History of Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

by Ignacio Aristimuño

The Japanese garden cannot be labeled as a single model, as there are different types of gardens which were created throughout history. Early indications emerged in the Nara Period (710-794 AD), in the imperial palace.

These gardens were greatly influenced by Chinese models, which were introduced to Japan with the establishment of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to China. This mission brought back the construction techniques that inspired this art in Japan.

Although no garden from this period has survived, there is visual evidence of their designs in the paintings of the period, which show a naturalistic landscape with lakes and islands, representing the Taoist concept of Yin-Yang duality.

Makayaji Temple, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.
Makayaji Temple showing the Heian Period garden and pond, Mikkabi, Shizuoka
Sand cone, Ginkakuji Temple, eastern Kyoto.
The "Moon Viewing Platform" (kogetsudai) at Ginkakuji Temple, eastern Kyoto

In the Heian Period (794-1185) the capital in Kyoto was established and since then a lot of gardens, palaces and temples have been built in this city. Because contact with China declined in this period, the Chinese models were altered over time and transformed by local influences.

There was thus a synthesis that combined native and foreign elements to produce a distinctly Japanese style. As proof, we have the birth of a type of garden called the "Paradise Garden," which was integrated with an architecture composed of pavilions connected by corridors.

Between the garden and the main hall was an empty flat gravel space (yu-niwa) to hold events there and admire the scenery. Other features are a landscape of hills, rocks, and trees that made a poetic remembrance of famous sites, usually oceanic environments with islands within a large pond.

Japanese garden.

Then, another type of garden that was highly valued began in the Kamakura Period (1185-1392). During this period, a second wave of Chinese influence came to Japan, and with it the introduction of Zen Buddhism, the doctrine's advocacy of austerity as well as long periods of meditation. Zen was related to the principles of aesthetics and perception, having a profound effect on Japanese arts.

The birth of the "Zen Garden" came from the need to create a space that was used as an aid to meditation. During this period, land parcels were smaller and ponds designed on a smaller scale. Therefore, to induce that feeling of large rooms into smaller spaces it was necessary to represent the natural landscape by monochromatic combinations of all elements.

As a result the "Zen Garden" was more sophisticated with the addition of intricate coastlines on the banks of ponds and the use of rocks in several ways. The Zen Garden was also influenced by Chinese landscape painting of the time (Sung Dynasty: 960-1279), which showed a tendency toward idealization of the landscape, the depth and the vertical orientation. As such, the Zen Garden attempts to evoke a landscape painting in three dimensions.

Japanese garden.

The Muromachi Period (1392-1573) is seen as a time of great conflict and political turmoil, but art and culture were highly developed at this time. Zen became popular among the samurai as a necessary action for correct discipline in difficult times, and this is why gardens were sponsored by the shogunate.

For its design, Zen demanded the need for contemplation. Later, the Zen garden type - "dry landscape" - (kare-sansui) began to appear in temple. Dry landscape gardens are made with rock and sand in tight spaces located in front of places of meditation.

Without the use of water, these gardens simulated the presence of rivers or ocean environments. They sought in this way to create an abstraction, that was now seen from a single viewpoint, to induce the feeling of a great atmosphere.

The Momoyama Period (1573-1603) brought about the birth of the "Tea Garden" (cha-niwa) destined for the tea ceremony. In developing this style, art and philosophy, the master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) was very influential. The "Tea Garden" introduced new elements (such as stepping stones, stone lanterns and water basins) and new concepts aesthetics (wabi-sabi). Finally, the Edo period (1603-1868) brought political unification of the country and the almost total isolation from the rest of the world. The gardens were promoted by the emperor and the feudal military within their own precincts. In these sought to provide an overview of traditional styles (garden paradise, kare-sansui, tea garden, and others), which were unified in the new style "Garden Walk." Gardens where people walked by paved roads leading to the tea houses and rest areas scattered along the perimeter of a pond. These grounds were designed to provide shifting to be seen by the displacement stage.

Japanese stepping stones at Kenroku-en.
The flying goose bridge in Kenroku-en, Kanazawa, is built as a series of linked stepping stones. It is said to represent a skein of geese flying across the sky, or a goose flying across the water.
Stone lantern at Daishoin Temple in Hagi.
The solid, stout pedestal supports the typical elements of this stone lantern at Daisho-in, Hagi. The lipped openings can be screened with paper, through which votive lights shine, and in some examples a round aperture (representing a full moon) is matched on the opposite side by a crescent moon opening.

By analyzing the fundamentals found in the Japanese garden, we see that they express spirituality in the sense that more important than material wealth, is the wealth of simple and austere things. The elements in Japanese gardens are only natural and worthless but by their perfect positioning make the garden become an object for contemplation. This contemplative aspect we see expressed in the tea houses, whose quiet atmosphere invites us to introspection.

The grounds also have enclosures used as a way to control how framing must be seen and to what extent the environment should be incorporated within it. The enclosure allows the garden to be seen in a private space and in an atmosphere of calm. As elements of enclosure walls, fences, shrubs and mounds are used.

This enclosure is rarely absolute, as there is usually some visual escape to provide a visual connection to the outside environment. The main technique used is shakkei or the "borrowed landscape" technique, which involves the assessment of the stage behind the garden, which is then rendered as part of the garden. Natural elements are thus introduced in to the composition, and harmonizes the viewer, who realizes the enclosure is not limited to two dimensions.

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The layout of the garden was defined by the pictorial composition, which is inspired by the natural landscape and was governed by the guidelines of Chinese landscape painting. Space played the most important role (and was significant in landscape painting), in which the "vacuum" created between the images helped to balance the spatial element that could only be grasped by the mind when you are contemplating. In this sense, the contemplation of the landscape revealed a preference for asymmetry. Aspects such as the number of trees and rocks are never the same, but asymmetrically balanced.

Also the garden was considered a miniaturization of the cosmos, where a rock became a mountain, a pond an ocean and moss a forest. We can say that this view was based largely on the use of bonkei and bonsai (miniature landscapes and trees), which were brought from China and commonly used in the garden as focal elements for contemplation. The rock gardens best expressed this concept of miniaturization, where the interpretation of the small scenes lay with the user, who through the use of mental abstraction involved in this micro-cosmos, is able to extract the essence of its contents.

The visual and spatial integration between architecture and landscape in Japanese gardens is expressed through the use of materials, light and color. Another resource is the sliding panels of Japanese houses, with indoor and outdoor perceived as a single unit. Unity within the same property is interpreted as a living entity, where the "garden patio" (naka-niwa) is used as a lung for oxygenation and regulation of internal temperature.

Finally, we see that in the Japanese garden several types of changes occur. First, there are those visual changes that the user experiences with expectation and surprise to move through the garden. Second, there are seasonal changes, noticeable by careful selection of plants and blossoms.

Original Spanish version of the article


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