Tuesday, June 7, 2011


1.) Entrance to Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-Ji Monastery Complex, Kyoto;
2.) Stepping stones leading to the tea-house in a tea garden (roji), Koto-in, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto.


Upon entering a traditional Japanese garden, disruptive characteristics of today's lifestyle fade away into the nuances of intentional creation. Traversing a space made centuries ago, one immediately becomes aware of the rich idealized legacy that has been nurtured over time. Comprehending the conceptual structure of this ancient art begins with understanding its origins. Inherent in the phenomena of Japanese gardens is the yearning to create a perfect environment. Gunther Nitchke, a Japanese scholar, states the Japanese garden aesthetic is born out of three early Japanese archetypes; Shintoism, Buddhist-Hinduism cosmology and Taoist (Chinese) mythology.

The earliest gardens in Japan were called niwa, where sacred objects or places such as a mountain, tree or rock were thought to possess sacred power.  This also referred to designated places where specific activities happened; ceremonies dedicated to Kami (spirits that dwell in designated places). The term Sono described water paddies, shaped for the purpose of planting rice. From early on, water has been very important in the Shinto religion. Both of these early roots were retained in the word Teien, the modern term for garden.

Sacred spaces (Yuniwa) were represented by graveled (jari) or sand (suna) areas adjacent to or surrounding buildings such as important shrines, temples or Imperial Palaces. Secular spaces were dedicated to entertainment and aesthetic enjoyment.

Buddhism - Hinduist Cosmology
The arrival of Buddhism in Japan (538 AD) led to the adoption of a potent archetypal image from the cosmology of India; the image of Mount Meru, (Shumi-sen); the cosmic mountain at the centre of the universe. This archetypal image of the mountain at the center of the universe and of the waters that surround the mountain (island) are symbolic of both life and death. These archetypal images are deeply embedded symbols in collective Japanese psyche.  

In Jodo, the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, garden settings were created on earth to represent the Western Paradise that is associated with Amida (Amitabha) Buddha.   In Zen Buddhism, dry gardens (Karesansui) were created as abstract vehicles in assisting efforts in meditation.

Taoist (Chinese) Mythology
According to ancient Chinese myth, there exists a group of five islands in the far Eastern coast of China that are populated by men and women that have attained immortality. They flew on the backs of cranes and the islands were carried on the backs of turtles. The power of this myth has existed for hundreds of years. Cranes and turtles are symbols of longevity. This is why so many of Japanese gardens have integrated the crane and tortoise identities in the garden composition. 

The geometric ordering of early Japanese gardens was derived from the Chinese model, Changan, which was the capital of China (583-904 AD). Hierarchical and symmetrical, the order was on a North - South axis with the most sacred area in the center of the of a site. The rules of Chinese geomancy (Feng-shui, Yin and Yang) governed the gardens within the Imperial Palace complex as well as the city  Heian-kyo (Kyoto).

1.) Private garden entrance gate, Kyoto; 2.) Moss groundcover, Imperial Palace, Kyoto; 3.) Stone pathway in shizen Fukeishiki, (natural scenery garden), Imperial Palace, Kyoto.

Learning voraciously from all of the Japanese garden books that I brought with me to Japan has helped me to better understand the historical, conceptual and structural frameworks on which these gardens are built. This lens, as rich as it is however, is only an intellectual one. It wasn't until I strolled through these carefully tailored landscapes that I began to experience the interconnectedness and layering of "nature-scapes" (a term coined by Tom Wright). Each vista, adhering to a well prescribed script, is revealed in a tightly controlled sequence.  These symbolic, idealized moments in time are an interaction with and an interpretation of nature. They are staged narrations; deep dimensional paintings immersive and complete.  "Naturally" shaped elements, textures, colors and smells evoke a recognition of our own connectivity to nature, though it be idealized. Regardless of its authenticity, the results is very effective. It quiets the mind and engages the body within an episodic journey. 

Basic Principals
Traditional Japanese Gardens are organized into four basic types; 1.) Pleasure boat style, (Funa Asobi) where the focus is on a large central pond used for boating and where the viewing of the garden is best from the boat. 2.) Stroll type, (shuyu) intended to be viewed from a undulating path allowing the garden to hide and reveal itself in stages and from different vistas. 3.) Contemplative style, (Kanso) a garden that is viewed from the veranda, Zen dry gardens and gravel spaces (also known as Karesansui) are of this category. 4.) Many pleasures style, (Kaiyu), many smaller gardens surrounding a centralized pond many times incorporating a teahouse (roji).

According to David and Michiko Young in their book the Art of the Japanese Garden, there are basic elements in Japanese gardens that are important to understand. They are: miniaturization - in which elements such as rocks, hedges and ponds are used to represent larger-scaled landscapes. Interior gardens (naka niwa) and Bonsai are also miniaturized; hide and reveal (miegakure) - following a path where not everything can be seen at once; borrowed scenery (shakkei) - where mountains and buildings that lie outside of the garden are incorporated into the design of the garden; asymmetry - where no single element is dominant. If there is a focal point it will be off-centered; Wabi Sabi  - an aesthetic and philosophical idea that focuses on the inherent beauty of things that are imperfect and impermanent.

" At the root of all such basic principals is the understanding that a garden is a work of art. Though inspired by nature, it is an interpretation rather than a copy; it should appear to be natural but not wild. A primary challenge to the designer is to bring out the intrinsic nature of a landscape scene in such a way that  it is beautiful in all seasons of the year." David and Michiko Young

1.) View looking into a stroll garden (chisen type, meant to be viewed from within) from a covered bridge-path, Shoren-in Temple, Kyoto; 2.) View of chisen stroll garden from inside the Main Hall of the Sembon Shakado Temple, Kyoto; 3.) View looking out into chisen garden from covered bridge-path looking into , Ninna-ji Temple, Kyoto; 4.) View of garden from inside livingroom, Shoren-in Temple, Kyoto; 5.) Overview of shizen Fukeishiki, (a natural scenery garden) at the Ninna-ji_Temple, Kyoto.

Deep Dimensional Painting

The Japanese approach to creating gardens has always been concerned with the illusion of space within limitations. Transparency, rather than mass and enclosure is its signature.  Unlike the Western architectural tradition, there is no hierarchy between building and garden; between inside and out. It is a completely integrated whole.

1.) A chisen-kaiyu-shiki teien, (Zen style stroll garden organized around a pond) at the Ginkaku-ji, (Silver Temple), Kyoto; 2.) A karesansui, (dry landscape garden) at the Ginkaku-ji, (Silver Temple), Kyoto.

There are few temple gardens in Kyoto whose structural concept is a mixture of both stroll and contemplative type. Ginkaku-ji Temple is the best example of this integrated approach. It combines two contrasting sections that exist side by side; one participatory (strolling) the other observing (contemplative). I was struck by the contrast between the physical (walking through) and the mental (gazing upon) as both mind and body engaged in an active continuum.

1.) Detail of a karesansui, (dry landscape garden),at Eikan-do Temple, Kyoto; 2.) A sanzonseki (three rocks arranged to form a triangle known as the Buddha Triangle), part of a Karesansui, (dry landscape garden at Zuiho-in Temple in the Daitoku-Ji Monastery Complex, Kyoto;  3.) Horizontal Rock in a Karesansui at the Eikan-do Temple, Kyoto; 4.) Detail of a reclining rock formation in a Karesansui at the Eikan-do Temple, Kyoto; 5.) Detail of a rock island in a Karesansui at the Zuiho-in Temple in the Daitoku-Ji Monastery Complex, Kyoto;  6.) Karesansui, dry landscape garden at Zuiho-in Temple in the Daitoku-Ji Monastery Complex, Kyoto.

Dry landscape gardens (Karesansui) are essentially illusionistic and expansive abstractions. Inspired by Zen concepts for meditation and/or Chinese brush paintings, their minimal palette of white sand, rocks and a little vegetation (moss) create a austere scape on which to ponder. On one level they depict miniaturized landscapes of mountains, currents of running water, and river beds of sand and rocks. Existentially, however, the fluid patterns of sand radiating from the carefully positioned rock constellations depict a time-lapse view of one's own breath. The contemplative gaze into this reductive universe offers insight into one's own universe.

1.) Shizen Fukeishiki, (a natural scenery garden) at the Ginkaku-ji, (Silver Temple), Kyoto; 2.) Rabbit Ear Irises, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 3.) Azaleas, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 4.) detail of Koyamaki, (Japanese Umbrella Pine), Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto;  5.) Flat, single stone bridge in the Shizen Fukeishiki at the Chion-in Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 6.) Detail of shaped Japanese Red Pine, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 7.) Braced Pine with wooden crutches, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 8.) Detail of Red Japanese Maple, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 8.) Water Lilies in Dagon Pond, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 9.) Garyukyo stepping stone bridge in Dragon Pond that represents the spine of the dragon, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto.

Every detail in these illusionistic compositions has been carefully considered and meticulously maintained for hundreds of years.  Often stroll gardens (shuyu) were designed to reflect literary scenes or Chinese brush paintings. Strolling on the path reveals new scenes hidden just moments before.

            Detail of Stepping stone, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto.

Garden wanderings unveil transcendental awareness.
The uneven path activates body awareness and
stills the mind to become aware of one's presence.

1.) Cherry Blossom Festival at the cherry tree grove in the Hirano Shrine, Kyoto; 2) A bamboo braced cherry tree in the Rokkaku-do Shrine, Kyoto; 3) Enjoying Sake and food underneath the Cherry trees during the festival at the Hirano Shrine, Kyoto.

In Japan there are numerous festivals that celebrate seasonal change. Spring ushers in the reawakening of the garden with flowering fruit trees such as plums, cherry, peach and pear. Summer offers camellias, azaleas, irises, wisteria, gardenias, and lotus. Autumn displays splashing color supplied by the turning foliage of maple and gingko trees. In winter, flora color disappears, giving focus to the various species of pines. Each season offers a series of seasonal festivals which originate from basic Shinto roots. Just walk through the grounds of a shrine during sakura (cherry blossom time) and you will find the activities are infectious.

1.) A Bamboo braced, 500 year old  pine tree in front of the Main Hall of the Kurodani Temple, Kyoto; 2.) Detail of cedar bark protective wrappings  for an old Camphor tree, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 3.) Bamboo braces the extended lower limbs of a very old Japanese black Pine in front of the Kondo, Ninna-ji Temple, Kyoto; 4.) Bamboo supports extend the limbs of a old black pine in front of the Daisen-in Temple in the Daitoku-Ji Monastery Complex, Kyoto; 5.) Bamboo trellises  support old Cherry trees in the Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto; 6.) Detail of wood bracing and cedar bark wrappings of an old Camphor tree, Heian Temple Gardens, Kyoto.

All gardens change over time. They usually change gradually, unnoticed by the general public. Due to high winds, rain and snow, trees (particularly older ones), are susceptible to serious damage. This being an ongoing threat, trees and scrubs often have their main limbs supported by wooden crutches and branches tied to bamboo poles to prevent major damage produced by these extreme forces of nature. (Ironic isn't it?)  Though it is very difficult to maintain a garden's original design, the temple priest or professional gardeners are obliged to do just that. For centuries, the care for these gardens becomes a ritualistic transfer of knowledge in order to maintain the garden's original "narrative". The inclusion of these wooden braces and woven cedar splints demonstrates a deep tenderness to the tree's age and adds a structural diary of its ongoing participation in the "nature-scape".

1.) Koi fish under a stroll garden bridge, Shoren-in Temple Kyoto; 2.) Turtles resting on a rock island in a stroll garden pond, Toji 

Fish, birds, turtles, butterflies and more add to the richness of the designs. It is especially exciting when you witness a white crane disrupting the quite solitude of this garden's paradise.

Detail; Camellia blossom

I want to recognize all of the Japanese garden books that I have read during our trip in Japan. For any of you that are interested in this topic I highly recommend the following books; A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto, by Marc Treib and Ron Herman; Japanese Gardens, by Gunter Nischke; Kyoto's Gardens Across the Seasons, by Akira Nakata; Japanese Gardens, Tranquility, Simplicity, Harmony, by Geeta Mehta and Kimie Tada; The Art of the Japanese Garden, by David and Michiko Young;  Zen Gardens, Kyoto's Nature Enclosed, by Tom Wright and Mizuno Katsuhiko. I also want to thank Jane Lackey, my partner who is a relentless critic and supporter, and who has allowed me to use a few of her photographic images along with my own for this blog.