Water is such a central feature to the Japanese garden, that the pond often holds centre stage of the creation, a garden will literally revolve about the pond. Ponds have been central to the concept of a garden since the introduction of the idea of garden building was introduced from China in the fifth century. Ponds were created for their innate decorative effect and were also used as settings for courtly ritual and entertainment. On the larger ponds of the Heian gardens, boats with prows carved as dragons carried groups of courtiers on voyages, accompanying boats carried a compliment of musicians.
"It was possible to go by waterfall the way to the Spring garden, first rowing along the Southern Lake, then passing through a narrow channel straight towards a toy mountain which seemed to bar all further progress. But in reality there was a way round, and eventually the party found itself at the Fishing Pavilion...."
Lady Murasaki, ‘The Tale of Genji’.
There was always a concern that the pond should fit to the lie of the land, the pond shape was determined by the shape of the ground. It is true that the pond of the 'Upper garden' at Shugaku-in Villa, is created by a dam wall, even so the placement and configuration of the pond gives a completely naturalistic impression. It is said that Emperor Nomizuno-o worked on a clay model for the pond, during the design of the garden. The pond is called the 'Bathing Dragon Pond' ( "Yokuryu-chi" ) , a name that is not entirely fanciful.
The ideal direction for bringing fresh supplies of water to the pond is from the north-east, and the outflow set to the south-west, according to the principles of feng shui, or geomancy. The pond was seen as being able to accumulate the vital essence ch'i, as ch'i will run away along straight lines, the shoreline should be of a convoluted form. The Dragon represents the vital energy ch'i itself, the very quality that the garden is intended to amass, and thus empower those who are close to the garden.
The shores were, and still are, created with boulders or pebble beaches. The beach at the garden of the Sento Palace, Kyoto is laid in flat, black stones the size of the palm of a large hand, it runs for nearly one hundred metres long. Each and every stone arrived to the garden individually wrapped in silk. The Sakuteiki mentions two styles of shoreline, 'suki hoko kishi '' and ' kuwagata kishi ', the 'Spade shore', where the shore line is convex in profile, and the 'Hoe-shape', where the shoreline is concave, respectively.
The ponds themselves are often relatively shallow, leading to the term, kage ike or 'mirror pond', which relies for much of its charm on the patterns of reflection in the water surface. The curvature of the underside of bridges is matched in still water by its reflection, thereby presenting an image of the interaction of yin and yang principles. Whilst the Sakuteiki mentions ponds dug in the shape of turtles and cranes, one is far more likely to recognise these symbols as islands in the pond. The ponds were obviously well constructed, as a number have survived into the present day, even if their attendant gardens have not. The ponds were normally clay lined, the shore line of the pond would be installed at an early point in the construction. One can easily imagine the scene of frenzied activity during the digging out by hand of these ponds.
One shape of pond that has generated much interest over the years is the shinji chi , or 'heart-shaped pond' , so called as the outline of the pond was loosely based on the calligraphic character shin or kokoro, meaning 'heart' or 'spirit'. In Japanese it is a character charged with meaning, and especially so for the Zen Buddhists. The shin or heart that is referred to by the Zen priests is the pure heart, the origin of everything and nothing. Like the dragon, it is the originator of all rhythmic life, like water it is formless and yet takes on form.
What is said of water-ponds may equally applied to karesansui ponds too. The same rigours of composition will apply, though the extent of the 'pond' would invariably be far less. In the event of a karesansui pond featuring in the design, it would not be necessary to define the full extent of the pond. Presenting a section of the pond only, as part of the composition is sufficient to allow the viewer to complete the picture within his own imagination. Today, some of the older gardens featuring karesansui ponds have had the 'water' taken over by moss, the garden of Manshu-in still retains something of the feel of a 'dry-pond'.
With the evening breeze,
The water laps against
The heron's legs.