even after heavy snow it will veer right back up. By bringing the bamboo in their homes people wish for their resilience and strength. The ume-apricot is the tree that flowers first in the year. You can already see their first blossoms in January and February and as such they symbolize life after cold, death-like period.
Bamboo is used as a solitary plant to create hedges and divisions in Japanese gardens. The plant is also often used to create tools and decorations. Compared to 'normal wood' bamboo has the advantage that it is very light for how sturdy it is. This is because of its flexibility and strong fiber structure. Bamboo is also not much more resistant to water then wood. And lastly, bamboos different coloration and unique esthetic also makes it a popular decorative element in architecture and in Japanese gardens.
There are around a thousand irises or Ayame (菖蒲) in the Japanese Garden. Primarily the light blue flowering irises that grow in the central pond are very popular in the Japanese Garden. During the time that calendars were not yet wide-spread in Japan, Japanese farmers used the flowering of the ayame to determine when they had to start planting their rice seeds.
The Japanese boys festival or Tango-no-sekku (端午の節句) is also known as the Iris festival. Traditionally the festival can be compared to the first communion in symbolism. During the festival the irisflowers are often used as decoration as their leaves look like little swords. In the past, these leaves would be put in the bathing water of the young boys as it was believed that these would create a strong warriors spirit.
The iris has been cultivated in Japan for over 500 years. Seeing them flowers is seen as a sign of good luck. And the iris is used in ponds or lakes as to remember the passing of a dear one.
The Japanese Camellia or Tsubaki (椿) is an important feature of the Japanese Garden, but is even more important in the Japanese culture. During the turbulent Kamakura-period (1192-1333) the Japanese Camellia was admired by samurai, nobels and the imperial family. The samurai considered the budding of the flower to symbolize the transience of life. The flower symbolizes friendship, elegance and beauty.
Camellia Japonica grows into high green bushes that flower in the early spring. In the most exquisite tea gardens you will find rows on rows of camellias. The shoots are often used during the tea ceremony.
At the entrance of a Japanese temple you will often find two plants flanking the gate. One will be the pomegranate plant and the other one the camellia. Together they symbolize Japanese nature and form a link between the world of the gods and the world of the living.
The eventsquare in the Japanese Garden has a large collection of Japanese Wisteria or Fuji (藤) which hang above the picknick tables. Wisteria can grow up to 30 meters long and is originally from East Asia. In Japan the plant is often used in the Bonzai art. The famed blue flowers flower in the spring and summer. But they are very fragile, so when the spring is to cold or to hot they might not flower.
In certain parts of Japan they will organize viewing parties for when the wisteria blooms, just like for the sakura trees and maple leaves. This activity was popularized after the wisteria became the clan symbol of the Fujiwara clan during the Heian era (794-1192). The plant has an important place in Japanese culture and you will often find it depicted on paintings, vases and the clothing of Japanese nobility. The wisteria's purple color is often associated with the Imperial family in Japan and the flower also symbolizes long life and immortality. This is because the wisteria tree can become more then 100 years old. The biggest and oldest wisteria in Japan is 144 years old. The tree stood as the inspiration for the famous Kabuki (Japanese theatre) dance named "Fuji Musume" (Wisteria Maiden) wherein the tree symbolizes eternal love.
The Japanese have a special relation with the Kaki (柿). It symbolizes the universal energy of love. Today you will often finds kaki fruit at shinto shrines, at little family altar, and during the festival of the souls. On cemeteries the Japanese often offer cooked rice served on the Kaki leaves to unknown, nameless deceased.
In the Japanese Garden in Hasselt the tree symbolizes peace and serves as a remembrance of the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. This is because the Diospyros kaki tree in Nagasaki was the only surviving tree in the city and since then has multiplied throughout it. The Kaki tree was spread throughout the world in 250 places and 23 countries as a part of an art/peace project, 'Revive time Kaki Tree Project'. The Kaki tree in the Japanese Garden is one of these and was planted in 2005, 60 years after the destruction of Nagasaki.
Castanopsis sieboldii of Sudajii (スダジイ) in Japanese is a tree that has been important in Japan since ancient times. In Kochi (Japan) you will find the tress everywhere on top of the numerous mountains there. You will also often find them next to the road. You can eat the acorns of the tree and are often used as snacks for children. Primarily from around 14 000 BC until 300 BC this was an important source of nutrients. Normal acorns have a strong taste, but the sudajii acorns don't and therefore were often used.
It is a very rare plant in Belgium. Plantcol has only one registered tree in the arboretum of Bokrijk, four in the arboretum of Kalmthout and two in the botanical garden of Meise. In the Japanese Garden you can one tree and that makes the eight in the entirety of Belgium.
The tree is known as a living fossil as it is the only living species of the Ginkgoaceae family. Icho (銀杏) is also known as Ginkgo Biloba, a possibly deliberate misspelling of the Japanese Gingyo. In Japanese Gingyo comes from the combination of silver (銀) or 'gin' and apricot (杏) that would translate as 'anzu' or 'kyo'. The word biloba means 'two lobes' which references the physical appearance of the leaves. In English the tree is known as maidenhair tree.
The tree came around 800 together with Buddhism from China to Japan. There the tree was often grown near Buddhist temples, and as such is also known as temple tree. In the Far East the Maidenhair tree is also worshipped by some as it is believed that every tree houses a God. The tree symbolizes immutability, hope, love, magic, timelessness and a long life. The stylized version of the leaf is the symbol of the Japanese tea ceremony school Urasenke, the tea style which you can also experience in the tea ceremony workshop in the Japanese Garden. In the streets of Tokyo you can find more than 65.000 Ginkgo Biloba trees and is thereby the official city tree of the Japanese capital. The Japanese Garden has two of them in the Garden.
The oak or Nara (楢) has limited to no symbolic meaning in Japanese culture. But in the Japanese Garden in Hasselt the trees are very important. Japanese Gardens are by origin places where Kami or Japanese Shinto Gods live. These Kami live in trees, plants, rocks and sort of everywhere. In the Japanese garden the oak trees are the oldest trees and according to the Japanese tradition can be thought of as housing Kami. That is why the Japanese garden architect Inoue Takuyuki wanted to preserve the trees in the Japanese garden. As such he wanted to respect the nature of Belgium and instill a respect for the trees and nature at large in the visitors of the Garden.
Even when the oak trees would die, this doesn't mean that the Kami has disappeared. The Kami needs time to find a different home and that's why in Japanese tradition even dead trees can't be cut down that easily. First a new tree needs to planted next to the old so that afterwards it would move to the new one. This is why you can still find the trunk of some oaks in the garden and why new trees have been planted next to them.
Places where Kami rest are often decorated with shimenawa. A shimenawa is a holy rope, specially made out of rice straw. On it shide are hung, these are mostly pieces of paper or metal that have been folded in a special way. As such you can find many different trees and even rocks throughout Japan which are decorated in this way.
MOSS AND OTHERS
In Belgium many try to get rid of moss or koke (苔) when they see it in their gardens. But not in the Japanese Garden. Here the growth of moss is stimulated to emphasize the naturalness, ancient and peaceful atmosphere of the Garden. To protect the moss, the little pathways are fenced in.
Other plants and trees you can find in the Japanese Garden are: Bergenia, Hosta, Hydrangea, Forsythia or Lynwood, Japanese Quince, Japanese Bluebell Bush, Rock Heather, Rhododendron, Wild Chestnut and European Yew.