There are broadly four different types of garden that are found in Japan, though it should be noted that these are not necessarily exclusive to one another. It is often the case that within the precincts of an institution, residence or temple more than one type of garden may be found. Also, that some gardens may contain a mixture or blend of elements from differing styles. In other words there are no rigid rules, as the garden creators felt free to delve into the richness of the garden tradition when drawing upon inspiration.
Pond and Island or Stroll Gardens
This is the ‘oldest’ type of garden to be found in Japan, and it has its origins in the very earliest gardens that were created there. The original conception of garden creation was to create an environment that would tempt the deities down from heaven to dwell in proximity to human beings. These are gardens that were created to be both visually accessed from the interior of buildings, as well as to be seen whilst walking around them. Dependant on the area available to be developed as a garden, these gardens can cover several acres and the pond was often made large enough to accommodate boating excursions (a popular activity particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries).
As with nearly all Japanese gardens the layout of the gardens attempted to evoke the sense of being complete landscapes, hence they were also known as tsukiyama niwa (‘man-made hill’ gardens), as they would feature areas of raised ground depicting mountains or hills. In many gardens it was fashionable to recreate well-known beauty spots, both within Japan and also from China too. These would be known to the educated classes from sources such as poetry, also the symbolic representation of far distant landscape scenery allowed the visitor greater freedom to travel imaginatively whilst touring the garden. The gardens were often laid out in accordance with geomantic considerations, which governed, for example, the orientation of water inlets and outlets, as well as features such as important stone arrangements.
This garden style also featured in Jodo (‘Pureland’) temple gardens (11th C and 12th C AD) where the garden was a deliberate attempt to create a paradisial world separated from the cares and concerns of the world of man. A surviving example of this is the famous Moss Temple garden at Saiho-ji.
Dry Landscape style Gardens
The karesansui garden was a development that is most often associated with the sophisticated culture of Zen Buddhist temples. The particular characteristic of these gardens is the intimation of the presence of water, which is usually suggested by gravel raked in long, flowing, fluvial lines. The content of these gardens varies from the absolute simplicity of Ryoan-ji (Kyoto) to such highly complex rock arrangements such as at Daisen-in temple, Kyoto. The karesansui style probably developed from the Chinese practice of creating trayscapes, which featured small stones and sometimes, penjing (bonsai), arranged in flat dishes, which would be set on a table to be admired. The profound simplicity and discipline of these gardens, offers the garden creator immense scope to improvise.
The principal gardens that are created in Zen temples, occupy a position to the south of the main building. These courtyard spaces are usually surrounded by clay walls, and within these spaces the arrangement of sometimes large stones may be set to give a stirring sense of visual drama, counter-balanced by flat open areas of raked gravel or ‘empty’ spaces. The arrangements themselves are frequently symbolic depictions of images intended to arouse the notion (and awareness?) of paradise (nirvana) in the viewer, such as turtles, cranes and the mystic isle Mt. Horai. In other words the gardens are intended to communicate directly with the viewer.
The karesansui style of garden is probably the most widely imitated style of garden outside of Japan, and has laterly become synonymous with the term ‘Zen garden’. Its pared back, sparse style allied to a powerful visual expression, makes it appear simple to imitate. Though most versions found outside of Japan, and several within, only prove the depth of subtlety at play in these most enigmatic of gardens.
What we understand as Tea gardens today begin to appear in the 16th C, under the influence of Tea masters such as Sen no Rikyu and Furuta Oribe. Essentially the Tea garden is a path that transits between the world of everyday affairs with the teahouse interior. Also known as Roji, or ‘the Dewy Path’. The whole ambiance of the garden is intended to evoke the sense of a path in the mountains, the teahouse a ‘simple’ rustic dwelling. This image of rustic simplicity, and by extension an implication of spiritual contentment, goes to the heart of aesthetic ideals in the East. From China, Japan absorbed the notion of Nature (in particular remote mountains) being a location where spiritual enlightenment can take place. Indeed the very image of the remote rustic retreat can be read as a metaphor for spiritual development and achievement, for it was to the mountains that the sages retired to search for just that knowledge and illumination. Much as early Western Christian mystics turned toward nature to seek a place of contemplation.
The garden is often divided into two parts, the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, a division being made by a simple bamboo gateway. The two parts of the garden are notional, which adds a sense of transition to the progression. The visitor moves through the garden space by traversing a stepping stone path. The principal visual features of the garden being a stone lantern and a water basin arrangement. Stone arrangements are relatively few, and determinedly low key; the planting a selection of primarily evergreen planting, and the principal groundcover being a carpet of verdant mosses. Everything in the garden is intended to calm the senses, rather than creating a sense of visual excitement or drama. The form and manner of the roji was to become another constituent element feeding into the overall garden tradition.
Tsubo niwa are the relatively small spaces found between buildings that have been developed as garden areas. These are gardens that were to be found scattered among the residences of the aristocracy, in temples, as well as in the more secular settings of merchants’ houses. If there is a continuity of character in these gardens it is that they do not fit easily in any particular tightly defined category. Rather it is as if they appear as ‘fragments’ of gardens, which nevertheless are capable of standing alone in their own right. Thus a garden may feature a solitary planting of banana trees (a plant much appreciated for the sound raindrops make falling on the broad leaves); whilst another space may simply contain an ancient stone lantern, or a rustic water basin.
In the context of the architectural arrangement these spaces offered an important function of creating an opening to the sky, allowing light and air to circulate. It should be borne in mind that architectural interiors were often dark, gloomy, spaces, in part because of the wide overhanging eaves that extended the roof well beyond the walls to cover the wooden walkways (verandas) that usually surrounded the buildings. Therefore a tsubo niwa would provide a vibrant connection with open space, as well as having the function of drawing nature into close contact with the lives of the people occupying the interiors.
Please comment. If you found this, or any other post of interest, it is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks, Robert Ketchell