The ‘eternal modern’ gardens of Matsuo-taisha

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

When a new treasure house and building for ceremonies was constructed in 1971 at Matsuo-taisha in Kyoto, which dates back to 701 and is among Japan’s oldest shrines, one of the most influential landscape designers of his day, the largely self-taught master Mirei Shigemori, was commissioned to create a series of gardens on the site.

Shigemori (1896-1975) frequently used the term “eternal modern” to represent his ideas and to define the aesthetic sense that qualifies much of his work. The expression, he explained, referred to his concept of the balancing of beauty; a parity between the classical and contemporary. Nowhere is the application of this term more evident than at Matsuo-taisha, where Shigemori was able to synergize tradition and modernity.

Growing up in a hamlet in a rural area of Okayama Prefecture in western Honshu, Mirei spent much time in the nearby town of Kibichuo, especially in the grounds of Yoshikawa Hachimangu Shrine, a rustic building founded in 1096 that emanates a markedly refined sense of beauty and proportion — a structure, in fact, that is replete with the temporal-spatial details that would influence his own aesthetic sense.

As a young man, Shigemori, who was an inveterately curious researcher, traveled all over Japan to undertake a comprehensive survey of more than 300 man-made landscapes. The first volume of this work, published in 1936 as “The Illustrated History of Japanese Gardens,” makes us aware of the versatility of these gardens’ creators and their knowledge of Japanese design and art.

Some of the foremost garden designers in Japan were protean in their tastes and skills. Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) was involved in castle architecture, Toyo Sesshu (1420-1506) was a priest and painter of immense influence, and Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1654) was an accomplished composer of waka and haiku poetry.

Best known as a garden scholar and designer, Shigemori was a man of this old-school culture, excelling at calligraphy, ikebana and the tea ceremony. Yet his works are thoroughly modern, but with enough traditional elements to ground them in a long and venerable garden heritage.

Yet despite renewed interest and research into his work in recent years, some of his gardens I have visited are suffering from neglect. For instance, the undulating white concrete lines that snake across the gravel at Sumiyoshi Shrine in the city of Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture are cracked and stained; while the painted fringes of his restored garden at Reiun-in, a sub-temple of the great Tofuku-ji complex in Kyoto, are scuffed and discolored.

Japan’s earliest arrangements of nature, made in forest clearings, beside waterfalls or on pebble beaches, were sacred spaces conceived as “magnetic fields” for the deities. These purified zones resembled primitive prototypes of the dry-landscape garden.

Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous spirituality that was first codified in the eighth-century “Kojoki” and “Nihon Shoki,” evolved from these animist sites. At such places, frequently associated with sacred boulders called iwakura, early shrines were often located. Those stone “seats of the gods” would be surrounded by a bed of white gravel or sand, delineating a boundary between the human and sacred. Worshippers cannot fail to have been impressed by these managed spaces, but the creation of actual gardens in shrine compounds was, and remains, a rarity.

Mentioning the name of Matsuo-taisha shrine to almost any Japanese person will generally elicit instant recognition, but oddly it rarely plays host to more than a handful of visitors at any given time.

The Horai Garden, representing the ancient Chinese Realm of the Immortals, is the first landscape visitors see as they approach the shrine’s main building. Shigemori designed this garden, but his death in 1975 obliged his elder son to complete its construction.

The two main landscapes Shigemori oversaw entirely were the Undulating Stream Garden on the east side of the new building and the Garden of Ancient Times on its north side. The former is based on the Japanese tradition of setting dolls afloat on boats that symbolically carry away evil spirits. The original form of the nationwide Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) held annually on March 3 is still conducted at the shrine on that date.

The curving stream Shigemori constructed is also reminiscent of aristocrats’ gardens of the Heian Period (794-1185), where partying courtiers would enjoy a literary game in which one would write the first line of a poem and then float it down a meandering waterway to another guest, who would pick it up and add a line.

The stream is unusual for Shigemori in that he rarely used actual water in his gardens, preferring the abstraction of white gravel or sand. The stream is also exceptional in being made of concrete. The banks are embedded with flat blue stones; the stream bed with gravel. There are no trees in the garden, but a contiguous bank of azaleas, clipped into the form of a turtle, a symbol of longevity in many Japanese gardens, bloom around the rock arrangements in the spring, softening the hardness of stone and concrete.

A year before beginning work on the gardens here, Shigemori had come across an ancient stone circle at Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture. The so-called Tatetsuki remains, believed to be the burial mound of a clan leader, consist of huge rocks slanting outward in the form of an open hand.

The stone settings of his Garden of Ancient Times at the rear of the shrine are similarly tilted at exaggerated angles. The rocks, forming intermediate spaces open to the sky, are brimming with a sense of vitality in what many consider to be one of his finest stone settings — a creation born of Shigemori returning to the origins of the Japanese garden as he understood it.

It’s a powerful arrangement, with the 17- and 18-ton rocks standing in a bed of bamboo grass — monoliths of Shigemori’s stone of choice, ao-ishi, a blue chlorite schist quarried on the island of Shikoku directly south across the Seto Inland Sea from his Wakayama birthplace.

However, the landscape here has always its detractors, those who feel it lacks the subtleties and grace of more refined gardens. Shigemori’s riposte to such skeptics was swift and sharp: “Some people find it overwhelming and don’t appreciate it. But such people are weak. They lack the power to look at something strong.”

Besides its undoubted sense of strength, there is something transcendent in this garden — something inspired by the local divinities resident at Matsuo-taisha shrine.

Shigemori put every ounce of his being into the Garden of Ancient Times, his final work before he passed away just a few months after finishing it. With that, and his son’s completion of Shigemori’s entire project at Matsuo-taisha, the maestro became what he had no doubt always aspired to be: a successor in a modernist spirit to that found in ancient gardens.

The shrine is in Arashiyama-miyamachi, Kyoto, near Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line. A bus runs from Kyoto Station. Admission to the garden and treasure house is ¥500; open 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Stephen Mansfield’s latest garden book is “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space and Environment.”