The drinking of tea had long been associated with Zen temples in both China and Japan, the monks used tea as a means of staying alert through long periods of meditation. Given the attraction of Zen to the samurai class, it was natural that they adopted the practice too. Suzuki Daisetsu speaks of the art of tea as “ the aestheticism of primitive simplicity.” Simplicity here refers to the process of stripping something down to its core constituents. Though the tea ceremony may be defined by a sophisticated series of prescribed actions, it is really through four esentially intuitive qualities that the essence of cha no yu is revealed; harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility. Perhaps the samurai found in these qualities a counterpoint to the often times violent lives they lead. Certainly they would have been well aware of the fragility, the evanescent quality, of life, indeed they positively cultivated an attitude of acceptance of such an outlook. There is not the space here to explore all the ramifications of the relationship between the samurai and tea, but suffice to say that the relationship was a very intimate and positive one. Perhaps without the fostering role of the samurai, the tea ceremony would have continued to develop regardless. Though through their support and the engagement of tea masters, they undoubtedly spurred on the ultimate flowering of cha no yu.
In 1586 Hideyoshi built a great castle/palace for himself in the centre of Kyoto, on the site of the original Imperial palace. Known as Juraku-dai, it was a lavish and vast project. The work was finished in 19 months due to the labour of thousands of workmen. Given Hideyoshi’s manner of doing things both feudal lords and townspeople were requisitioned to supply the gardens at Juraku-dai with trees and fine rocks. The sprawling grounds were landscaped with a huge lake, an artificial hill that required over 4000 loads of soil to create, as well as numerous trees and buildings, many of which were tea houses. In early May 1588, at a time when the azaleas would be in flowering profusely, the Emperor made an official visit to Juraku-dai, thereby establishing beyond doubt the real hierarchy of power in the land.
Hideyoshi lived at Juraku-dai for a mere four years before nominally retiring to Osaka castle, and handing the office of Shōgun to his nephew. Twenty-five years after his death in 1598, the whole complex was taken down, many building were relocated and many of the garden elements incorporated into other gardens. The Tiger Glen (‘Kokei no niwa’) garden of Nishi Hongan-ji temple, and the garden of Sambo-in in southern Kyoto were both furnished with rocks relocated from Juraku-dai.
The samurai as patrons of garden building was well established by Hideyoshi’s time, and this becomes even more evident in the Edo period, 1603 – 1868. In 1603 the political centre of Japan was moved to Edo (now Tokyo) which was the feudal seat of the Tokugawa family, who were to rule Japan for the next 250 years. The Tokugawa’s instituted a system whereby all the various feudal lords (daimyo) were required to establish a residence in Edo in addition to their bases in the provinces. It was a way of instituting control over these families that were required to spend part of the year at Edo, and usually were obliged to leave members of their families behind when they returned home. The main daimyo residence was known as kami yashiki, and these residences were clustered near the main gate of the castle. In addition the feudal lords were allowed to build subsidiary residences outside of central Edo, known as shimo yashiki and naka yashiki. As part of the complex gardens were also built as a matter of course, and in this the feudal lords would have ensured that their gardens were grandiose, fitting emblems of their status. There was also an ulterior motive in the encouragement given to creating gardens, as it soaked up the finances of daimyo, and thereby limited their capacity to arm and present a military threat to the central authority.
One of the most notable of these gardens was created by Tokugawa Yorifusa (1603-61), nephew of the ruling Shōgun. The garden is known by the name Koshikawa Korakuen, to distinguish it from another important daimyo garden also named Korakuen, in Okayama city. Eventually the garden was to cover some 63 acres in extent, and featured a large lake (much of the ground was swampland) and artificial hills. Rocks were difficult to obtain close by so barges were loaded with fine stones from various parts of Japan and shipped over to the garden. Water was brought in from a nearby river to create cascades, a novelty in itself, given the generally low-lying topography of the area. The garden also featured many buildings, as the tea ceremony remained an abiding passion.
The garden was a stroll garden, that is, a garden intended to be viewed as the visitor walked around up and down the hills and around the lake. A notable feature used in Koraku-en, and extensively copied in other daimyo gardens was the representation of famous scenic areas from both Japan and China in the gardens. This is known as shukkei, the literal meaning being ‘shrunken, or reduced scenery’. A small bridge over a maple filled valley was known as the ‘Bridge of Heaven’, after a similar scene at Tofuku-ji in Kyoto; a conical earth mound represented Mt Fuji; a boulder filled stream course evoked the river Oi at Arashiyama; in all there were some 33 scenes from both Japan and China represented in the garden. Today a remnant of the garden remains to be seen and is preserved as a public park
One must bear in mind that the garden in the Far East was not simply a place for the exercise of horticultural expertise. The natural landscape has long been considered a location of profound spiritual resonance, by extension the creation and appreciation of gardens was a means of evoking just those qualities. By the presentation of symbolic elements in the garden the role of the viewer’s imagination is provoked, and brought into play. In this process of the ‘individualization of place’, the viewer is freed through his or her imagination, and thereby is able to travel metaphorically and imaginatively. In doing so the viewer is able to absorb something of the quality of those places that were regarded as resonating in particularly potent and profound way.
There are two other aspects of the daimyo gardens that are worth drawing attention to. Many of the daimyo did not have unlimited funds available for garden building, and given the lack of ready supplies of good stones in the Edo area, interesting and imaginative use was made of plantings. Of course pruning had been carried out in gardens for centuries, in the Edo era we see a more widespread development of the popularity of trimming shrubs into a variety of shapes to represent mass and form. The general term, ōkarikomi describes large masses pruned into shapes (wave-like forms, mountain shapes, screens, multiple layers, and flat forms, and so on, these would have covered hillsides and other broad areas of the gardens. Probably a variety of plants would have been used for this purpose, azaleas certainly featured prominently, as they still do in gardens today. Another form of pruning is kokarikomi, and this refers to smaller bushes pruned into rounded or box-like shapes which could be massed together. A fine surviving example of this is at the sub temple Joju-in in Kyoto, where the hillside is extensively treated in this manner. Given the long term fragility of planting, little of this has survived though to the modern day, but there are examples scattered about in various temple gardens.
One further element of daimyo gardens that is little commented on is the practice of keeping animals in the gardens. In several daimyo gardens there are surviving examples of ponds that were intended to attract waterfowl. Sadly, for these avians there were also hides where the samurai, could lie in wait and send the birds perhaps unwillingly, prematurely, heavenwards by shooting at them with bow and arrow or blasting them with firearms. Other animals may have had a more tranquil existence, for examples foxes (symbolic of Inari, a deity associated with harvest and rice ) and cranes (symbols of paradise) were also kept in some gardens, and other birds such as cuckoos (a seasonal signifier of the arrival of summer) and wild geese (autumn) were enticed into the garden. It is an aspect of the Japanese garden we do not normally consider, but one that needs further research.
I have tried to show how the samurai were the inheritors of an already well-developed garden culture, and they in turn through the position of wealth and privilege were well able to continue to further that development. Far from being a caricature of violent, sword-wielding psychopaths, they were a group of people who actually developed a wide range of cultural and social concerns. Their position in Japanese society was crucial, and without their concern for the continuance of their native culture, the world would undoubtedly be a poorer place. There are over 30 gardens associated with samurai still existing today, some survive as public parks and some have been incorporated into temples. It is a rich legacy, and as a contribution to development of the art of the Japanese garden, a vital one.