June 19, 2021

Bereza Fire

Glorious home improvement

How to truly define a Japanese garden

I often wonder what people mean when they talk about the “English garden.” From the private estates of the gentry to the pleasure pavilions of 18th-century London, open to all and sundry, the serpentine path down the quintessential English garden is a long one, passing rock grottoes, espaliered trees, manicured lawns and herbaceous borders, spilling into green pastures and meads. For others, it suggests the exacting geometry of a Jacobian knot garden, maze of trimmed box hedge, gravel parterres or just a simple Victorian rose garden.

The thread that connects all these visions of the English garden is that they are places of repose and beauty. Mention of the topic is unlikely to conjure images of the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, stricken among rental allotments on the withering salt flats and shingle of the Thames Estuary. Jarman’s choice of recycled or requisitioned objects for his creation were locally sourced and included flint, driftwood, shells, rusty tools and mooring chains, the horticultural elements featuring cactus, gorse, elder, hawksbeard and blackthorn. The garden’s borrowed views were lines of electric pylons and a nuclear power station.

A similar diversity of forms, ranging from landscapes created according to the strict directives of ancient garden manuals to modern, iconoclastic designs, is reflected in the Japanese garden. In the search for its origins, we have to return to a world of pre-Shinto forest glades.

If, as Francis Bacon contended, “God Almighty first planted a garden,” the ancient Japanese had to contend, not with a single god, but a pantheon of deities too numerous to count. The simple arrangements of stones, created in forest glades and on pebbled clearings beside waterfalls, were the work of men in deference to the gods, perhaps even with a touch of fear for the calamities that could ensue if the correct observations were not made. Nature, in a world devoid of temples, shrines or religious texts, provided a stage on which stones, trees, mountains and streams substituted as high altars. In these sacred sites, designed to create a space conducive to worship and benevolent co-existence, large boulders called iwakura, were placed.

Nature and formal landscaping in perfect harmony at Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Purified spaces were made around these stones, the area delineated with rice fiber ropes called shimenawa. At a later stage, paper streamers, known as gohei, were strung around the girth of cryptomeria trees. A convincing argument could be made that these ritual spaces, with their sculptural beauty and aesthetic appeal, were the prototypes of the Japanese stone garden. In a later development, beds of sand or white gravel were placed around the rocks, creating a border between the sacred and human.

Formal gardens had existed in Japan since the sixth-century, when cultural waves from Tang Dynasty China and the Korean Peninsula were embraced. Incorporating rocks, ponds and pavilions in the Sino-Korean manner may have paid homage to continental forms, but by the end of the Heian Period (794-1185), an era characterized by paradise gardens representing the Buddhist Pure Land, Japan, the ever-attentive student, had become the master.

Many firstcomers to the Japanese stone garden find its apparent barrenness and obdurate opposition to standards of conventional beauty baffling, questioning its right to call itself a garden at all. Bereft of greenery, its stones set in plains of white and gray gravel or sand, the karesansui, or dry landscape garden, is viewed as either a mystic, almost gnostic enigma in stone, or a hoax. The Muromachi Period (1392-1573) is regarded as the apogee of the stone garden design, a period in which some of the major symbolism that makes these gardens so fascinating, appeared.

Tokyo’s Happo-en garden is also known for its fine collection of bonsai. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Tokyo’s Happo-en garden is also known for its fine collection of bonsai. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

If stone gardens seem overly severe, the Edo Period (1603-1868) kaiyūshiki-teien, or stroll garden, presents a model of almost engorged visual content. Discouraged by the authorities from spending funds on enlarging their military arsenals, many warriors and members of the nobility chose instead to pursue leisure activities of a cultural nature, amusing themselves constructing large, ambitiously conceived gardens, many of these representational landscapes cleverly mirroring concepts and settings, both real and imaginary, found in Chinese and Japanese history and literature. Like all Japanese gardens, stroll gardens reflect the fascination many Japanese have with landscape.

In these gardens of the nobility, visitors were invited to follow a circuit featuring meisho, or famous sights. The most common technique for viewing shukkei (scaled down versions of natural and manmade scenery) was the miegakure, or “hide-and-reveal” technique. Visitors were led along a series of connected paths, opening on to carefully composed scenes. The garden is hardly ever revealed in its entirety. The results are often more playful than solemn. Noting that, at an early stage in Japan’s creation of a cultural identity, “the avatar of Walt Disney was alive and well,” writer Donald Richie cited the example of Rikugien, a prominent Edo Period stroll garden in Tokyo.

Here, he notes, “in one place, arranged somewhat like a miniature golf course, are all of the 88 classical sites, all tiny, and all with noticeboards explaining the Chinese or Japanese association.”

A classic stone arrangement at the center of Kennin-ji’s courtyard garden. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A classic stone arrangement at the center of Kennin-ji’s courtyard garden. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The less conspicuous tea and courtyard gardens, which occupy relatively small plots but include important design forms, have remained essentially unchanged.

“To walk the length of a roji (tea garden) is the spiritual complement of a journey from town to the deep recesses of a mountain where stands a hermit’s hut,” writes Marc P. Keane, an authority on Japanese gardens. Here, the journey down the green, powdery corridor of the tea garden is understood to be transformative.

Courtyard gardens have two names in Japanese: tsuboniwa, a tiny inner plot that could be the size of as little as two tatami mats, and nakaniwa, a similarly rectangular form but one that may enjoy a larger space allocation. Courtyard gardens are most commonly found within the grounds of temples, traditional Japanese inns and in machiya, or deeply recessed merchant residences. Their relatively low cost, easy maintenance and aesthetic appeal may explain the endurance of this garden form, which requires fewer compositional elements than a stone lantern, water basin, scattering of gravel and one or two evergreen plants or miniature trees.

The stone garden at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo was designed by landscape master Masuno Shunmyo. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The stone garden at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo was designed by landscape master Masuno Shunmyo. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

With the rise of a class of wealthy business people during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), landscape designers were commissioned to build private gardens. Although some remain inaccessible, others, spanning the late Meiji Era to the 1930s, are open to the public. These gardens represent a new passion for Western style ideas, particularly the naturalistic movement, combined with a lingering nostalgia for Edo Period landscaping.

Gardens continued to evolve in contemporary times, the iconoclastic designs of Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) standing out for their astounding originality. Although Shigemori liberally used Buddhist symbolism in his gardens, a conceptual leap took place with the deployment of controversial materials such as concrete, tile and colored gravel. Coining the phrase “eternal modern” to describe his own work, judgment of his gardens will depend on personal taste, but most observers can concur, as garden writer Christian Tschumi claimed, that his avant-garde designs are a “compelling manifesto for continuous cultural renewal.”

Even in this brief search for the definition of a Japanese garden, a multitude of forms are revealed, each interpreted differently, each redefining the meaning of the garden. That colossus of Regency era English garden design, Humphry Repton, once declared that “gardens are works of art rather than of nature.” Many Japanese would doubtless define their most accomplished gardens as works of art, but with the proviso that they are always framed with a vision of nature in mind.

An organized, composed space, one that pays homage to nature, then, even if purely in the abstract, may be called a Japanese garden.

Mark Hovane sees his role more as facilitator and curator of Japanese gardens than conventional guide. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Mark Hovane sees his role more as facilitator and curator of Japanese gardens than conventional guide. | COURTESY OF MARK HOVANE

Experiencing the essence

One person worth consulting on Japanese garden matters is Mark Hovane. Hailing from Australia, Hovane is the creator of Kyoto Garden Experience, a company that offers customized tours to foreign visitors. When I meet the 30-year Kyoto resident for a conversation about Japanese gardens, I half expect to see a sandaled figure clothed in a samue, those trademark, indigo outfits favored by traditional gardeners and Zen monks. Instead, I am greeted by a svelte, immaculately attired man, who extends a smooth, callous-free hand. A small enamel badge on the lapel of his crisply laundered jacket depicts a Japanese pine tree.

What drew you to Japanese gardens and how did you study them?

As I delved deeper into the aesthetics, I became fascinated by the poetic and philosophical underpinnings of Japanese landscaped form. Soon after arriving in Kyoto, I recall walking with an elderly Japanese friend who suddenly stopped me and, pointing to the trees overhead, murmured the word “komorebi.” I discovered that it connoted the dappled sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. That moment has always crystallized for me the poetry of the Japanese relationship to nature. Being involved with a local environmental NPO, I had the great fortune to make acquaintance with some elderly Japanese aesthetes, or bunjin, who introduced me to any number of their personal favorite gardens in Kyoto. I count these people as amongst my first bona fide teachers. I have also collaborated with professional gardeners to implement some of my original designs.

The stroll garden of Genkyu-en in Hikone contains many classic garden elements. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The stroll garden of Genkyu-en in Hikone contains many classic garden elements. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

How long do the Kyoto Garden Experience tours last and what type of members join?

The raison d’etre of KGE has always been to provide an intimate encounter with gardens that are conducive to contemplation. My approach is slow and immersive, experiences limited to individuals and small groups of up to four people who already know each other. The experiences last from a half-day introduction to a week-long immersion. Since its genesis more than 10 years ago, KGE has also acted as a consultant for small Japanese-inspired garden projects, and, in recent years, has designed and installed courtyard gardens in both Australia and Japan.

I imagine groups readily responding to the beauty of the gardens, but how do you explain their complexity in layman’s terms?

My role is to help people articulate what they are seeing, to unpack some of the symbolism that doesn’t easily translate to other cultures, and to give them the tools to help contextualize their experience. It is also vital to allow space or silence (what is known in Japanese aesthetics as ma) to speak to the visitor directly. Too much talk gets in the way of that.

I’m often stunned by a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese garden design when I look at many landscapes created abroad. How might it be possible to rectify or adjust these misperceptions?

To the casual observer abroad, a Japanese garden is simply a collection of “essential” signifiers or elements. Without a deeper understanding of principles and techniques, there is a danger that the simple importation of these elements alone, will result in creating a“Japanesque” garden, which at best might be thought of as having Japanese style. On the other hand, if some of the underlying principles and techniques are considered, the resulting garden may be successful in capturing a “Japanese spirit.”

The Hakusasonso Garden in Kyoto is well-known for its fine Buddhist statuary. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The Hakusasonso Garden in Kyoto is well-known for its fine Buddhist statuary. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

How would you recommend overseas visitors approach these gardens?

Slow down. Throw out your packed itinerary of big name gardens. It’s much more worthwhile to select just a few, ideally quieter, less well-known gardens and take the time and effort to really experience them as the works of art they are. If you do so, then the garden has a chance to work on you. I also suggest resisting the temptation to photograph the garden as your initial reaction. The Japanese garden is designed to be contemplated through an unmediated eye and with all the senses.

There is much talk these days about mindfulness and the healing power of gardens, in much the same way that books on “forest bathing” are appearing. How much credence do you place on the benefits claimed for such experiences?

The concept of “mindfulness” and the “healing power of gardens” and immersion in nature have become buzzwords in the early 21st century, but to my mind are simply a repackaging of concepts that the ancients have always known. Above all, contact with any form of nature, whether it be the miniaturized scale of the Japanese garden or the raw power of wild nature, is an invitation for us to “be” rather than “do.”

This section of garden at Zuiganzan Enkou-ji in Kyoto was designed in 2013. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
This section of garden at Zuiganzan Enkou-ji in Kyoto was designed in 2013. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Mark Hovane can be contacted at www.kyotogardenexperience.com. Stephen Mansfield is the author and photographer of “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form,” “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space & Environment” and “100 Japanese Gardens.”

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