Monday, 8 June 2015

Symbolism and Reference in the Japanese Garden. Part 1



Hidden in the depths, narrative lingers to be told.
The use of ‘symbols’, that is, objects designated with and viewed as containing meaning, has been widespread in the creation of Japanese gardens from the earliest days. The Japanese garden is one that seeks to communicate with the viewer. The experience of the garden by the viewer is not intended to be a passive one, rather the designer seeks to enhance and direct the experience of the viewer. Symbolism and reference (the allusion to place and time, other than the present) were employed to add heightened levels of engagement between the viewer and the garden.  This engagement of the viewer with the garden takes full advantage of all senses and faculties.

Whether in temple gardens, or on secular estate gardens the incorporation of references was practiced toward the same end; that is, to allow the imagination of the viewer a fuller engagement with the garden. In this way the coming together of garden and viewer could be physical, cerebral and also taken as a direct emotional experience. The principal difference being, the temple garden often seeks to draw out particular religious or philosophic content, whereas the secular garden can indulge in the celebration of the landscape garden as a refined pleasure ground. The symbolic content of the garden will naturally reflect the circumstances of the garden and its context.

Garden manifesting a vision of Paradise 

In common with garden creation and appreciation of all traditions the basic symbolic content of the Japanese garden is the notion that the garden represents paradise, or an idealized state of being.  The depiction of Paradise on this earth must be among the oldest dreams of mankind. In Japan the creation of garden space as a depiction of Paradise was one of the prime motives for the creation of gardens from the earliest times. In the development of Japanese culture the landscape was viewed as a spiritual source of wellbeing, both supportive and inspirational. The use of symbolism was undertaken to enhance and reinforce the notion and interpretation of the concept of Paradise.

As a development of this basic concept the first gardens created in Japan (by Korean or Chinese artisans) were of the pond and island type. As a central feature of the garden was a body of water with an island, and the intention was to create a space that would be attract the kami or deities down from heaven to earth, in order that humans could have direct communication with those deities. In so doing the deities would be seen to impart a moral and political authority. Under Chinese influence the garden was also understood to be a prime source of both physical and spiritual health to the owner. In this way the stage was set for the garden to act as a platform upon which a broad range of creative expression could be composed.

Recalling Chinese imagery

The  temple complexes that were founded in the Asuka (538 - 710) and Nara (710 -784) periods contained inner courtyards that were primarily used for ceremonial purposes. These courtyard spaces came to be to be developed as gardens in their own right from the tenth century onward, thus establishing a link between the garden and sacred space. With the acceptance and spread of Jōdo-shu Buddhism (Pure Land Buddhism), the temple grounds were landscaped in order to reflect new priorities. The grounds of the temples were modeled to represent an earthly paradise. The orientation of the temple complex was governed by the east-west axis, as paradise was regarded as being in a westerly direction. The basic model of the pond and island garden from the early Heian period was retained, of the few surviving traces of gardens from this time the best preserved are Byodo-in and Mōtsu-ji..

Byodo-in today stands aloof of its garden

Although these gardens were to become superseded by future developments in the garden tradition, the idea of the garden as Paradise has never been superseded. It may be argued that all Japanese gardens are in one form or another depictions of a world beyond the 'everyday world'. Certainly both the gardens inspired by Zen Buddhism (12th century onwards) and the gardens developed for the Tea Ceremony (16th century onwards) are gardens that also offer the viewer the possibility of transcendence from the cares and tribulations of the everyday world.

Viewers of gardens in the Heian and period, for example would have been well aware of a subtext of ‘meaning’ being suggested or alluded to in the layout of the garden. Most likely it would have of been expected that the garden would contain some level of meaning.  Connections would be drawn between specific features within the garden and celebrated natural landscape features or areas. What may now might appear mystical or ‘enchanting’ to the modern western mind, was perhaps even more ‘real’ and alive to the 10th and 11th century viewer.

“Her gardens, never well tended, now offered ample cover for foxes and other sinister creatures, and owls hooted in the un-pruned groves morning and night. Tree spirits are shy of crowds, but when people go away they come forward as if claiming sovereignty. Frightening apparitions were numberless.”[1]



The Heian period was a deeply romantic period in the profoundest sense, and every attempt was made to seek out beauty. The pursuit and expression of beauty was the prime aesthetic concern of the aristocratic society who had the time and means. The garden offers a great deal in its detail to admire and enjoy, and the human emotional condition was reflected in the pleasure found in the beauty of the landscape through literature. In this two-way process, gardens were deliberately created as spaces where experience could be intensified by the setting in which they occur. The garden could be viewed as a stage set, where in every direction there was new opportunity to appreciate and respond to Beauty.

“It being the end of the Ninth Month, the autumn leaves, some crimson and some but gently tinted, and the grasses and flowers touched lightly by the frost were very beautiful indeed......”



Broadly speaking there are four main sources of symbolism and reference to be found in Japanese gardens:

1. Literature and painting : 

Literature has provided a very rich source of reference in the garden. Both in the sense of the garden providing source material for poetry, and also references to poetry being imbedded into the fabric of the garden. Many gardens were specifically created as places where poetry would be composed. There were formal occasions when groups of people would gather to compose poetry, such as those times when the moon viewing was possible. Moon viewing, a widely popular pastime was recorded through the poetry of the participants. The Kyōkusei or ‘Winding stream’ garden was developed specifically with poetry writing in mind. The practice of employing poetic references in the garden was borrowed from China, where garden buildings in particular contain poetic allusions, but also garden scenery was created with poetry in mind.


During the Edo period, when garden building was among the daimyo or feudal lords (and then later, the wealthy merchant classes), reached a crescendo of activity, literature and painting would often be raided for inspiration. Rikugi-en Palace, which was completed in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1702 for the lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, contained a representation of 88 scenes from the Wakanoura Kishu (Collection of Odes).

The palace of Katsura Rikyu, 桂離宮, to the west of Kyoto is a garden that exploits symbolism and reference to the glorious effect. Created between 1620 and 1625, long after the Heian period ended the garden is tinged by a nostalgia for that era, and poetic references contributed significantly to the garden layout. Prince Toshihito, and his son, Prince Toshitada would have of been keenly aware of the associations between the Katsura estate, and the ‘Tale of Genji’, in the novel one of the estates of Prince Genji the principal character of the novel was located in the Katsura area. Toshihito and his son developed the garden as a ‘homage’ to the period through references to the ‘Tale of Genji’. The description given of the Rokujõ Palace in ‘Genji’ could well have been the model for Katsura, 600 years later.


“The new Rokujō mansion was finished in the Eighth Month and people began moving in. The wishes of the ladies were consulted in designing the new gardens, a most pleasant arrangement of lakes and hills..... The hills were high in the south-east quarter, where spring-blossoming trees and bushes were planted in large numbers. The lake was most ingeniously designed..... In Akikonomu’s garden the plantings, on the hills left from the old garden, were chosen for rich autumn colours. Clear spring water went singing off into the distance, over rocks designed to enhance the music. There was a waterfall, and the whole expanse was like an autumn moor. Since it was now autumn, the garden was a wild profusion of autumn flowers and leaves, such as to shame the hills of Oi. .... In the north-east quarter there was a cool natural spring and the plans had the summer sun in mind. In the forward parts of the garden the wind through thickets of Chinese bamboo would be cool in the summer, and the trees were deep and mysterious as mountain groves. ... And finally the north-west quarter; beyond artificial hillocks to the north were rows of warehouses, screened off by the pines which would be beautiful in new falls of snow.”[2]

Furthermore, the practice of naming buildings allowed garden makers to draw further references to literature. The Geppa-rō (literally ‘Moon-Wave-Tower’) Pavilion, at Katsura Rikyu, is named after a poem by the Chinese poet, Po Chu-i, in which the moon is spoken of as a “jewel flickering in the heart of the waves,” a reference to the moon, to which the garden is deeply associated.  Likewise, the Shōkintei Pavilion ( ‘Pine-Lute- Pavilion’), in the same garden, refers to a poem by Henki no Miya Nyōgo, which takes as its subject the mingling of the sound of the lute with the soughing of the wind among pine trees in the mountains. The intention behind the practice of naming buildings was intended to heighten the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ of the garden, which is such an important facet in allowing the imagination of the viewer full flight.

Painting, in particular the styles of landscape painting from China, were to provide the garden designers with the necessary aesthetic ‘tools’ to lift the practice of garden making into the realms of fine art. Many garden creators were also painters, painters, such as Sesshu Tōyō and Motonobu Kano turned their hand to garden creation. The style of painting known as suibokuga, 水墨画, or ‘broken ink painting’ was to be very influential in Zen Buddhist circle, and probably contributed to the sparse, minimal style of gardens in Zen temples. The great garden at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto is a prime example. Composed of fifteen stones and an absence of planting in a courtyard space, the stone arrangement can recall an image of mountaintops rising above mists or clouds, or else a chain of islands in a ‘sea’ of gravel. The garden is also known as ‘Watashi no Ko’, which is a reference to the garden symbolically representing a mother tiger leading her cubs across a river.





[1] The Tale of Genji. Lady Murasaki. Translated by Edward Seidensticker. Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd. 1976.
[2] Tale of Genji.


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