Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Islands and the Japanese Garden


Distant islands with pines. Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
The appearance of islands has for a very long period been an important visual feature of Japanese gardens.  One only has to take a cursory glance at a map of Japan to realize that the country itself is a myriad series of islands, large and small. Mountains, water and islands are the predominate images of the landscape of Japan. The original term for a garden in Japan was shima,島, which underlines the importance of this feature to garden creation. Indeed, it can be suggested that ponds with islands have been a key feature of gardens in Japan from their very inception. The gardens were created as locations to which to attract deities from heaven, thus islands were created in garden ponds as a sacred location.

Mt Horai with Turtle and Crane islands, Ryogen-in, Kyoto
Islands have for millennia been associated with the notion of the sacred in the Far East. The legend of the Mystic Isles, or Blessed Isles, is Chinese in origin, and with its concern with immortality, very much Taoist in tone. It has also provided the Japanese garden with two of its most favoured images, Turtle and Crane Isles. It is not only in the Far East that islands have been associated with the sacred. Such symbology can also be found widely across the world, it also appears in Hindu, Greek and Christian mythology among many other cultures. Carl Jung also associated the concept of the island with the ego, being surrounded by the sea of the unconscious.

These blessed isles, P'eng-lai, Ying-chou, Fang-hu, Yuan-ch'iao and Tai-yu, were the home of the Immortals. The islands were supported on the backs of giant turtles, and the virtuous were transported out to the heavenly isles on the backs of cranes. In an encounter with a giant, two of the original isles were lost, leaving a more manageable number for garden builders to incorporate into their schemes ever since!

Moss covered island, Saiho-ji, Kyoto
In the Sakuteiki 作庭記, 'Record of Garden Making, complied by Tachibana Toshitsuna in mid to late 11th century Japan are listed several types of island according to their reference to the natural landscape. Among the island styles suitable for gardens are:

Higata (干形 “Ebb-tide style”), which appears as if a partly submerged island, where beach stones can be seen below the water level.
Isojima (磯島磯嶋 'Rocky Shore Isle) which is characterised by many stones and planted with pines.
Kasumigata (霞形 'Mist style') a thin trailing island composed of gravel or sand without planting.
Katanagare (片流 'Slender stream'): A slender meandering island.

Morijima (森島杜嶋 'Forest isle') A flat island planted with pines.
Nojima (野嶋 'Meadow isle') A low lying island planted with wild grasses and moss with a scattering of low stones.
Suhamagata (洲浜形 'Cove beach style') A rugged island with sandy beaches and windswept pines.


Yamajima (山嶋 'Mountain isle') A steeply rising island with tall rocks set about the base and covered by dense evergreen planting.

The presence of the Isles in the garden is a reminder of the function of the garden which is to represent space in a form separate and qualitatively distinct to that of the everyday world. The garden being derived from the notion of sacred or paradisal  space as well as drawing on natural landscape features.

Rock groupings as islands, Ryoan-ji, Kyoto