Tuesday, 11 June 2013


The passage of the 'stream' can easily be deduced

Daisen-in, a sub-temple of the Daitoku-ji temple compound in Kyoto, contains one of the finest gardens in Japan.  It is important historically and artistically; in it one can read almost the entire canon of achievement in the Japanese garden tradition.  All the symbolic effects influenced by the aesthetics of painting, and the art of creating illusory representations of space are brought together in one small area.  The temple of Daisen-in was founded in the Muromachi period as a temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, 1509, by Kogaten Sotan (1464-1540), the abbot of Daitoku-ji and a figure of great standing.  He was widely revered for his determined personality, and his admirers included the Shogun Yoshimasa, as well as important persons in the Imperial court.  Sotan needed his contacts to achieve his aim of building Daisen-in, as the country was wrecked by civil wars that did not leave Kyoto free from lawless destruction.  Daitoku-ji itself had been completely razed in 1468 as a result of these wars.

Principal stone setting representing mountain

The garden of Daisen-in was laid out between 1509 and 1513.  Sotan retired in 1509 and it is generally thought that the L-shaped garden was laid out to adorn his retirement quarters.  The plots are long and narrow; that to the north is approximately 5 x 10m while the eastern section is about 16 x 4.5m. In the corner at the right angle rise the tallest stones in the garden, which give the impression of towering mountains; one of these stones is referred to as Mount Horai (Shumisen).  To the right of these rises a 'dry' mountain stream, narrow and precipitous as it tumbles between rocks.  The stream is crossed by a flat stone bridge, set at the level of the veranda of the building, and then widens to flow south.  At about the midpoint the 'water' runs over a flat-topped stone, set almost at ground level, before disappearing under a (later) corridor which connects the Abbot's quarters to the main building.  The stream continues past a stone shaped like a boat (funeishi) before finally disappearing beneath the veranda.

Boat stone, mirrored by the arrangement to the rear

The 'stream' emerges into the southern garden which is flat and entirely covered with white raked sand broken only by two conical mounds.  This section of the garden is referred to as the 'Universal Sea', an image that is maintained by the surrounding double-banked hedge, which may be read as a symbolic representation of waves.  The scroll-like effect of the garden is broken only by the roofed walkway, with its typically Zen-inspired bell-shaped opening, which dates from a radical restoration of the garden in 1961, based on plans from the later Edo period (18th century); whether this walkway existed in the original scheme we cannot know for sure, as to a certain extent it does interrupt the visual flow.  

Nearly 100 stones are set in the garden, in compositions which clearly seem to derive from Chinese landscape paintings. The soaring mountain peaks and plunging valleys so beloved of the painters are particularly well represented in the garden.  The famous panels in the rooms facing onto the garden feature landscape paintings by Soami.  The composition includes crane and tortoise islands, reinforcing the underlying symbolic content with its allusion to the overall garden as paradise motif.

South garden, the double layered hedge represents waves
It is always difficult to be sure now how important the symbolic content was to the original creators, although it is clear that the Daisen-in garden can be read as being symbolic in its entirety.  Clearly many symbolic aspects were incorporated into the overall design. However the greatest artistic triumph of the garden lies in its unequivocal relationship with Chinese landscape painting, and as such the garden can be recognised as a masterpiece. Its present popularity is well deserved even if distracting to the visitor attempting to view the garden in peace and quiet.

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