Inspiration from the Pages of TFH: The Enduring Legacy of Takashi Amano
Author: Steve Waldron
One of my favorite aquarists and the most profound influence along my journey into planted aquariums is the great sensei himself, prize-winning photographer, master aquascaper, author, and founder of Aqua Design Amano and the Nature Aquarium method, Takashi Amano.
As I’ve been observing the exponential growth of the aquascaping scene over the past decade here in the USA, especially from the vantage point of my aquascaping shop in Seattle, Aquarium Zen, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people crediting Amano with the birth, development, and popularization of the modern planted aquarium scene. But it was Takashi Amano’s aquarium innovations that brought us the artistic form, plant selections, horticulture techniques, and style that so many folks are replicating over and over without even knowing its source.
In order to advance into the future, we must first have respect for where we’ve been, and it was Takashi Amano’s singular creative genius that laid the foundation for aquascaping’s current popularity. Before Amano, freshwater aquariums were little more than cages for fish. He handed us the tools to make true artistic expressions with the humble fish tank, expressions that come from the soul and add a little healing to both the creator and viewer.
So, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I’d like to provide a short, and by no means exhaustive, review of some of Amano’s artistic innovations and contributions to modern aquascaping.
Beautiful Tanks as a Canvas
That first starter aquarium of mine was of the classic plastic-rimmed American variety, complete with faux wood trim. It was a great shock to me when I first saw the rimless glass tanks in Takashi Amano’s beautifully photographed layouts in the Nature Aquarium World
books series published by TFH Publications, Inc.
Now, I know Amano was not the first one to use rimless aquariums, as I’ve been told they were quite common in Europe and elsewhere before that time. (Indeed, some of my European clients and friends have told me they were quite desirous of the American plastic rim tanks!) But what I could see Amano doing with those rimless tanks—complemented by his beautiful glass piping operating within—was to remove as many visual obstructions from the aquarium as possible so the viewer could take in as pure a view and experience of the aquascape’s beauty as possible.
This was revolutionary to me. I’d always assumed an aquarium had to have those plastic bubblers, hang-on-the-back filters, and other doodads just to support life. The rimless aquarium became a blank canvas for the aquascaper to present their work with few eyesores and maximum visual impact. Less than 10 years ago, rimless/frameless aquariums were very hard to source in the USA, but now they can be even found in big box stores as a new industry standard.
Driftwood and Stone Hardscapes
The next feature of Takashi Amano’s aquarium work that really resonated with me was the artful use of hardscape elements like driftwood
and stone. His Nature Aquarium style often featured beautifully curated wood elements that essentially became a sort of living sculpture.
I later learned how important these hardscape elements are in anchoring the visual flow of the aquascape over time. As fast-growing plants like carpeting and stem plants come and go with their rapid growth and change, the hardscape grounds the whole effect and gives every layout its own lasting identity.
Hardscape elements, more often than not with epiphytic plants like Java fern and mosses attached to them, provide stability, while the faster-growing plants create a sense of wildness and colorful energy. It’s a winning combo.
Takashi Amano was also the first to popularize the look of a meditative Japanese rock garden—traditionally known in the Japanese culture as an iwagumi
—growing underwater. It is this iwagumi
style of stone gardening that really captured the imagination of many aquarists I knew when these works were first presented to the American audience by TFH in the 1990s. The green fields of low-growing carpeting plants like Glossostigma
setting off an artful arrangement of stone with a flock of schooling fish like cardinal tetras
) flying over the whole scene was revolutionary at the time, and it put Takashi Amano on the map as an aquarium magician.
A Master of Nano Aquaria
When I flip through the pages of the Nature Aquarium World
books published by TFH in the 1990s, I have to say, some of my favorite layouts are also the smallest. I was blown away by some of Amano’s tiniest masterpieces, a completely perfected aquascape in less than 3 liters (¾ gallon) of water! Indeed, I believe it was Takashi Amano who gave birth to the small but mighty nano aquarium
This is very important to take note of, because although Takashi Amano worked on a very large scale, these smaller aquascapes are really the lifeblood of the aquascaping hobby. Few entry-level aquascapers can afford anything more than a 24-inch (60 cm) aquascape, or they are simply intimidated by anything much larger. So, while a big aquascape certainly has its impact and place in generating inspiration, it is the smaller, nano-sized tanks that fuel the growth and popularity of the aquascaping hobby.
It is a great challenge to scale down leaf size, miniature growth form, tiny substrate granules, diminutive fish species, etc. to give the impression of a much larger world. Even the winning entries in the global competitive aquascaping contests are rarely larger than a modest 48 inches (120 cm). Small is practical, beautiful, and ultimately more impactful in the world of hobbyist aquascaping.
Growing Beautiful, Healthy Plants
Takashi Amano was a master plant horticulturist. The vibrancy and health of his plant selections is really what gives his compositions impact. Obviously, wilting stems and algae-covered leaves aren’t going to carry much of a visual impression, no matter how expertly the hardscape or other elements of the aquascape are composed. I often tell my customers you have to first learn to grow plants well before you can create with them in an aquascape setting.
It was in Amano’s aquascapes that I first learned of the use of injected CO2 in aquariums
as a nutrient supporting healthy photosynthesis and growth in plants. The idea of fertilizing a fish tank with additives like potassium and trace elements was new to me before catching a glimpse of these techniques in Amano’s work.
Finally, no review of Amano’s aquatic genius would be complete without the mention of the use of black clay-based nutrient-rich soil in the aquarium setting. The idea of adding a substrate layer of dirt to an aquarium was totally wild to me when I first learned about it. Aren’t we trying to actively keep our aquariums free of dirt as much as possible? Much like a vegetable or flower gardener tends to a carefully managed soil bed, the layer of aquatic soil creates the substrate of fertility for all of our aquascaping visions to come into fruition.
A Champion of the Environment
The final feature of Takashi Amano’s aquarium genius I want to highlight in this review is Amano’s environmental ethic and how that has influenced the aquascaping world. When I was first reviewing the initial drafts of Takashi Amano’s biography, Origin of Creation
(Aqua Design Amano Co., Ltd., 2016), I was delighted to learn that Amano’s love for aquatic plants began when he was just a boy, playing in the freshwater marshes of his hometown of Niigata, Japan. There, a young Takashi Amano first observed Caridina multidentata
, now known as the Amano shrimp, grazing on algae, and he also saw his first submerged pads of Riccia fluitans
pearling with oxygen bubbles in the afternoon sun.
Those formative years exploring the wild underwater world is where I believe Amano-san also developed his keen aesthetic, one that evokes a pure and natural beauty transcending the artifice of the aquarium setting. Amano has been quoted as saying that the goal of the aquascape is to trick the fish and other inhabitants into believing they are living in nature. This is an important connection to make, because many people turn to aquascaping for stress relief and a kind of nature therapy they can turn to during difficult times. Prior to acquiring my first hallowed little kit aquarium, I helped my grandfather maintain his own 10-gallon tank, a prized feature of our family living room that his doctor had “prescribed” to help manage his elevated blood pressure issues.
A Legacy of Beauty and Inspiration
I truly believe that, if we are trying to find solace and inspiration, we’re not going to find it in a wet cage full of listless, depressed fish. An aquascape and its fish inhabitants need light, color, vigorous plant growth, and vibrancy to thrive—not unlike the very natural environment where we take our aquascaping inspiration from.
As we begin to effectively cultivate nature in these beautiful glass boxes, we begin to cultivate something inside of ourselves that seems to be quite rare in our modern world: hope for a more beautiful and harmonious planet during these challenging times.