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. 

Monday, May 2, 2011


detail @ outer shutter (amado), Imperial Palace, Kyoto

I am observing a rich tradition of simple, natural, material patterns that mark transitions of spaces. These planes of patterns and textures mark territories, create boundaries, and give form to the places deemed important. They distinguish public from private.

The basic structure that binds these divergent elements together is the grid. The grid; a rational devise that creates an imposed order of things, organizes natural materials into a complete, coherent building system. In Japanese design, the contrast of the right angle structure (grid) is the natural form. This is further elaborated on by Gunter Nitschke, Japanese Gardens:

"I see this overlapping of the rational and the random, the right angle and the natural form, at all levels of Japanese design."......."At their best, these two opposites of random and imposed order complement each other like the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang."

From a simple aesthetic perspective, my pattern collages of building elements (sand, floors, screens, roofs) represent a rational order imposed onto the natural form. They also become processional markers in space; one space transitions into the next. Each unit of pattern connects to the next.

"Each unit serves, in essence, as a bridge between the foreground and the deeper interior, and space consists of a series of such units, like the links of a chain."
                                                                  Nakagawa Takeshi,
                                                                 The Japanese House In Space, Memory, and Language

 1) Translucent shoji screen (akarishoji), Imperial Palace, Kyoto; 2) opaque outer shutter (amado), Daitoku-ji Temple, Kyoto; 3) opaque outer  shutter (amado), Toji Temple, Kyoto

The layering of space in  traditional Japanese architecture is like the pealing of an orange. The opaque outer skin; the shutter (amado), reveals a delicate, translucent inner skin; the shoji screen (sukashishoji) which opens onto a deeper space with more painted, opaque, movable, screen walls (fusuma). This layering of space is a theme that runs deep in Japanese design aesthetics.  

Such transitional boundaries offer protection from the elements and illuminate the deep recesses of the interior. They also act as a deliberate framing devise for viewing the outside from within and vice versa. These sliding screens, revealing degrees of opacity, present a reductive set of lines that highlight organic textures within.

1.) rounded tile roof (hongawara), Imperial Palace, Kyoto; 2.) multi-layered, supporting eave bracket complex, Imperial Palace, Kyoto; 3) fan rafters (ogidaruki), (detail of image #1 above, Imperial Palace, Kyoto Kyoto; 4) multi-layered, supporting eave bracket complex, @ corners, Imperial Palace, Kyoto

Zen-shuyo tile roofs and their supporting "bracket complexes", (multiple rafter systems), were developed in early Japanese Buddhist temples and later integrated into imperial usage. They assume a dominant presence over the outlining surrounding areas. The origin of this roofing system, though less complicated, came from China. Very characteristic of the Zen-shuo roof is that it has a strong curvature at the eave corners and is steeply inclined. When one gazes up the furrows of these silver-gray, glazed tiles (hongawara) the sense of weight and gravity is challenged. Zen-shuyo architecture showcases "bracket complexes" which are stacked on top of one another expressing a decorative character both inside and out.
The exposed double rafter systems (the ends of which are painted white) help to define the importance of a  building, thus becoming a marker in space.  I am  particularly interested in the patterns that these multiple rafter systems create with their the high contrast of white paint (at the end grain of the rafters) and the natural, brown-black color of the aged, untreated wood. Though they express the rational methodology of construction, they also double as a glimpse into the abstract world of the transcendental.

1) decorative wooden carving at the outer edge of the end rafter (detail), Kurodani Temple, Kyoto; 2) decorative bracketed doors, Imperial Palace, Kyoto; 3) decorative wooden carving at the outer edge of the end rafter (detail), Rokkaku-do Temple, Kyoto

In temple and imperial Japanese architecture all decoration has meaning. Each detail ties into the next. Here, decoration supports a well orchestrated narrative. Symbolic meaning is embedded in each decorative form.

1) exterior wall of stacked roof tiles embedded in clay, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 2) (detail), exterior wall of stacked roof tiles parts and concrete, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto

Japanese garden walls are another form of marking boundaries.  Constructed out of a variety of  different natural materials they define an enclosure. Some walls offer a view into the other side, a continuation for viewing another space beyond. Other walls are protective; opaque, yet offer rich evidence of an organic randomness within its structure.  

   1) detail of gravel dry garden, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 2) dry garden, Zuiho-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 3) detail of the
       Ginsadan (Sea of Silver Sand) dry garden, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto

Japanese dry landscape gardens (karesansui) represent the Zen idea that the universe can be found in a grain of sand.  These microscopic universes convey an allegiance to a deeper, more abstract meaning of life by reducing material usage and experience to sand, gravel and stones. 

    1) detail of residential stone walkway, Kyoto; 2) detail showing tatami mats and shoji screen floor track, Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji
    Monastery, Kyoto

This unique section of  a street-side pedestrian pathway suggests directional movement as though it were placed in an imaginary garden.  It's random order of larger, rectangular granite stones filled in with bits of darker colored, slate creates an illusion of walking on stepping stones that rise up from  a watery base. Transitioning from a conventional concrete sidewalk onto this experiential "bridge" marks a transition of space and instills conscious awareness.  Similarly, the wooden floor track for an interior opaque screen panel (fusuma) divides one space from another. This is further articulated by the use of the brocade edge binding of the tatami matting.  

 1) detail of translucent shoji screen (sukashishoji) Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 2) detail of reed blinds (yoshizu) Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 3) exterior woven bamboo window opening, Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto; 4) Detail of tatami mats with interior opaque panels (fusuma) Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto

The use of the grid; an ingenious, simplistic system of uniting diverse, natural materials has taken centuries for the Japanese to refine. This rectilinear framing of organic matter offers  a prescribed order; a module for repeated form. their appreciation of the rational and the random is inspiring.

detail of cut-out pattern in garden door panel, Koto-in Temple, Daitoku-ji Monastery, Kyoto

The intention of this writing is to better understand how space can be created to unify transitional experiences. Here the intentionality of a limited palette of patterns and textures offers a multitude of defined richness. The emphasis is on connectivity which breeds spaciousness in an environment that is physically bound.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Big Man Shrinking

I am beginning to think that I am in the movie remake of Alice-in-Wonderland; always trying to find the right size to negotiate a whirlwind of new cultural experiences. Living here in our very small, Kyoto apartment is a daily exercise of being constantly aware of finite spatial limitations and how to get along with less action. Everywhere we go I am constantly amazed by the delicate nature of how the Japanese people negotiate the confines of space. Being an American, I am so use to such little physical restraint. Perhaps this is a big lesson on shifting my focus to micro space and to become more attuned with the meaning and value of action and repose.

Jane and I are here in Kyoto for five months due to her efforts. She was one of five Americans that received the 2011 JUSFC-NEA Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship. She is studying pilgrimage circuits, spatial relationships around  temples and shrines and at Washi (Japanese paper making traditions). http://www.janelackey.com.

The Japanese have a long history in creating expansiveness within the confines of boundaries. This is most apparent in Japanese gardens. Limited to a select few specimens of plant material, moss, rocks and gravel these elements form a relationship which creates an abstract image that is reductive, contemplative and expansive. A good example of this is the Ginkaku-ji Temple (The Silver Pavilion).  

The Ginkaku-ji Temple garden is a conceptually complex garden which consists of two very contrasting sections. One is a more traditional (pond)strolling garden much like you would see if you looked at an old Chinese scroll painting.

The other section is a dry sand garden and more conceptually challenging. It consists of two sculptural mounds of sand; a truncated cone reminiscent of Mt.Fuji (or the mountain of Buddism) juxaposes the lower, horizontal mound which represents "the sea of silver sand"because by moonlight it ppears silver. This section is a garden to liik upon in contemplation, the other is one to walk through.

Combining the two types of gardens into one integrated whole offers the visitor a unique sense of balance and wonderment at a not silver, Silver Pavilion.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo

We arrived in Tokyo and the blossoms were just coming out. It is really an amazing event. To the Japanese these cherry blossoms symbolize transience as well as usher in a new yearly cycle.  

There wasn't too much obvious damage caused by the earthquake here in Tokyo. As a major metropolitan area, Tokyo seemed to be doing business as usual. The mood though seemed a bit somber which is to be expected given the recent events.

When we came off the plane we started to notice how many people were wearing masks over their nose and mouth. We thought this had something to do with the threat of radiation, but this wasn't the case. Many Japanese are strongly allergic to Cryptomeria (Cedar) tree pollen, so they wear masks.

One of our amazing experiences while in Tokyo has been staying at the International House. This hotel is affiliated with the Japanese fellowship that Jane was awarded. Historically, the "I" House has developed a rich forum of international exchange and partnership with the United States. The garden which the rooms look onto is contemplative and is reminiscent of another time; one that sponsors introspection and study.