Japanese Gardens and the Art of Suggestion

By Linda Robbins

It is impossible not to notice similarities between the gardens of both China and Japan especially when we consider the meaning they have for the people. The Chinese in their gardens symbolise and explore the ‘nature of nature’, and the Japanese see the garden as an interpretation of an idealised understanding of nature. There is a wish to understand something of the essence, and this is seen throughout history in the different types and expressions of gardens that have emerged, and are still designed today. The two main belief systems of Japan, Shinto and Buddhism have inspired the varying designs. Ancient Shinto belief was that places surrounded by natural rocks, or dense clusters of trees were the homes of the Gods, and that water encircled holy ground.

In Japan the occupation of flower viewing has always been important and remains so even though more modern gardens have few flowers and are more restrained in the use of colour.

In similar manner to the Chinese, the Japanese have a great love of blossom and foliage. They appreciated the willow and maple in the spring and the maple again in the autumn when the colour of the foliage is so beautiful. They too enjoyed the custom of drinking while viewing the flowers, writing poetry and spending time in contemplation. The Japanese had a competition based on an original Chinese one that took place at Okayama in the seventeenth century. The Koraku-en gardens had a long pavilion built over a stream. The channel flowing through the pavilion was thirty feet long and a poem had to be composed while a wine cup floated along this channel. Flower viewing was started by the elite and it is reported that in the ninth century the ladies of the court chose their kimonos with colours to match the flowers.

There is a story from the eleventh century about Prince Genji who created gardens around the homes of his ladies. Lady Marasaki had a spring flowering garden full of early flowering trees such as plum, cherry, wisteria, kerria and azalea. The summer garden was for the Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers and contained deutzia, orange trees, briar roses and giant peonies. Lady Akikon had a garden full of trees that turned colour because hers was the autumn garden. The winter garden, which was for Lady Akashi, had many pine trees so she could enjoy seeing the snow on the branches and many chrysanthemums.

As in China the Japanese also enjoyed their gardens at night with much moon viewing from pavilions from which they could see the moon reflecting on the water. At the Imperial Palace at Katsura a wooden platform was built to allow night viewing over the lakes bridges and islands of the gardens. However the Japanese took all this one step further because they deliberately incorporated features that would look good at night as well as also being beautiful in the day. For example, at the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto, which was made for Shogun Yoshimasa in 1480, two particular features were made out of white sand. The suggestion they were supposed to make was that of the crater of Mount Fuji and the Western Lake at Peking. Suggestion allows room for meditation and scope for further thoughts.

As in most cultures the earliest gardens in Japan were made as part of Temples and palaces, and were sacred enclosures and paradises. ‘Niwa’ is the Japanese word for garden and means a space that has been set apart, usually for religious or political purposes. ‘Yuniwa’ is the name for a pebble enclosure and means a purified piece of land. This would relate to the most sacred place in all Japan, the Ise shrine, which is consecrated to the sun goddess and is situated near to Kyoto. The sun goddess was supposed to be the ancestor of the Emperor.

‘Suggestion’ gradually developed into an art form and by the eleventh century this had rules. The rule book for making gardens (the Sakuteiki) said that failure to keep the rules would result in the death of the owner and the dereliction of his home. This gives us some idea of how important it was felt to be. This rule book had detailed instructions for the flow of water and for placing stones and other features. As in China the stones were always important and in Japan there were strict rules about the specific stone that could be used in differing kinds of scenery and in how they should be placed.

Since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the more austere attitudes of Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony have played a major role in garden development. The Tea ceremony is one of the contemplative arts in Japanese culture. It was first developed in the garden of the Silver Pavilion in 1423-1502.Initially the idea was to have a small but distinct garden area leading to the tea room in the pavilion.

The poet, garden lover and aesthetician Sen no Rikyu (1522-91) had great influence on tea gardens. The design of the tea house became austere with a small simple window, no veranda, and a door for entry. The tea garden was seen as a passageway to an event. Each garden was to be unique and the idea was that in the journey to the tea house not only was there a physical journey but also an aesthetic experience of shedding everyday concerns. Stepping stones, so often synonymous with Japanese gardens came in to their own. They not only showed the way but their size and shape had an impact on the nature of the journey. If they were small one had to pay careful attention to where you placed your feet and the journey was slow. If there were wide larger stones the person could stand up straight and look at the garden from a different perspective. There were varying recommendations for the proportion of different sized stones in relation to each other. Sen no Rikyu found inspiration for his paths in the peacefulness of the mountain trail and as well as stepping stones he used other elements such as stone lanterns, stone basins and groves of trees.

‘Roji’, meaning a narrow path, on the way, or a dewy path was the Japanese word for tea garden. ‘Dewy path’ is linked with the Buddhist religion. It is where one is reborn after turning away from worldly desires. Therefore the tea garden is seen as offering a spiritual ‘rebirth’.

In Zen Buddhism every part of creation is understood to be part of the Buddha. We are familiar with what the Sakuteiki described as dry gardens with gravel and raked sand being used to suggest the ocean or a river, miniature trees to represent forests and rocks to represent islands or mountains. For Zen Buddhists the simplest stone also represented the essence of reality and the universality of Buddhism. For example, the temple garden of Ryoanji made circa 1490 was for contemplation and was so simple that it was almost purely symbolic.

Blossom groves were allowed to grow wild and although they were still admired the more restrained Japanese garden with which we are familiar gradually gained popularity.

Nowadays there is much use of moss, trees and shrubs giving a graduation of colour through green and grey to silver. The colour that is introduced is, for example, that of iris growing round the edge of water, and evergreen shrubs (including azaleas) are used for the shapes that can be made when they are clipped. This seems a long way from the profusion of beautiful colour that we can imagine in the early gardens. Yet these modern gardens have a different appeal linked with the tranquillity and need for contemplation that the Buddhist gardeners inspired.


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