The Japanese Gardens


Early Japanese Gardens: The Asuka, Nara, and Heian Periods

Except for a few archaeological sites in the region of Asuka, Nara, and Kyoto—many of them difficult to date—little remains of the gardens of early Japan, although certain texts like the eighth-century Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) provide some notion of their significance. Many of these texts mention gardens associated with the ruling class, and some authorities assume that they may have anticipated the gardens constructed on the shinden estates of the Heian Period. There must have been important religious influences on early garden design as well, given the significance of natural objects in Shinto beliefs. Although its original meaning is somewhat obscure, one of the Japanese words for garden—niwa—came to mean a place that had been cleansed and purified in anticipation of the arrival of kami, the deified spirits of Shinto, and the Shinto reverence for great rocks, lakes, ancient trees, and other "dignitaries of nature" would exert an enduring influence on Japanese garden design. With the coming of Buddhism, early Japanese gardens may also have incorporated references to the mythical mountains, islands, and seas of Hindu-Buddhist tradition, or to the Daoist Isles of the Immortals. These references, often in the form of stones or stone groupings, appear to have played a role in Japanese garden design as early as the fourteenth century, although it is not always possible to know whether such references are intentional on the part of the designer or simply the product of later interpretations.

Since both Buddhism and Daoism were imports from Korea and China, as were many other elements of early Japanese culture, it would stand to reason that early garden designs in Japan might have emulated Korean or Chinese prototypes (historical records of the Asuka Period suggest that a garden designed for Soga no Umako probably had Korean antecedents). Recent archaeological excavations in the ancient capital of Nara have brought to light the remains of two eighth-century gardens associated with the Imperial Court, a pond-and-stream garden—To-in—located within the precinct of the Imperial Palace and a stream garden—Kyuseki—found within the modern city. They may be modeled after Korean or Chinese gardens, but the rock formations found in the To-in would appear to have more in common with prehistoric Japanese stone monuments than with Chinese antecedents, and the natural, serpentine course of the Kyuseki stream garden may be far less formal than what existed in China and Korea. Whatever their origins, both the To-in and Kyuseki clearly anticipate certain developments in later Japanese gardens (a discussion of the meandering stream garden can be found in the Glossary section of this website under kyokusui).

Ton-in pond garden
Archaeological site of the To-in pond garden.

Kyuseki stream garden
Archaeological site of the Kyuseki stream garden.

Gardens continued to be a major element of aristocratic culture in the Heian Period, when many of the principles that governed later garden design were established. Unfortunately, none of these gardens has survived in its original form, although their remnants can be seen in certain temple gardens—most notably that of Motsu-ji in the northern town of Hiraizumi—in those temple gardens that incorporate the remains of earlier secular gardens, and in some of the large ponds found throughout Kyoto and other cities (see Shoseien and Kaju-ji). These ponds were the major elements of gardens created to the south of the sprawling residences of the nobility, and provided not only scenery to be enjoyed from the pavilions of those villas, but also the venue for elaborate parties, dramatic spectacles, poetry contests and general recreation. The Sakuteiki, which gives very specific measurements for the "southern court"—the sandy area between the southern face of the shinden and the edge of the pond—also stipulates that at least one island should be large enough to accommodate a group of musicians.

Shinde virtual
The above image is a conjectural recreation of a typical Heian villa, with the main building—the shinden—indicated at A.

The layout of the Heian gardens generally followed the Chinese-inspired principles of geomancy (feng shui), including the idea that the pond should be created by a stream entering the garden area from the northeast (the realm of the Blue Dragon, the Chinese and Japanese Guardian of the East) and exiting at the southwest (the realm of the White Tiger, Guardian of the West). As Wybe Kuitert has pointed out, however, this geomantic prescription actually corresponds to the natural flow of water in the plain on which Kyoto is situated. The pond itself would have had one or more islands and peninsulas accessible by bridges built high enough to allow boats to pass. In the usual layout, one or two of the covered corridors of the villa would have terminated in a "fishing pavilion" (tsuri dono) (B) and/or a "spring pavilion" (C) overlooking the pond.

The relationship of these gardens to the shinden-style villas they accompanied is suggested by the current arrangement at the Byodo-in at Uji, the Shingon temple of Daikaku-ji, and the Golden and Silver Pavilions of the Ashikaga Shoguns (all included in this website), although the religious nature of those combinations of architecture and pond makes them only roughly comparable.

In addition to the major gardens located to the south of these residences, the plan of the villas was such that small interior courtyard gardens (tsubo niwa) were created among the buildings and the roofed corridors that connected them. A good idea of the appearance of these shinden courtyards can be obtained from a visit to Daikaku-ji on the outskirts of Kyoto, a Shingon temple whose plan preserves something of the Heian villa that once stood on the site.

The nature and significance of the Heian gardens are reflected in a number of important texts of the period, including Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), Murasaki Shikibu Niki (The Diary of Lady Murasaki), Kasuga Gongen Reigen Ki (The Kasuga Gongen Miracles), and Sakuteiki (The Classic of Garden Making). The first three of these works were the subjects of illustrated handscrolls produced in the Heian and Kamakura Periods, and the illustrations give some idea of the nature of the pond gardens and the courtyard gardens that figure so prominently in the texts.

Early texts

The earliest major treatise on garden design is the Sakuteiki, (The Classic of Garden Making). Written sometime in the eleventh century (a supplementary text was added in 1289), it has been attributed to Tachibana no Toshitsuna, the illegitimate son of Fujiwara no Yorimichi, and the grandson of the founder of the Byodo-in. A minor court official—he held the position of Director-General of the Construction Secretariat—he may also have been a designer of gardens, including that of his own estate. The Sakuteiki reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of the great Heian courts, and may well be based on earlier garden treatises now lost. The text is not illustrated, and although its instructions to a gardener are often very precise, it does not deal with the purely technical aspects of garden building. Some of its language is rather vague and even contradictory, but it is clear that a number of the principles it discusses would appear in later garden designs. Among these: (1) The garden should conform to the topographic characteristics of the site, including the natural flow of water. (2) Elements of a garden can simulate famous scenic spots, a notion also reflected in the poetry of the Heian Period. This idea would find realization in a number of gardens known to us today, a good example being the garden of Katsura in which the famous vista of Amanohashidate is imitated. (3) Gardens should conform to what one recognizes as the Chinese principles of feng shui, playing close attention to directional symbolism and the propitious choice and placing of elements. (4) Gardens should capture the spirit of nature as well as imitate its forms. The text also contains many references to the types of islands, waterfalls, and rock arrangements one might create in a garden, and these references have played a major role in later interpretations of Japanese gardens. Whether the designers of early gardens actually thought along the same lines is open to question, however, and one should be cautious in using the Sakuteiki as a key to the meaning or symbolism of all Japanese gardens.

[Much of the above is based on a new translation and analysis of the Sakuteiki published by Jiro Takei and Marc Keane in 2001; please see my Bibliography.]

A second major text on garden design, the Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes), is attributed to the priest Zoen, and the principles it discusses may actually predate the Sakuteiki. However, because the text is found only in a scroll bearing the dates 1448 and 1466, it may well be as much a product of the fifteenth century as it is a reflection of an earlier source. Evidence of a later date is the fact that it concentrates on the small scenic gardens common to the Muromachi Period rather than the large gardens of the Heian estates. The Senzui follows some of the same principles laid down in the Sakuteiki, but it goes beyond that early text in its analysis of individual elements. It stresses, among other things, the symbolic and geomantic significance of rocks and their placement, going so far as to give colorful and evocative names to the various shapes of garden stones. Unlike the Sakuteiki, this later text was illustrated, although the illustrations are less helpful than one might hope. And as is the case with the Sakuteiki, one should be cautious about assuming that all of the gardens of this important period observe the rules and principles promoted by this text. Many later writers on Japanese gardens do make that assumption, interpreting the "meaning" of various garden elements, particularly rocks, on the basis of these sources. But the gap between theory and practice can be as wide in Eastern art as it often is in the art of the West, and to assume that all Japanese gardens reflect formulas and symbolic associations expressed in written texts is a matter for speculation, not assertion.

[An English translation of the Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu is included in David Slawson's Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens; please see the Bibliography included with this site.]

A Caveat: Any survey of the history of Japanese gardens must admit two qualifications to every description and interpretation of a garden. The first pertains to the ephemeral nature of a garden. Plants and trees grow and die; water levels rise and fall, and rocks can be added, subtracted, or repositioned. Many of the gardens covered by this website have undergone substantial changes over the centuries, and most of them have undergone modern restorations after periods of relative neglect. One hopes that the principles and some of the forms of the early gardens have been preserved, but one must always be aware of the fact that every garden is, by its very nature, a work eternally in progress.

The second qualification concerns the degree to which these gardens reflect religious or philosophical attitudes. Many of the gardens are located in Zen temples, and this has led many modern interpreters to see them as direct expressions of Zen thought. This is not invalid so long as one understands that modern Zen may not correspond in all of its facets to the Zen of the past. It is also important to distinguish between contemplation and meditation. Japanese gardens are certainly meant to reward contemplation, but the practice and the goals of Zen meditation do not depend on the passive observation of external stimuli. The creation and maintenance of a garden can be seen as a Zen activity, since labor is one of the principal paths to enlightenment, but the final product--if any garden can actually be considered "final"--is not an object of Zen meditation.

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