Saturday, 27 July 2013


Daisen-in, a sub-temple of the Daitoku-ji temple compound, 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. The garden of Daisen-in was laid out between 1509 and 1513. 

From the roofed corridor with a bell-shaped window the viewer looks down to the 'Boat stone', as if standing in the prow of a ship The 'Boat stone' is just emerging in the bottom right corner of the photo. 
The Boat stone resembles a Chinese junk, and is mirrored by the arrangement beyond it.
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.  It 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; it is doubtful whether this walkway existed in the original scheme and it certainly interrupts the visual flow.  Nearly 100 stones are set in the garden, in compositions which derive from Chinese landscape painting.  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 paradise motif.
The tall stone on the left is Mt. Shumisen
It is always difficult to be sure how important the symbolic content, as to garden design, although it is clear that the Daisen-in garden can be read as symbolic in its entirety.  Clearly symbolism was of concern to garden designers in their use of motif.  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.

South garden representing the sea. The double hedge to the rear represents waves on the sea.

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