Japanese gardens are typical gardens that construct idealized miniature landscapes, often in a highly imaginative and fashionable manner. The gardens of emperors and rulers were built for leisure and aesthetic enjoyment, while the gardens of Buddhist temples were planned for reflection and meditation.
Japanese garden styles include karesansui, Japanese rock gardens or zen gardens, which are meditation gardens where white sand replaces water; roji, simple, rustic gardens with tea houses, where the Japanese tea ceremony takes place; kaiyu-shiki-Teien, walking gardens, where tourists stroll through the garden to see beautifully crafted landscapes; and tsubo-niwa, a small co-garden.
Japanese gardens have been developed under the influence of Chinese gardens, but Japanese garden designers have gradually begun to evolve their own style, based on Japanese materials and Japanese culture. Throughout the Edo era, the Japanese garden had its own distinctive appearance as a Chinese garden.
Japanese gardens have also adapted to western designs since the end of the 19th century.
The design of such unusual gardens did not originate in Japan, it originated in the Asuka period, so influenced by gardens that many elements of Chinese culture were also brought back into their own countries.
Nevertheless, in many parts of Japan and in the western part of the world, the practices of Japanese gardening art are still in full force and continue to inspire the many artists who strive to create a Japanese garden with its own personality.
Japanese gardens first appeared on the island of Honshu, the major central island of Japan.
Their physical appearance was inspired by the diverse characteristics of the Honshu landscape; rugged volcanic hills, narrow valleys and mountain streams with waterfalls and falls, lakes and small stone beaches.
We were also inspired by the large variety of flowers and tree species, especially the evergreen trees on the islands, and the four seasons in Japan, including hot and humid summers and snowy winters.
Japanese gardens have their origins in the Japanese Shinto religion, the tale of the creation of eight ideal islands, and the Shinchi, the lakes of the gods.
Within the ancient Shinto shrines, the kami, the gods and the ghosts are located on the beaches and in the trees of the whole island. They often took the shape of odd rocks or branches, marked with strings of rice fiber (shimenawa) and surrounded by white stones or pebbles, a symbol of purity.
The white gravel of the courtyard has been a distinguishing characteristic of the Shinto shrines, royal palaces, Buddhist temples and Zen gardens.
The gardens were also highly influenced by the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Amida Buddhism, introduced from China in or about AD 552. Taoist stories talked of five rocky islands populated by the Eight Immortals, living in complete harmony with nature.
Every Eternal flew home from his mountain on the back of a crane. The islands are located at the tail of a giant sea turtle. In Japan, the five islands of Chinese mythology became an island called Horai-zen or Mount Horai. The replicas of this mythical mountain, symbolizing a ideal universe, are a common characteristic in Japanese gardens, as are the rocks representing turtles and cranes.
In ancient times
The early Japanese gardens documented were the lovely gardens of Japanese emperors and nobles. They are listed in a few brief passages in Nihon Shoki, the first chronicle of Japanese history, written in AD 720.
During the spring of AD 74, the chronicle records: “Emperor Keiko set up tents in a pond and was pleased to see them every morning and evening.
The next year, “The Emperor embarked on a double-hulled ship at the Ijishi pond in Ihare, and boarded the ship with his imperial concubine, and enjoyed it together.” Then in 486, “Emperor Kenzō went out into the garden then danced at the bottom of a flowing stream.
The Chinese garden had a very strong influence on the early Japanese gardens. In or about 552 AD, Buddhism was formally established in Japan, from China to Korea.
Between 600 and 612, the Japanese emperor sent four legations before the Chinese court of the Sui dynasty. Between 630 and 838, the Japanese court sent 15 more legations to the court of the Tang Dynasty.
Such legations, with more than 500 members each, included officials, scholars, teachers, Buddhist monks, and translators. They carried Chinese literature, art pieces, and a thorough description of the Chinese gardens.
In 612, Empress Suiko had a garden constructed with an artificial peak, representing Shumi-Sen, or Mount Sumer, considered in Hindu and Buddhist mythology to be at the center of the earth.
During the reign of the Empress, one of her ministers, Soga no Umako, built a garden in her palace with a lake with many tiny islands, reflecting the islands of the Eight Immortals, popular in Chinese mythology and Taoist philosophy.
The palace was the property of the Japanese emperors, was called “The Palace of the Islands” and was listed many times in the Man’yōshū, the “Book of Countless Leaves,” the oldest known compilation of Japanese poetry.
From the limited amount of literary and historical evidence available, it seems that the Japanese gardens of that period were modest copies of the imperial gardens of the Tang Dynasty, with large lakes dotted with artificial islands and man-made mountains.
They had Buddhist and Taoist symbolism, and was supposed to be ornamental trees, and areas for gatherings and festivities. Unlike Chinese emperors and courts, Japanese aristocrats cherished their gardens in small vessels with sculpted dragon heads.
Gardens of the Heian Period (794-1185)
In 794, at the beginning of the Heian era, the Japanese court moved its capital to Heian-kyo (now Kyoto).
Throughout this time, there were three separate types of gardens; the palace gardens and the gardens of the nobles of the capital; the gardens of the villas on the outskirts of the city; and the gardens of the temples.
Chinese practice has followed the architecture of palaces, residences and gardens throughout the Heian era. Houses and gardens were aligned on the north-south axis, with the house on the north and the official buildings and the central garden on the south; there were two long wings on the south, like the armrests of the armchair, and a garden between them.
The gardens had one or two lakes linked by bridges and flowing streams. The southern garden of imperial residences had a different Japanese character; a large empty field of white sand or gravel.
The emperor was the high priest of Japan, and the white sand was pure, and it was a spot that the gods could be welcomed to come. The region was used for holy rituals and the greeting of the gods.
The architecture of the garden itself was specifically decided in keeping with the traditional Chinese concepts of geometry or feng shui. The first known text on Japanese gardening history, the Sakuteiki (Garden Maintenance Records), was published in the 11th century.
“It is a positive omen that the current comes from the east, to enter the garden, to flow through the house, and then to the southeast. In this manner, the water of the blue dragon will bring away all the evil spirits from the house to the white tiger.”
The imperial gardens of the Heian era, where the water gardens, where tourists strolled in elegant lacquered vessels, listened to music, saw the distant mountains, danced, read poetry, painted and enjoyed the scenery of the city.
Social life in the gardens was memorably portrayed in the classic Japanese novel The Tales of Genji, published in 1005 by Murasaki Shikibu, the Empress’s bridesmaid.
You can still see the ruins of one of these artificial lakes, Osawa no ike, near the Daikaku-ji Temple in Kyoto. It was founded by the emperor of Saga, who ruled from 809 to 823, and is said to have been influenced by Lake Dongting in China.
A small-scale reproduction of the 794 AD Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Heian Jingu, was built in Kyoto in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the city. The Southern Garden is renowned for its cherry blossoms in spring, and its azaleas in early summer.
The West Garden is known for the flowering of Iris in June, and the wide lake on the East Side is reminiscent of the pleasure boating of the 8th century.
Near the end of the Heian era a new form of garden architecture arose, developed by the adherents of Pureland Buddhism.
They were called the Gardens of Paradise, designed to reflect the fictional western paradise where Amida Buddha lived. They were founded by the nobles who wanted to assert their control and independence from the imperial family, which was growing weaker.
The best surviving example of the Paradise Garden is Byōdō in Uji, near Kyoto. It was originally the village of Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1028) who married his daughters to the sons of the emperor.
After his death, his son converted the village into a temple, and in 1053 he founded the Phoenix Hall that still stands. The Hall is constructed in the traditional style of the temple of the Song Dynasty on an island in the bay. It is home to a golden statue of Buddha Amithaba, facing west. There is a small island of white stones in the lake in front of the temple, representing Mount Horai, the residence of the Eight Taoist Immortals, linked to the temple by a bridge, symbolizing the path to heaven.
It was meant for meditation and reflection, not as an amusement park. It was a study in Taoist and Buddhist philosophies focused on landscape and design, and a blueprint for future Japanese gardens.
Period Kamakura and Muromachi (1185-1573)
The decline of the emperors and the competition of the feudal lords led to two civil wars (1156 and 1159) devastating Kyoto and its gardens.
The capital was transferred to Kamakura, Kanagawa, and then again to Kyoto ‘s fourth Muromachi in 1336. The emperors ruled by name only; the imperial authority was in the hands of the military governor, the shogun. During this time , the government restored relations with China, which had broken almost three hundred years ago. Japanese monks have gone to study in China, and Chinese monks have moved to Japan, fleeing Mongolian invasions.
The monks carried with them a new form of Buddhism, called simply Zen, or “meditation.”
The first Zen garden in Japan was founded by a Chinese priest in Kamakura in 1251. Japan experienced a revival in religion in the arts , particularly in the gardens.
Many prominent temple gardens were built at the beginning of this period, including Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, built in 1398, and the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji, built in 1482.
In some cases they adopted the ideals of Zen spontaneity, total simplicity and modesty, but in many respects they were the typical Chinese Song temple dynasty; the upper floors of the Golden Pavilion were lined with gold leaf and surrounded by formal water gardens.
The most impressive garden in theme created in this period was the Zen Garden or the Japanese Rock Garden. Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is one of the earliest examples and one of the best known of all Japanese gardens.
The garden is just 9 meters wide and 24 meters long. It consists of carefully gritty white sand that indicates wind, and fifteen carefully arranged rocks, like small islands.
It is supposed to be viewed from a sitting location on the porch of the abbot ‘s house. There has been a lot of discussion over what the rocks are supposed to represent, however, as Garden historian Gunter Nitschke wrote, “The Garden at Ryōan-ji does not symbolize. It has little meaning of reflecting any natural beauty that can be found of the universe, actual or imaginary. I see it as an abstract arrangement of ‘natural’ objects in space, an arrangement whose purpose is to provoke mediatio.
Several of Kyoto ‘s prominent Zen gardens were the work of one man, Muso Soseki (1275-1351).
He was a monk, a ninth generation descendant of Emperor Uda.
He was also a formidable leader, editor, and organizer of ships armed and funded to open trade with China, and he established the Five Mountains group, made up of the most influential Zen monasteries in Kyoto.
He was responsible for the construction of the Nanzen-ji Zen gardens; Saihō-ji (The Moss Garden); and Tenryu-ji .
In the Muromachi period (1333-1568), the karesansui, or “dry gardens,” enjoyed their heyday in Zen Buddhist temples. They used rocks, sand, and stones to represent islands and seas. We also find the roji or chaniwa (tea garden) that is built next to the tea houses. The feudal lords built the circular style gardens in their castles or residences.
During this period the art of gardening developed considerably, laying the artistic and aesthetic foundations of the Japanese garden. Two main forms emerged: tsukiyama, around a hill and a lake; and hiraniwa, a flat garden of raked sand, with stones, trees and wells. The most common vegetation consists of bamboo and various kinds of flowers and trees, either evergreen, such as the Japanese black pine, or deciduous, such as the Japanese maple, with elements such as ferns and moss being equally valued. Another typical element of gardening and interior design is bonsai. Gardens often include a lake or pond, various types of pavilions (usually for the tea ceremony) and stone lanterns.
One of the typical features of the Japanese garden – as in the rest of its art – is the imperfect, unfinished, asymmetrical appearance. There are various types of gardens: walk”, which can be seen walking along a path or around a pond; or “room”, which can be enjoyed from a fixed location, usually a pavilion or machiya-type hut; “tea” (rōji), around a path that leads to the tea house, with tiles or stones to mark the way; and “contemplation” (karesansui, “mountain and water landscape”), which is the most typical Zen garden, which can be seen from a platform located in Zen monasteries. A good example is the so-called Waterless Landscape of the garden of Ryōan-ji, in Kyoto, a work by the painter and poet Sōami (1480), which represents a sea – made of raked sand – full of islands – which are rocks -, creating an ensemble that unites reality and illusion and that invites to quietness and reflection.
The Momoyama period (1568-1600)
The time of Momoyama was brief, just 32 years, and was largely filled with wars between the daimyo, the leaders of the Japanese feudal clans. The main centres of power and culture in Japan were the fortified castles of the daimyo, upon which new cities and gardens were built.
The typical garden of the time had one or two ponds or lakes next to the main house, or shoin, not far from the castle. Such gardens were planned to be seen from above, from the castle or the house.
The daimyos had developed the ability to cut and raise huge stones to build their castles, and had legions of soldiers to move them.
The man-made lakes were surrounded by small stone beaches and decorated with pebble arrangements, with natural stone bridges and springboards.
The gardens of this time merged aspects of a walking garden, designed to be viewed along the winding paths of the garden, with aspects of the Zen garden, such as artificial mountains, meant to be seen from a distance. The most prominent garden of this kind, built in 1592, is located near the Castle of Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. The impressive features include a 10.5 metre bridge built of two natural stones.
Sanbo-in, restored by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 to commemorate the cherry blossom festival and to replicate the splendor of the old garden, is another impressive garden from the time still in existence. Three hundred gardeners worked on the project, excavating the lakes and installing seven hundred rocks in an area of 540 square meters.
The garden was planned to be seen from the terrace of the main pavilion or from the “Salon de la Pure Vision,” situated at a higher elevation in the park. In the east of the yard, on the peninsula, there is a group of stones built to represent the legendary Mount Horai.
A wooden bridge connects to an island that represents a crane, and a stone bridge ties this island to another island that represents a turtle. Which is linked back to the peninsula by a covered bridge of earth.
The garden also features a waterfall at the foot of a forested slope.
A characteristic of the Momoyama period in the visible garden of Sanbo-in is the proximity of the buildings to the water.
The Momoyama era also saw the creation of chanoyu (tea ceremonies), chashitsu (tea house) and roji (tea garden). Tea was imported from China to Japan by Buddhist monks, who used it as a stimulant to keep awake during lengthy periods of meditation.
The first tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), specified in the smallest detail the appearance and rules of the tea house and tea garden according to the concept of “sober and quiet refinement” wabi.
Under the principles of Sen no Rikyu, the teahouse was intended to reflect the country house of a hermit monk.
It was a compact and very plain wooden frame, often with a towel cover, with enough interior room for two tatami mats. The only decoration permitted inside was a parchment with an inscription and a branch of a tree. It didn’t have a view of the backyard. The garden was also low, and it was regularly watered to be moist and lush.
It normally had a cherry or an elm tree to provide colour in the spring, but otherwise there were no colorful flowers or exotic plants to attract the eyes of the tourist. The road led to the entrance to the tea room.
Along the way, there was a waiting bench for the guests and a toilet, a water fountain stone near the tea room, where the guests had to clean their hands and mouths before entering the tea house through a narrow square door called the nijiri-guchi, or the “walking-in entry,” which had to lean over to get through.
Sen no Rikyu decreed that the garden would be left unswept for several hours before the ritual, so that the leaves would spontaneously disperse along the way.
Edo period (1615-1867
In the Edo era, control was won, and the Tokugawa clan, who became the shogun, transferred the capital to Edo, who later became Tokyo.
At this time, Japan, except for the Nagasaki harbor, was essentially inaccessible to foreigners, and the Japanese were not permitted to fly to any country other than China or the Netherlands. The emperor remained a leading figure in Kyoto, with only cultural and religious authority. Although Tokyo was now the political center of Japan, Kyoto remained the cultural capital, the centre of religion and literature.
The shoguns gave little authority to the emperors, but generous support for the building of the gardens.
The Edo period saw the proliferation of a new style of Japanese architecture called Sukiya-zukuri, which simply means building according to one’s taste.
The term first appeared at the end of the 16th century, relating to independent tea rooms. It was initially applied to the plain country houses of the Samurai warriors and Buddhist monks, but in the Edo era it was used in all sorts of buildings, from residences to palaces.
The Sukiya style has been used in the most prominent garden of the period, the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto.
The buildings were designed in a very simple, unornamented style, a blueprint for future Japanese architecture. We were exposed to the backyard, and the backyard appeared to be part of the house. Whether tourists were inside or outside the house, they still had the impression that they were in the middle of nature. The buildings in the garden were designed in such a way that they were often viewed from a diagonal, rather than a straight line. This system had the romantic name ganko, which simply meant “the creation of wild geese in flight.”
Many of the gardens in Edo ‘s time were walking gardens or Zen dry rock gardens, and they were typically much bigger than the earlier gardens.
The walking gardens of the period made heavy use of shakkei, adding scenery in the distance, such as mountains, and integrating them into the garden; or, better yet, constructing the garden on the side of the mountain and using various elevations.
Edo gardens were mostly made up of a series of Meisho or “popular views,” equivalent to postcards.
This may be imitations of famous natural scenery, such as Mount Fuji, or scenes from Taoist or Buddhist stories, or scenery depicting poetry lines.
Unlike the Zen Gardens, which were designed to represent it as it is, not the internal laws of nature.
Among the Japanese gardens that exist, there are three known as the most important: Kenrokuen (in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture), Kōrakuen (in Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture), and Kairakuen (in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture). These huge gardens were built by feudal lords during the Edo period (1603-1868), and can still be enjoyed during the four seasons with their various flowers and natural spaces.
Meiji period (1868-1912)
Meiji saw the unification of Japan and the re-opening of Japan to the west.
Most of the former private gardens were neglected and left to decay.
In 1871, a new law turned much of the Momoyama and Edo gardens into public parks to protect them.
During this time , the nation started its modernization and Westernization by establishing itself as a world power.
Remarkable gardens of this period include:
• Kenroku-in the 18th and 19th centuries, completed in 1874.
• Murin-an in Kyoto, completed in 1898
• Chinzan-so in Tokyo .
From the Meiji period (1868-1912), many politicians and businessmen built gardens in their private residences, and garden spaces were also created next to public buildings and on the grounds of various hotels.
Modern Japanese Gardens (1912 to present):
• During the time of the Showa (1926-1988), several traditional gardens were designed by businessmen and politicians.
• After the Second World War, the major garden owners were no longer private individuals, but banks , hospitals, colleges and government departments. The Japanese garden has been an extension of the architecture of the house.
• The new gardens were designed by graduates of the school of architecture, and modern building materials, such as concrete, began to be used.
• Some contemporary Japanese gardens, such as Tofuku-ji, modeled by Mirei Shigemori, have been influenced by classical models.
• Many new gardens have followed a much more progressive approach to practice.
• An example of this is Awaji Yumebutai, a garden on Awaji Island in Japan’s Seto Bay, designed by Tadao Ando. It was designed as part of a resort and conference center on a steep hill, where the ground was drained to make an island an airport.
Undoubtedly, the Japanese aesthetic has influenced modern landscaping, its simplicity captured by few elements and its complexity to convey the essence of nature has made this current a habit of today’s landscapers.
Japanese landscape designers have been great masters in antiquity, great temples and gardens were built over 3 thousand years of existence in Japan. Today they have adapted to the times by contributing new ideas shaping the modern Japanese garden, it is a new design although influenced by three styles previous to modernism; the sansui (garden with water content), the karesansui (dry garden, basically of raked sand) and the roji (classic Japanese garden with abundant vegetation and paths). These three styles could be included in a newer concept, the sukiya.
Unfortunately, many times the zen garden or Japanese garden is confused with minimalism, or modernism. The qualities of simplicity and neatness are innate in Japanese gardens and are not proper to be typecast in the current styles of landscaping. Modern Japanese gardens are, in themselves, an abstraction of the different previous styles; with more creative ideas, but based on the constructive principles of the previous ones, which is why it is so difficult to extract that essence and achieve the desired objective.
In the traditional Japanese garden, there are no written rules except for the sakuteiki which is a manuscript written by imperial gardeners where the position and location of some traditional elements within the garden is shown. Furthermore, and keeping a close relationship with the Japanese idiosyncrasy, the design and construction concepts of this type of garden have been transmitted from generation to generation. The modern Japanese garden is closely linked to tradition and the ancestral concept, hence in both meaning and execution, in order to create a contemporary garden of this type one must know how to capture the very original essence of Japan.
Although Zen gardens are a type of Japanese garden, not all Japanese gardens are Zen gardens. Many gardens are influenced by basic concepts of Zen Buddhism; the essence, the minimal, the subtle, are synonyms which we all recognize as Zen and in this type of garden they are present “but may or may not be influenced” by religion. In all Japanese gardens, even modern Japanese gardens, this influence is present.