Friday, 12 June 2015

Symbolism and Reference in the Japanese Garden Part 2

2. Landscape Scenery :
Suizenji Jōjuen garden (水前寺成趣園) at Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu was formerly the home of the Hosokawa clan, the extensive stroll garden features a magnificent representation of Mount Fuji, a feature which dominates the ‘garden-as-landscape’. In the secular gardens, symbolism was often used to reinforce a sense of ‘otherworldliness’. The stroll gardens were very much places where the viewer could travel, visiting any number of representations of famed beauty spots, or even other countries (for example, China). During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), it was not possible for Japanese people to leave the country, so the notion of being able to travel ‘abroad’ through the device of recreating symbolic representations of relevant sites was an important and popular outlet.

A bridge to evoke images of China. Shukei-en garden.

The perceptive experience of the stroll garden was achieved in a largely linear manner, the garden unfolded before the viewer as he or she progressed around the site, visiting and stopping off at certain locations along the way. The use of symbol and reference was intended to ‘locate’ the viewer, give focus, as well as, orientation within a largely imaginary space. Where the use of symbolism and reference adds to the depth of experience, and creates a layering of contemplative resonance for the viewer. In the garden of Korakuen (Edo/Tokyo), among the variety of notable sites referred to in the garden are the Nezame waterfall, Kiso valley, Tatsuta river, Oi river, Tōgetsu bridge, Kiomizu temple, the Atago slope, and the pines of Karasaki, all famous places heralded in both poetry and painting. To view the garden was to take a journey through the landscapes being depicted in the garden; in effect a kind of  ‘tourism’ without having to leave home, or a variant on theme park gardens! Needless to say the depiction of the landscapes was usually done with great subtlety, and a great deal of artistic substance.

A pine tree sculpted to represent a Crane in flight. Kyoto

Interestingly, this practice that was to reach a zenith in Japan during the Edo period, is also to be found in Western gardens too. From the late Middle Ages right through to the late 18th century it was quite common for the garden to be expected to be ‘read’, by the viewer. references to classical mythology abound in the statuary, temples, mock follies and the like which were employed to add visual reference and symbolism to the garden. It was only with the rapid expansion of plant imports from outside Europe through the ninetieth, and early twentieth century, that the concept of the garden as a place for displaying plant collections, was to achieve a supremacy in design.

In the Japanese garden, the landscape has always been the prime model for the garden. It is the source of the most fundamental imagery involved in the creation of the garden. It has been so since the earliest days of garden creation in Japan. In the Sakuteiki, the Heian era garden manual one of the first pieces of advice offered is to study nature for inspiration in garden creation. Thus the garden becomes a condensed and symbolic depiction of landscape scenery, evoking the feelings and responses to landscape even in the environs of the city.

Nature reflected through imitation.

Artificial hills could depict mountainous terrain or notable mountains , ponds and raked gravel areas could suggest rivers or seas,  all manner of landscape scenery were depicted in the garden. The ‘Drum Waterfall’ at Katsura represents the rapids and falls on the Oi river. The Oi river flows through a deep gorge which is celebrated for its beauty in the Tales of Utsbo, and other classic writings. The tiny waterfall makes the sound somewhat similar to a Japanese drum. The garden of Katsura has many references to landscape scenery in both Japan and also China. This was a means by which visitors to the garden were able to travel around the garden, and in doing so were able to travel imaginatively far beyond the locale in which they were actually in. One noted example of this is the important feature of the Katura garden representing the Amanohasidate pennisula, 天橋立, a pine covered sandbar located in Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto prefecture. Amanohashidate has for centuries been regarded as one of the most scenic locations in Japan. This practice of employing references to landscape scenery is explored in more detail in the next section.

Garden manuals, such as Senzui narabi ni yagyo(o) no zu,  (Illustrations for  the Design of Landscapes) by Zōen, compiled in the 15th century, were explicit on the types of model landscape for gardens.

Sacred twin trunk tree, representing male and female essence.

“In the planting of trees and herbs, you make their natural habitats your model. You will not go astray as long as you bear in mind the principle of planting trees from the deep mountains in the deep mountains of the garden, herbs and trees from freshwater shores on the freshwater shores, and herbs from the seashore. For the landscape garden mirrors nature. And it is said that in each and all we must return to the two words, natural habitat.”

Among the types of landscape mentioned in the manual are, ebb tide beach, deep mountains, seashore, freshwater shore, foothills running along a stream valley, and hillside fields (meadows). The Sakuteiki,作庭記or ‘Book of Garden Making’  (11th century) describes a similar range of landscapes, also a variety of types of islands and beaches. In some of the larger Edo stroll gardens, there were depict ions of tea plantations (often recalling the Uji area, where tea was first planted), and even rice paddies complete with faux villages.

The landscapes created in these gardens were landscapes of imagination, in smaller spaces it was deemed to be sufficient to suggest certain landscape types in an abbreviated form, through planting or the placement of stones in particular attitudes. The viewer was given a series of ‘clues’ as to the nature of landscape being suggested, and then through imagination and suggestion he or she would be able to conjure a more detailed ‘picture’ of the landscape scenery. Suggestion is one of the key elements of aesthetics in Japanese arts, and in the context of the garden, suggestion is widely used to engage the viewer in the fabric of the landscape scenery.

The gateway as a point of transition.

3. Religion :

In their different ways the religions of Japan have contributed to symbolism and reference in garden settings. The native religion of Japan, Shintoism, perhaps has given least in this respect, but this is only because there is no particular iconography associated with Shinto. Rather the kami (gods), which are numerous are generally referred to by location or places in the greater landscape. In this way a spring source, waterfall, mountain (Mt Fuji), rock or venerable tree, and so on, can be in itself the abode of the kami . The landscape feature does not symbolize the kami, rather it is regarded as being the actual abode of the kami. The sacred place in the landscape where the people can have a direct communication with the kami. The way in which Shinto has affected the garden tradition is in creating a certain environment where the landscape is viewed as being a living and breathing conception. In which, and through which, people can have a deep and meaningful relationship with the natural world. Shinto is a profound part of the cultural matrix from which the garden culture springs. It ensured that the peoples of Japan could enjoy a particularly close relationship with the landscape environment which surrounds them.

The religion that has furnished a particularly rich source of imagery to the garden tradition is Buddhism. The earliest gardens, from the 8th century onward, created in Japan were representations of the Buddhist paradise. A form of Buddhism that was founded during the Heian period, though only began to find widespread acceptance during the following period (the Kamakura period was known as Jōdo, or the Pure Land School. As part of the iconography of the Jōdo sect, the Amida Buddha was to be found residing in a paradise, known as the Western Pure Land.

The layout of the Western Paradise is known principally from paintings and writing from the Heian  and Kamakura  eras. The main building housing the principal image was located on an east-west axis, to the front of the building lay a pond with an island. The island was reached by means of a curved wooded bridge. In fact the garden layout is very familiar from the gardens of the Heian period, and was probably adapted from the style of gardens prevalent to the period. It is typical of how Buddhism achieved a high level of integration in Japanese culture, through the absorption of existing practices and mores, rather than by seeking to supplant native ideas and practices. There are no gardens surviving from this era, the garden at Joruri-ji temple to the south of Kyoto is probably closest to the basic model which survives in a recognisable form. Laid out at some point during the Heian period, possibly at the founding of the temple circa 1150, the garden underwent a detailed restoration in 1976.

Another garden with tenuous links to the Jōdo school is Saiho-ji, better known as the ‘Moss Temple’, the name itself can be translated as the ‘Temple of the Western Paradise’. Though the layout of the garden we can see today has been much altered from its original form as set out in the Heian era. The lotus pond at Saihoji represents the Shichihōchi, ‘Pond of Seven Treasures’, which is known from Buddhist descriptions of Paradise. Other traces of the influence of the Jōdo school are to be seen at the entry to some of the major temple complexes, in the form of pond located near the entry to the temple complex. The Hanchi bridge, or ‘Water Dividing ‘bridge which spans a symmetrical pond, lies on a direct north-south axis, is derived from a reference to the Lotus Sutra, which contains a description of the Buddhist paradise. The pond placed at the point of entry to the complex allows the entrant to make a symbolic act of dissolution and purification.


In the Jōdo gardens (Jōdo teien) we can discern an attempt to use the garden as a vehicle to explore space as a non-secular entity. At the point of entry into the garden, the viewer crosses a threshold between the everyday world into a space marked by very different qualities and values. The symbolism or references utilised in such a garden are not partial, rather they are intended to immerse the viewer completely into space beyond the ordinary. This was to set a pattern that remains one of the primary expressive qualities of the Japanese garden tradition.

The Zen school of Buddhism that from the 14th century onward became one of the principal forces of cultural development in Japan, was to exploit fully the aesthetic flexibility of the karesansui (‘dry landscape’ 枯山水) garden, several historically important gardens still survive today. The temple of Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, was designated a World Heritage site, this was due to the presence of the enigmatic karesansui stone arrangement lying to the south of the hōjo (main hall). The garden barely warrants description, as it perhaps one of the most famous of all gardens, an icon in itself.

As little as the garden space itself contains, it has attracted a great many different interpretations. They range from, the ‘islands-in-the-sea’, a landscape-painterly interpretation, which relies on the close association between the style of ink painting popular in Zen circles (suibokuga水墨画), and the almost casual, seemingly random even, distribution of the stone arrangement through the garden space. Another interpretation is that the stones represent a mother tiger fetching her cubs to safety across a river. This interpretation is probably reflective of Confucian morality, the influence of which has waxed and waned throughout Japanese cultural history. Furthermore the layout of the garden has also been interpreted as representing the star cluster Pliaedes, which appears in the spring sky, and was an annual event, marked by a festival, at the beginning of the rice planting season.

Clearly the arrangement of stones, in their minimalism, seeks to communicate with the viewer, in Loraine Kuck’s ‘The World of the Japanese Garden’[1], her chapter on Ryoan-ji is subtitled, “Sermon in Stone”. It is as if in the very blandness of the garden, there is contained a boundless richness, which reaches across the space to include us, the viewer. Ryoan-ji reaches across a divide, and in doing so, stretches beyond symbolism. Kuck writes of Ryoan-ji, “A sermon in stone, a whole philosophy bound up between the covers of an earthen wall - undoubtedly this garden is one of the world’s great masterpieces of religiously inspired art.”

Nanzen-ji, Kyoto

The tiger, appears again in the ‘Garden of the Leaping Tiger’, attributed to Kobori Enshu (小堀 遠州, 1579-1647), at Nanzen-ji, Kyoto, which is an animal that has several symbolic interpretations, for example, as representing the Yin, or primordial female energy, in the Yin/Yang system (In/Yō, in Japanese ). In the geomantic (f ūsui) tradition, the White Tiger represents the direction West, which is also the direction in which to the Buddhists placed the location of Paradise. The west was associated with cleansing and purification, and flowing water would ideally exit a garden to the west, thereby removing impurities.

Christian lantern

Even Christianity finds an unexpected expression in the Japanese garden. The ‘Christian Lantern’, a modification to the Oribe style of lantern, features a small figure carved into the stem of the lantern. In the 16th century it was officially forbidden to practice Christian worship, this was a political reaction of the Shogun Hideyoshi, following years of political meddling by Jesuit priests in domestic politics. As often the case in such circumstances, the religion went underground and was practised in secret. The figure on the lantern was a ‘secret’ symbol was set below the soil level and thus hidden, and was intended to keep alive a flame of devotion. A different expression of Christian symbolism can be found at the Garden of the Cross, at Zuiho-in (瑞峯院, created 1961), Kyoto, a powerful work by Shigemori Mirei, which celebrates and recalls the Christian sympathies of the temple’s founder, Sōrin Otomo, a powerful feudal lord from Kyūshū. In 1582, Otomo and two other lords sent the first diplomatic delegation from Japan to Europe, which visited Rome. The mission took eight years to return home, by which time Otomo was dead, killed in a bitter civil war campaign. The gardens at the temple evoke both Otomo’s, Christian and Buddhist leanings.

Garden of the Cross, Zuiho-in, Kyoto

Buddhist dieties also appear in Japanese gardens in various guises. The most commonly seen is the Sanzon seki  (三尊石or ‘Three Gods arrangement’), usually composed  of three upright stones, the tallest being the centrally placed stone. This group refers to a Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas, as in Amida Nyorai, flanked by Kannon Bosatsu and Seishi Bosatsu.

Waterfalls have for a long time been associated with Fudō Myōō (不動明王), ‘The Immovable One’.  A popular deity in the Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism, Fudō is regarded as a protective guardian deity. Thus sited in a garden, either of temple or residence, the flowing waterfall or dry waterfall arrangement is placed to help to ward away disruptive energies. In the Senzui narabi ni yagyō no zu (山水並野形図), it is noted that there may be as many as 48 deities represented in gardens. Generally the attribution is given to standing stones placed in the context of the garden, their presence reinforcing the sacred quality of the space, and guiding the attention of the viewer.

Numbers and their symbolic significance are well represented in the Japanese garden.  The Shichi-go-san , 7-5-3,  grouping can be commonly found in many gardens. It is often used in groupings of stones making up stepping stone paths, for example at Shinju-an, Kyoto, as well as being the controlling number for rock arrangements. The rock groupings which make up the karesansui garden at Ryoan-ji, has its rock groupings made up of 3, 5 and 7 stones. A basic stone arrangement will be composed of three stones, to which an additional two stones in a supporting role can easily be added.
The treasure boat contain the Seven Lucky Gods. Daichi-ji, Shiga Prefecture.
The term for landscape in Japanese is sansui, 山水, which is composed of the characters for mountain and water. It indicates the centrality of both elements to the appreciation of the greater landscape to the concept of the garden. Mountains have always played a significant role in Japanese mythology, and so it is no surprise to see the symbolization of mountains in the garden. Shumisen or Mt. Sumeru, (須弥山) according to Buddhist mythology is a cosmic mountain that stands as the axis mundi of the Universe. The greatest of all mountains, it towered 84000 miles high, whose upper portion was divided into 33 heavens. At the pinnacle of the mountain sat the palace of Sakra Devanam Indra, the supreme god of the Vedic pantheon, Lord of the Cosmos. Arranged in a series of concentric rings around Mt. Sumeru are nine bands of mountains, divided by eight great oceans. A great towering mountain around which various worlds are arranged in a series of concentric circles. The image of Mt. Sumeru has been employed in both Chinese and Japanese gardens for centuries, and isoften to be confused with the  mountains of Mystic  Isles legend. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Mountain of Nine Worlds and Eight Seas’. The difference of interpretation is slight, whilst the Mystic Isles legend conjures an image of Paradise beyond the earthly world, the vision of Mt. Sumeru anchors the garden as being a representation of the entire universe. The viewer stands at the centre of the Universe spiralling outward into infinity from a central point. In the early Japanese gardens Shumisen was represented by either a prominent upright stone often set towards the background of the garden arrangement, or else may have been represented by a carved stone monolith made up of sections, and adorned with carvings showing mountain ranges and water. One such object was uncovered from a garden site at Nara and may have operated as a fountain.

Sometimes confused with the image of Mt Sumeru, is the Chinese Taoist legend of the Mystic Isles (P'eng-La, Tai Yu, Yuan Chaio, Fang Hu and Ying Chou). According to the legend Paradise lay off the coast of China as a series of five towering islands, each of the islands were supported on the backs of giant tortoises. The islands were blessed with sparkling streams, luxuriant flora and fauna, including mushrooms that guaranteed immortality to anyone who consumed them. After a confrontation with a giant two of the islands were lost leaving Penglai, Yingzhou, and Fanghu. Further, according to legend anyone who achieved eternal grace would be transported out to the Mystic Isles borne by cranes, a bird that has long been associated with mystical qualities. The depiction of both Tortoise (Kamejima, 亀島) and Crane (Tsurujima, 鶴島) islands have been a feature of Japanese gardens for centuries.

Crane island, 16th century. Konchi-in, Kyoto

The broad shell of the turtle is often represented by a flat stone, with a smaller pointed stone set to the fore in a slightly uplifted attitude to evoke the head. The arrangement can be represented sometimes with a degree of realism, or other times very freely. The Crane arrangement is distinguished by a pair of tall upright stones representing the wings, and a long, narrow, horizontal stone representing the outstretched neck of the bird in flight. Sometimes a feature of the karesansui (‘dry landscape’ garden), the Turtle can also be set in a pond. Both Turtle and Crane islands are frequently planted with pine trees, which are in themselves a symbol of longevity.

Crane and Turtle arrangement. Taizo-in. Kyoto

[1] The World of the Japanese Garden. Loraine Kuck. Weatherhill, 1968.

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