Borrowed Scenery in Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens The Sense of Mystery and the Borrowed View: Borrowed Scenery 借景

Mark Brazil

The significance of traditional gardens, especially that of the most famous trio known as Nihon Sanmeien, of Kenroku-en (Kanazawa), Kairaku-en in Mito, and Koraku-en in Okayama, goes without saying for Japanese people. Why, though, do westerners find Japanese gardens so enticing and so delightful?

Western gardens tend very much towards patterns; patterns in plantings, geometric patterns in design, and symmetrical patterns in lay out. They also tend to formal flowerbeds, expanses of green lawn, with major trees and larger scale plantings relegated to the fringes, the 'borders' of the garden.

Varying in size from the extensive park-like gardens of traditional country estates in England to the suburban 'yards' of the USA, western gardens are for relaxation or to please the eye, they aspire to no philosophical ideals.

Gardens of the Middle East and South Asia reflect an even stronger sense of mathematics and geometry; the intricacy of design is often exciting in its detail. Yet somehow such gardens leave the strolling visitor feeling that something is amiss, that some vital element of the garden is missing, or that the visitor's own senses are in some way unsatisfied.

That missing 'something' is crucial, for it is mystery. Without that sense of mystery, the cleverness of the western garden may evoke an initial admiration for its complexity, yet once the pattern of the garden is perceived; a second viewing reveals nothing new. The western garden then becomes the backdrop, not the focus, for other activities. A cup of tea? Tennis, anyone?

Borrowed scenery at Korakuen Garden, Okayama.
Borrowed scenery (shakkei) of Okayama Castle at Korakuen Garden in Okayama.
Japanese stone lanterns at Daishoin, Hagi.
Ranks of stone lanterns at Daisho-in, Hagi, form pleasing patterns by daylight, and are magical when lit at night.

Traditional Japanese gardens offer the antithesis to the western garden. They are not about patterns; they typically lack symmetry, geometric patterns in layout and plantings are not the norm, and lay out is irregular. Like western gardens, the Japanese garden also varies greatly in size, from the carefully tended tiny gravel garden within a hotel foyer to the extensive classic strolling gardens, including Japan's top three already mentioned.

Somehow though they avoid being predictable, they retain a sense of mystery that lures the visitor on and on through the garden and back again and again to explore further, as one's mind's eye may wander through the glowing coals of a fire or become lost in the splashing and frothing of a mountain stream. Such gardens please the eye and mind, not through the predictability of patterns, in fact by the opposite.

Pathways and stepping stones wander, providing enticing views in miniature; their unevenness forces the walker to slow down, to contemplate and to focus on the closer, miniature view. The familiar childlike desires, to know what lies over the next hill, and what lies around the next corner, seem to be played on by the architects of such gardens.

Each rise, each corner presents a surprise, whether it is a fondly sculpted tree, artistically wrapped to protect it from the weight of winter snow in what amounts to a gardener's art form Yuki-tsuri, an exquisitely balanced, six part stone lantern, a pond, a stream, or even a mountain.

Stone lantern at Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa.
In Kenroku-en, Kanazawa, this distinctive stone lantern with twin pedestals of differing lengths has become an icon of the city.
Kenroku-en Garden stone lantern, Kanazawa.
Also in Kenroku-en, Kanazawa, this distinctive, squat stone lantern stands in water.

There is a tendency, in both eastern and western gardens, to enclose, to bound, whether with walls or fences, to cut off the garden as a haven, from the outside world. Yet one of the most satisfying conceits of a certain type of Japanese garden is to provide a seemingly unbroken link to the world beyond the garden, to draw the eye of the viewer from the garden itself out into a seemingly endless world.

Whether seated in contemplation at a tiny temple garden in Kyoto, or while strolling through the open spaces of wonderful Koraku-en in Okayama, what lies beyond the garden assumes great importance because the garden designers have used plantings as if they were a series of visual stepping stones, luring the mind ever outwards to a more distant feature: a hill, a forest, or a castle.

In that way, by incorporating, or borrowing the larger view, it seems that the perfect world of the garden is much greater than encompassed in the few square metres of its physical space.

The boundary between the idealistic perfection of the garden and the imperfection of the outer world is blurred, what actually lies over its fence or wall is avoided. The seemingly endless garden entrances the mind, stimulating our senses of mystery and wonder.

Stone lantern, Kikuya House, Hagi.
A broad capped stone lantern in the garden of the Kikuya House, Hagi, has an unusual four-legged pedestal, echoing that at Kenroku-en.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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