Carving out a masterpiece: Landscape architect Masa Mizuno to visit Whidbey for one-day workshop

Masa Mizuno has designed and established numerous traditional Japanese gardens throughout the Pacific Northwest

Most consider landscaping to be a chore, but for Masa Mizuno it is a work of art.

While others heave pruning shears into the garden to take a whack at unruly shrubberies, Mizuno calmly contemplates the space, the inherent shape of the foliage, the delicate balance of forms and lines of sight.

Mizuno is a Portland-based master gardener responsible for the establishment and upkeep of numerous traditional Japanese gardens throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Japan including the Nikka Yuko Japanese garden of Lethbridge, Canada which he has maintained since 1990 and the Portland Japanese Garden. He has also worked with landscape architect Koichi Kobayashi in the Seattle Japanese Garden.

Northwest Language Academy and Cultural Center will host its annual Japanese horticulture workshop and luncheon from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 2 at a private residence in Clinton.

Mizuno will demonstrate techniques, answer questions and lead a tour of the residential garden. Lunch will also be served.

The event costs $75. To register, contact the NWLA office at 360-321-2101, email programs@nwlanguageacademy.com or visit nwlanguageacademy.com.

While attending school in Japan, Mizuno had the choice of attending college or learning a craft.

“I couldn’t study in the classroom; I’d get sleepy all the time,” Mizuno said with a grin.

He opted to take up landscape architecture, which he studied for three years.

After graduation, Mizuno landed a job with a landscaping firm in Osaka before moving to Tokyo to join another, larger company. In Tokyo, he received training from elder gardeners and worked to maintain and establish residential and historical, public gardens.

Historically, gardens built for emperors and nobility were designed for aesthetic pleasure while those built for Buddhist temples were designed for meditation and contemplation. The earliest Japanese gardens were established in the first century CE.

Types of gardens include karesansui, rock gardens or Zen gardens where white sand takes the place of water; roji, which include teahouses where tea ceremonies are conducted; kaiyu-shiki-teien, designed to allow visitors to stroll along a path to admire landscapes; and tsubo-niwa, small courtyard gardens. Kate Daniel / The Record | Masa Mizuno will host a workshop May 2 at a private South End residence.

In the 1980s, Mizuno developed his own firm, Masa and Associates. He relocated to the United States in 2000 and began work at the Portland Japanese Garden as landscape director. He has also established and maintained a number of sites in the region, including several on Whidbey.

Friend and client Norm Bodine, a Clinton resident, began working with Mizuno in 2000 after the two met at a meeting in Seattle.

“It was one of those lucky coincidences,” said Bodine. “It’s similar to how I met my wife, a total accident, total luck.”

Bodine, an avid gardener himself, had purchased a plot of land specifically intended for the installation of a Japanese garden.

Mizuno transformed the space, which includes rhododendrons, a stream and gazebo as well as a variety of trees and other complementing elements.

During a recent interview at Bodine’s home, Mizuno discussed his work.

He said that it is essential to pay close attention to each part of the plant, its growth potential and inherent shape.

“The pruning is just helping their natural progression,” Mizuno said.

Trimming the plants brings them to scale in proportion with the rest of the garden. It’s also essential for the plant’s growth, Mizuno said.

Most of the plants Mizuno uses are already on site. Native species protect more traditional plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas and Japanese maples.

Bodine’s garden, Mizuno said, is dominated by conifers and Western red cedars, which contrast with Japanese maples he planted. They also help to shield the smaller maples from the elements.

Traditional Japanese gardens feature miniature, idealized landscapes, typically with an abstract design, and most often feature asymmetrical shapes.

“You don’t want it to be symmetrical,” Bodine said.

“It reflects the nature that has developed in this particular site,” Mizuno said.

The idea is not to change the history or natural characteristics of the site, he said. Although it would be possible to change it, doing so would require an “enormous amount of time and energy.”

In addition, Mizuno pays careful attention to lines of sight, ensuring that visitors’ view is not obstructed.

Mizuno will touch upon these and other principles of the craft, during the workshop.

“The people who come understand the value of this,” said Bodine. “It’s important for people to understand that it’s a very rare opportunity to observe and to ask questions.”

Knowledge of horticulture is not necessary to learn the craft, said Mizuno, though an artistic eye is extremely helpful.