Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Streams in the Japanese Garden

Dry stream with flat pebbles indicating flow. Shinnyo-in, Kyoto.
Water has always played a significant role in the iconography and layout of Japanese gardens. Be it as still bodies of water representing ponds, lakes or oceans, or as stream courses that have the inherent aspects of flow and movement. Streams and flowing water have multiple associations in the context of Japanese culture, such as cleansing, freshness, connectivity, vitality and renewal. In the heat and humidity of the summer months, flowing water created an atmosphere of refreshment and coolness that would create an atmosphere that was calming and soothing. Along with the flow and movement of a stream come the sounds and songs of water tripping over stones set artfully along the stream bed. Since time immemorial water has been considered a cleansing agent in Japan, as well as being recognized as a bringer of life. Suijin 水神 or ‘water gods’ are plentiful in Shinto iconography, and may be found and worshipped at rivers, lakes, and spring sources.
Broad shallow stream. Murin-an, Kyoto.
In the Heian period (785-1184) courtyard garden, the yarimizu (遣水), or winding stream was considered an important element of the design. The streams were created with shallow flows, where water rippled over gravel beds and there would be places along the bank where people could sit and watch the movement. Streams were created with convoluted courses that wound across the courtyards, sometimes the streams would run under buildings or raised wooden walkways connecting buildings, which give another perspective on viewing them. The presence of the stream running under a building would carry with it an malevolent energies, and so the stream acts as a cleansing agent.

 In the Sakuteiki (‘Records of Garden Making’, compiled mid to late 11th century), instructions based on geomantic considerations are given as to the most propitious directions for the stream to run through a property; namely rising in the east, running under one corner of the main building and heading off in a south-westerly direction.  This was to ensure the proper cleansing of the domestic spaces, removing any malevolent influences from the site. According to geomantic tradition the stream represents the flow of ‘Dragon energy’, ie the vital force, ch’i . The inner bank of the curving stream representing the belly of the Dragon, and the outer curve representing the back of the Dragon. The placement of a house or pavillion on the ‘inner bank’ assured its protection. Another geomantic theory considers the flow of the stream from north to south as representing the union of yin and yang elements, thus creating cosmic harmony.

'Winding stream', Jonagu Jinja, Kyoto.
According to the Sakuteiki, mountains are masters of water, that is they dictate the direction and pace of the flow. Accordingly large stones can be set at bends in the streams, and stones are also set in the bed to create divergent flows in the stream (mizukiri ishi,  水切石, ‘water splitting or water cutting stones’). ‘Crosswise stones’ (mizukoshi ishi, 水越石) are flat pieces of stone set across the stream bed, where water will either run around either end of the stone or flow evenly over the top in a thin sheet. Stones can also be set into the bed of the stream, which given sufficient flow rates will cause the water to surge over the top and so doing create sound and dynamic movement.

Meandering stream and waterfall into pond. Taizo-in, Kyoto.
The streams are often created as shallow flowing water courses, the banks lined with stones and groups of plantings, the bed of the stream may be also studded by rocks set to break-up the flow of water.  In the older gardens of the Kyoto area, the water sources were natural springs, and streams and water would have of been drawn into the gardens by diverting these flows. Water would also be piped and channeled into gardens to feed the watercourses, and also refresh the ponds. In modern times where this practice is no longer possible or desirable, then the use of pumps and filters is employed to create moving water in the garden. 
A 'dry' river flowing beneath a bridge. Daisen-in, Kyoto