Water (‘sui’ 水) has always been central to the deign and layout of the Japanese garden; it is one of the prime elements of the garden, the other principal element being mountains. The earliest gardens created in Japan featured lakes or ponds as their central motif. The ponds were of irregular outline, dotted with large boulders, and always at some point an island would break the surface of the water. The image of the pond with its attendant island, must have of been of great importance, as we know the word first used to describe a garden, was 'shima' meaning 'island'. The garden was recognised as being a sacred space, and to be a place to attract the gods to.
The pond garden was not the only use of water to be considered important, great attention was also given to the creation of yarimizu, or 'Winding stream courses'. If the pond and island garden occupied the central position in the garden layout, then the courtyards and other such areas, particularly in association with architecture, were graced by running water. They were not there solely for decorative purposes either. During the Heian period (785 1184) the kyokusui no en (曲水の宴) ceremony was a popular event in the lives of the aristocracy held in March every year. The attendants sat along the banks of a stream composing verses of poetry, cups of sake and dishes with food were floated downstream, and when the verse was enjoyed by the company, the cup or bowl could be emptied. The idea was transmitted to Japan from China via Korea.
It is important to recognise that the garden existed not simply as an adornment to the architecture, but also functioned in an official capacity, as a site of numerous ceremonies, that were such a feature of life in the Imperial Court and for the aristocracy. There are numerous references in court documents and records, as well as in literary sources of boating excursions taking place on garden ponds. These must have of been highly colourful occasions, with the boats decorated as dragons, kimono clad courtiers, and even accompanying boats filled with musicians and priests. Visits would be made to the variety of scenes presented in the garden landscape, the island in the pond was often taken to represent a mythical paradise island. It is clear that the pond was very much the centre of attention.
We are told in the Sakuteiki (the 'Book of Garden Making' 11th c), that the pond should fit the natural lie of the land. Rocks should be placed about the shoreline and island, practical instruction is given on the question of determining the finished water level. The line of axis of bridges to and from the island is considered carefully. Water should lead into the garden from the direction of the south-east, and the overflow should lead to the west. This is to satisfy the principles and demands of geomancy.
Different styles of islands are discussed in the Sakuteiki, the Hill Island, the Field Island, the Forest Island, Rocky-shore Island, Ebb tide Island, and so on. Various styles of garden are discussed, Ocean style, River style, Mountain style, Pond style, and 'Reed Hand' style, among others. Waterfalls have also been assigned symbolic interpretations, representing Buddhist deities, for example, Fudo Myõõ, a protective deity. Waterfalls were known by various designations depending on the manner of the way the water fell; they include 'Side falling', 'Thread falls', 'Sheet fall' etc
The water gardens that featured so strongly up to the 12th century, can also be seen from a Buddhist perspective. The form of Buddhism that first came to popularity in Japan, was known as Jodo Buddhism. Jodo was intent on presenting a form of paradise that would be accessible to the many. An important text is the Lotus Sutra, and the beginning of the Lotus Sutra sets out a clear description of how Paradise looked. Located in the western direction, often set on a series of islands with tall mountains with trees that bore jewels for fruit, and fabulous birds of exotic colours. The gardens that were created attempted to interpret these ideas by earthly means. It is interesting to note that many of the grander temple complexes, featured formal ponds just inside the entry gateways (‘hanchi’ 泮池). The visitor had to cross the 'Water-Dividing Bridge' in order to proceed toward his destination. The symbolic intent being that the water as a purifying agent that needed to be crossed in order to gain access to the sacred ground of the temple complex itself. Often these ponds were planted with Nelumbium lotus, a plant deeply associated with Buddhist art, growing as it does with its roots in the mud and its peerless flowers reaching toward heaven.
In karesansui ('dry landscape') gardens water still has its central, unifying, role, but the presence of water is suggested rather than actual. Very often, raked white gravel takes the place of water in dry 'streams and oceans'. The layout of gardens remained true to the original models, that is expressing a vision of an ideal landscape. Though now, under the influence of Zen, that vision would be reduced to its core, essential elements. The expression that the garden is complete, 'when nothing further may be taken away', gives a flavour of the Zen way of thinking.
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