Thursday, 6 June 2013

Gardens and the Samurai Part 1


Kyuseki teien, reconstructed site of Heian garden, Nara

One of the most fascinating aspects of looking at the Japanese garden tradition is in seeing it as a river flowing through time and space. Like all rivers it is the sum of many parts, many tributaries, and one very important component of what we can recognise and appreciate as the tradition of Japanese gardens, is the role and contribution made by the samurai, or warrior classes. To begin to understand their contribution to the development of the garden culture, I would like first very briefly to look beyond the samurai, to an earlier period in Japanese history, to the Heian period.

The period known as the Heian period runs for nearly 400 years, 794 – 1185, it was one of the richest cultural periods in Japanese history. Based around an insular court society that ruled the country through Imperial decree from the newly developed capital in Kyoto. In establishing a new capital, a new centre of power and influence it gave opportunity for many of the arts to develop and flourish. The plan was bold and ambitious, an entirely new city was to be created, based on an ideal model derived from Chinese sources, the old Chinese capital of Changan (present day Xian). At the epicentre of this rectangle was to be the Imperial quarters, and the city was to be laid out in a grid form, the basic structure of which survives until this day. Clustering around the Imperial palace were the mansions of the aristocracy, the closer to the palace one lived indicated the more elevated rank one held in society. The basic module for the allocation of land in this system was the measurement known as a chõ, approximately 14500 square metres (about 3.5 acres). An aristocrat of the third rank, for example, received 1 chõ, fourth and fifth ranks, half a chõ, and so on. In this space they built their mansions, and their gardens.

The Heian gardens were almost invariably constructed with a large pond at their centre. There are no surviving intact gardens of this period today, but there are abundant historical references that give us an idea of how they looked. In contrast to many of the Japanese gardens we see and admire today, these gardens would have of been quite colourful, as they contained many species of flowering plants. Marking the passage of the seasons by the use and appreciation of flowers was an integral element of Heian culture. Many of the seasonal festivities that marked the calendar were also related to the appearance of flowers. The cultural language of the time, such as poetry, art and costumery were often richly associated with flowers and their depiction. Boating was a major form of amusement, indeed in the Heian period novel, ‘The Tale of Genji’, there is a vivid description of such a boating trip. As part of which the participants fantasise that they are journeying through China itself. Indeed one of the characteristics of the gardens at this time is that through them people were able to imagine themselves travelling in different parts of both China and Japan. The garden, in a certain way, functioned as a stage set for dreams and fantasies, as well as being a setting for the enactment of ceremony and official functions. 


Heian era pond, Ryoan-ji temple Kyoto
The Heian period was to come to an end with the sound of warfare ringing in the air. Though even before the end of this period Japan had been riven by factional conflicts, as the struggle for political power was played out between two powerful rising family clans, the Minamoto and the Taira. The Taira clan came to hold the reins of real power for a short while until their grip on authority was ended once and for all by a resurgent Minamoto, under their leader Yorimoto in 1185.

I have dwelt on this historical background as it underscores what was to be a seismic shift in Japanese culture. From around 1185 onwards the samurai classes were irrevocably established as the real, and most potent power base in Japan, and the cultural flow was to be marked by a different mindset that the warrior classes brought with them. It is interesting to consider that the development of the Japanese garden was to be profoundly altered not just simply by developments in aesthetic concerns, nor philosophical ideas, but also by metallurgy. The richly decorated and bejewelled scabbards of the ceremonial swords carried by Heian courtiers, were superseded by highly advanced blades wielded by men (and women) who knew how to use them to deadly effect.

The samurai did not seek to entirely overturn the aesthetic and artistic concerns of the courtiers. If at first the samurai professed to despise what they considered as effeminate courtly ways, the courtly society survived around the Imperial seat, even if it was effectively political powerless and frequently impoverished. Recognising something of the richness of that culture the samurai sought rather to fashion it in ways more suited to their own sensibilities. In 1189 the ruler Minamoto Yoritomo set out to build a glorious temple with a grand garden near his power base in Kamakura. A contemporary record tells how the garden was constructed in a matter of three months with many hundreds of labourers toiling on the project, under the supervision of a priest named Jōgen. It was noted that Yoritomo on one of his visits to the construction site, ordered several of the rocks to be repositioned more to his liking. Thereby putting his own stamp on the garden, as well as indicating that he was also a man of taste and discrimination. On completion the garden was proclaimed to be “as beautiful as Amida Buddha’s paradise itself.” Two hundred years later the temple was burned to the ground in civil unrest and was never rebuilt, though what remained of the garden would have been salvaged and reused. If, initially the samurai eschewed ostentation and glamour, in favour of frugality and simplicity, then they seemed to have of been dedicated patrons, founding many temples and shrines. Thus the cultural transformation that occurred was to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

Motsu-ji, Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture
It also underlies the close connection that existed between the warrior class and the clergy, particularly of the Zen Buddhist sect. The garden of Tenryu-ji at Arashiyama, just to the west of Kyoto, in many ways typifies the transformation in Japanese society at this juncture. In the early Heian period, Empress Tachibana no Kachiko, wife of Emperor Saga, founded a temple called Danrin-ji on the site of present-day Tenryū-ji. The temple fell into disrepair over the next four hundred years, before, in the mid-thirteenth century, Emperor Gosaga and his son Emperor Kameyama turned the area into an imperial residence they christened the "Kameyama Detached Palace".

The palace was later converted into a temple in 1339 at the behest of the shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who wished to use the temple to hold a memorial service for Emperor Go-Daigo. Ashikaga who had once been very close to Go-Daigo declared himself to be Shōgun (or supreme political authority) in 1338, and had moved his power base to Kyoto. Ashikaga had violently opposed a political coup which was begun by Emperor Go-Daigo, and the emperor died in exile from Kyoto after having been defeated by his former friend. Ashikaga approached the Zen monk and prolific garden builder Musō Soseki to be the abbot of the temple. Tenryu-ji was supposedly named after Ashikaga Takauji's younger brother, Tadayoshi had a dream about a golden dragon flitting over the Ōi River which flows just to the south of the temple, and the temple was named Tenryū Shiseizen-ji—the term "Tenryū" literally means "Dragon of the Heavens". The temple’s founding reveals much about the convoluted nature of Japanese history, but Tenryu-ji is also interesting as an example of the expression of the influence that the samuri brought to the creation of gardens as cultural expression.
Tenryu-ji garden Kyoto
From an early time the samurai were attracted to the relatively new, upstart form of Buddhism, Zen, which had reached Japan from China. For a long time Zen, with its strong Chinese associations struggled to establish itself in Japan, it was only really with its adoption by the samurai, and their subsequent rise to political prominence that it really began to develop into the cultural force that it became. Many of the principal early figures in the Zen sect in Japan were Chinese, and they brought with them to Japan their own native tastes. In the gardens that were created by the samurai as patrons, one begins to find buildings being placed within the gardens, open sided roofed corridors linking architectural elements, and two-storied pavilions that owed much more to Chinese   architecture came into favour. In the Heian period the building faced onto the gardens, but there was little attempt to integrate the architectural and garden elements into a whole. Under the continental influence much more attention was paid to composing the garden scenery than before, and linking that scenery to the buildings themselves. The placement of buildings in the garden also encouraged people to walk through the gardens, thereby changing the essential nature of the way the garden was used, and in doing so opened new vistas for garden creators. The pond and island was to remain as a central feature of a garden, but in its detailed treatment extensive changes were made.  The shape of the pond itself altered to a more sinuous outline, away from the broad expanse of the Heian ponds that were principally used for boating excursions. More was made of arranging rocks around the periphery of the pond, as well as in the construction of rock arrangements for waterfalls and visual features in their own right.


From an early time the samurai were attracted to the relatively new, upstart form of Buddhism, Zen, which had reached Japan from China. For a long time Zen, with its strong Chinese associations struggled to establish itself in Japan, it was only really with its adoption by the samurai, and their subsequent rise to political prominence that it really began to develop into the cultural force that it became. Many of the principal early figures in the Zen sect in Japan were Chinese, and they brought with them to Japan their own native tastes. In the gardens that were created by the samurai as patrons, one begins to find buildings being placed within the gardens, open sided roofed corridors linking architectural elements, and two-storied pavilions that owed much more to Chinese architecture came into favour. 

In the Heian period the building faced onto the gardens, but there was little attempt to integrate the architectural and garden elements into a whole. Under the continental influence much more attention was paid to composing the garden scenery than before, and linking that scenery to the buildings themselves. The placement of buildings in the garden also encouraged people to walk through the gardens, thereby changing the essential nature of the way the garden was used, and in doing so opened new vistas for garden creators. The pond and island was to remain as a central feature of a garden, but in its detailed treatment extensive changes were made.  The shape of the pond itself altered to a more sinuous outline, away from the broad expanse of the Heian ponds that were principally used for boating excursions. More was made of arranging rocks around the periphery of the pond, as well as in the construction of rock arrangements for waterfalls and visual features in their own right.

Tenryu-ji, dry waterfall in centre background
The waterfall arrangement at Tenryu-ji is often cited as having a strong Chinese influence, particularly in the prominent use of the placement of upright stones. The waterfall is a ‘dry’ fall, water has never cascaded down it. This in itself was a direct influence of the Chinese garden. The karesansui or ‘dry landscape style of garden was really a development very much associated with the Zen temple garden. Its widespread and ultimately highly sophisticated development in the hands of garden masters, was a direct result of the confluence of interests between the samurai and Zen Buddhism.

Two other slightly later gardens also show this strong Chinese influence, both of which are familiar to visitors to present day Kyoto. Ashikaga Takauji’s grandson, Yoshimitsu, commissioned the creation of Kinkaku-ji now popularly known as the ‘Golden Temple’. In its architectural form the building is clearly influenced by the Chinese Sung dynasty. Once again the garden was developed on the site of an earlier aristocratic garden and the existing pond is a remnant of that garden. Incidentally it is highly doubtful that the original building (which stood until 1950), was ever quite so gaudy as it is today. Only the ceiling of the room of the top storey was originally gilded, when the building was reconstructed after the devastating fire, it was decided to gild the exterior. Which is somewhat ironic given the Zen taste for simplicity and the avoidance of ostentation. The building itself was never intended for residential use, rather, it was a place that Yoshimitsu would retire to consort with a select group of like-minded people, priests, scholars, artists, poets and connoisseurs who would gather to discuss religion and the arts. There they would examine and discuss the latest art works imported from China and Korea.
Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
The garden itself reveals under close consideration many influences of Chinese landscape painting. And perhaps not a little of the landscape scenery of the great West Lake at Hangzhou in China, a landscape setting that Yoshimitsu would never have seen, but no doubt he would have been made aware of. The large more or less oval pond is cut into by a peninsula jutting out from its eastern shore and this line is further developed by a long low island, and a gap between the peninsula and the island allows the eye to traverse the broad sweep of water beyond. Beyond the central island are several smaller islands made up of relatively small stones apparently scattered about. The pine trees planted on the central island are carefully controlled in height creating a sense of depth. The inner part of the lake holds several more islands, here the stones are much larger, some of immense proportions. Many of the rocks were gifts from Yoshimitu’s vassals as a means of tribute, and small wooden name tags were placed by them identifying the donors in question. Several of the island rock groups appear to take the form of ‘Tortoise islands’, a reference to the paradisial Isles of Longevity. Beyond the central island the far bank is practically devoid of rocks, as if the distance from the building was so immense that no details can be made out. Clearly very careful consideration has been given to the composition of the garden, and the whole layout seems to indicate an awareness of pictorial composition as utilized in the Chinese landscape paintings that Yoshimitsu was an avid collector of.

Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Yoshimasa, who was born in 1435 became Shōgun whilst still a young boy. Born into wealth, privilege and a circle steeped in aesthetic concerns rather than politics, he was to prove ineffectual as a leader, but became one of the greatest artistic patrons in Japanese history. In 1467 civil war erupted in Kyoto and the sporadic confrontations spread eventually to almost every part of Japan, at the conclusion of what is known as the Onin War ten years later, the city of Kyoto lay in ruins, with the Imperial residence and numerous temples burnt to the ground. Yoshimasa’s legacy that survives to this day is Ginkaku-ji, or the ‘Silver Pavilion’ located on the east side of Kyoto, which he had built as a place for his retirement. The architecture owes everything to his grandfather’s ‘golden’ pavilion, the two structures are strikingly similar. Though never covered in silver gilt, it’s upper storey was possibly originally painted white in order to reflect and glow in moonlight. The building is set on the bank of a pond, known as the ‘Brocade Mirror’, of complex configuration, the tight space it occupies restricts the size of the pond, and it is bordered by exquisite stonework of the highest order. Traditionally the garden is attributed to a close advisor and intimate of Yoshimasa, Soami, a painter and garden builder, from a family of distinguished artists. Many aspects of the garden layout reflect an interest in moon viewing, a pastime that had been popular in Japan for centuries. The two sculpted sand mounds, one representing the sacred Mt. Fuji, and the other a ‘Sea of Silver Sand’ were features intended to be seen by the light of the moon, when the silvery coloured sand would appear to shimmer in the pale light.

Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto
The men Yoshimasa surrounded himself with were the greatest painters, poets, philosophers and priests of their day, many of them Zen priests by training. The development of the tea ceremony as a distinct art form began in earnest with this circle of aesthetes, though it was to be many years before it became codified as Chadō (the Way of Tea).  It was a time when it seems the arts flourished as never before, or possibly since, in Japan, and when Japanese culture reached a peak of achievement that allowed it to stand in its own self belief as an equal to Chinese culture, towards which it had so long looked for inspiration. Merely eight years after the completion of the Silver Pavilion, Yoshimasa died in 1490, thus bringing to an end a period when the influence and tastes of the samurai, building on the base of the cultural norms of the Heian period and filtered through the aesthetic ideals of Zen Buddhism, formed the basis of Japanese culture as the distinct cultural force we can see and experience today.