Murin-an Garden: an ode to water

by Stephen Mansfield

Surprisingly, as modernization swept through Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the number of traditional gardens increased. The clients, though, were now of a different order. Instead of the shoguns, their court aristocracy and feudal lords, the new patrons of these meticulously crafted sites of reflection, relaxation and great beauty were government officials, wealthy landowners and businessmen.

The completion in 1890 of a canal running from Japan’s largest expanse of fresh water, Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, to Kyoto, succeeded well in the aims for which it was conceived — providing water to irrigate farmland in the north of the city and creating both a waterway to transport cargo and a power source for the area’s textile industry. However, it also had unexpected benefits for gardens.

This plentiful supply of clean water created the opportunity to develop land in the catchment area of the Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto into a site for prestigious villas, many owned by wealthy business- men from Osaka.

Over the next three decades, the district — known as Nanzen-ji Kusakawa-cho — saw the creation of several highly accomplished gardens, including the Shinshin-an and Juen-tei in the grounds of the Seifo-so villa.

The man responsible for almost all of these landscape works was Jihei Ogawa (1860-1933), whose professional name, Ueji, derived from the kanji character for “to plant,” and the “ji” of his first name. Born to a long line of gardeners, Ogawa’s landscapes are creative composites of design elements represented in the Kyoto gardens of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Interpreting design concepts is very different from imitating them, but Ogawa’s detractors among the Tokyo garden fraternity dubbed his works sakuteiteki no niwa, meaning “artificial gardens.” Perhaps there was a touch of professional jealousy in the jibe, given that Ogawa’s gardens were considerably less contrived than the Edo Period stroll gardens, with their habit of incorporating simulacrums of famous historical and scenic sights in Japan and China — a practice that Ogawa notably eschewed.

Many private gardens in the Nanzen-ji area still exist, but few are open to the public. One exception is the lovely Murin-an. Commissioned by political and military leader Arimoto Yamagata (1838-1922), the villa and garden were completed in 1896. The field marshal seems an unlikely patron of gardens, but appears to have had some discernment, taking a keen and practical interest in landscape design.

In Ogawa, a master gardener fully confident of his own skills, Yamagata seems to have met his match. One famous exchange has him trying to impose his ideas on Ogawa, only to be told, “When it comes to maneuvering armies, Mr. Yamagata, you are the undisputed leader in Japan, but when it comes to making a garden, leave that to me.”

Ogawa’s rebuke seems to have worked, and henceforth he was given a free hand, although it is likely that the template for the garden was Yamagata’s, and that the results were a collaboration of minds and good taste.

The Nanzen-ji Kusakawa-cho area abuts the green hills of the Higashiyama (Eastern Hills) range. Temples and gardens have existed on these slopes for centuries. Ogawa adroitly requisitioned this backdrop for his gardens.

In Murin-an, he created a V-shaped space between two small woods at the back of the wedge-shaped garden, so that the distant hills could be captured and framed. Diverting water from the Biwa Canal, he built a small filtering cascade, a shallow pond and brook to form a fluid, liquid tracery over the gently sloping terrain.

There is illusion here, too: the streams seem to flow down from distant hillsides rather than a man-made canal. An ode to the beauty of water, the surfaces of the ponds move slowly, reflecting slightly distorted images of the overhead canopy.

A similar effect can be seen viewing the garden through some of the old, slightly buckled windowpanes in the sliding doors of the villa. The 3,135-sq.-meter garden is comparatively small, but transmits a sense of almost unlimited space and naturalism.

Although a busy road now runs beside Murin-an, strangely, all is quiet within and, indeed, the garden produces an audio effect such that quieter sounds — summer cicadas, autumn crickets, purling brooks — dominate.

American garden writer Lorraine Kuck wrote of Ogawa’s gardens in her 1968 work, “The World of the Japanese Garden”: “Their sole aim is to be as much like nature as possible — nature in its most enchanting and ideal moments.”

The leafy, wooded area to the rear of the garden is a place to linger, to slough off the stressful accretions of urban life. Its shallow head stream has much in common with glades throughout the temperate zone. Were it not for the telling way that rocks have been placed against the stream embankments and beside paths, and the peculiarly Japanese aesthetic of the stone forms and the three-stepped waterfall, we could easily lose our cultural compass and mistake this dream world for a forest in the Dordogne region of southwestern France or a wood in the rural heart of England, such is the meadowlike atmosphere of the grounds.

At Murin-an, water, unsullied and luminous, is another means of expressing the ultimate purpose of all Japanese gardens — the search for the essence of landscape.

Stephen Mansfield is the author of “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form.” Murin-an in Kyoto is between the Nanzen-ji Temple and Heian Shrine. Take bus No. 5 from Kyoto Station to Jingu-michi, or walk from Keage Station on the Tozai Line. Hours: 9 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; closed Dec. 29-Jan. 3; ¥400.