Stroll through 1,000 years of history in one Nikko garden

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Even before seeing the great sights of Nikko, the visitor cannot fail to be impressed by the luxuriance of the area’s moss. Towering cryptomeria trees, allowing filtered light to penetrate ground cover, provide ideal incubation zones and levels of exposure and protection for the flourishing of moss in this part of Tochigi Prefecture’s damp summers and cold winters.

One area of lush greenery few visitors are aware of lies a mere 10-minute walk north of the red-lacquered Shinkyo Bridge, a span that signals the proximity of the Tokugawa tombs. Set at the top of a slope beside the Nikko Botanical Garden, the villa is not a complete secret, but conspires to feel like one.

There is a long history of Imperial garden patronage in Japan, as there was among the Mughal emperors of India and the sultans and governors of Muslim Spain. Gardens were created as private retreats for Japanese emperors and empresses after their abdications, as retirement homes for Imperial consorts and as venues for visiting heads of state. The better-known landscapes, such as the Sento Imperial Palace and the highly influential design of the Katsura Imperial Villa, are located in Kyoto and are much visited. Some, like the Shugakuin Imperial Villa, are even believed to have been designed by emperors.

Built in 1899 as an Imperial residence, the main structure of the Tamozawa Imperial Villa was transported to Nikko from the Akasaka Detached Palace in Tokyo. A further reconstruction took place in 1918 to better accommodate its purpose as a place of repose in the summer months for Emperor Taisho, a man of frail mental health. The 30,000-sq.-meter estate also served as a shelter for Emperor Showa and Empress Kojun, who evacuated there intermittently from 1944 as the U.S. bombing of Tokyo intensified.

The garden evokes a number of historical landscape touches, creating a digest of over 1,000 years of Japanese landscape design. Although the main buildings form a four-sided structure, they recall the shinden style that first took root in the Nara Period (710-784). These mansions were three-sided, with the main building flanked by symmetrically arranged halls and other rooms. Japanese envoys traveling to China, brought back line drawings, building plans and designs that would form the basis for the layout of gardens created for the nobility. Their tsubo-niwa (inner gardens) are thought to be the forerunners of the later Edo Period (1603-1867) naka-niwa, the tiny courtyard gardens favored by merchants.

The induction of Chinese geomantic principals and land patterns into Heian Period (794-1185) garden designs, with their cognitive notions of interdependence, intuitive natural science and rational cosmology, are not easily grasped. But there was also a lighter, playful element in the early aristocratic and Imperial gardens.

Banquets, boating and poetry competitions were all held within the precincts of these generously proportioned aristocratic gardens. Stages set on small islands provided platforms for dance performances. Poetry competitions called kyokusui-no-en, the “banquet beside the winding stream,” were literary events in which court nobles composed seasonal poems while intercepting small cups of sake as they floated past. A period-costume reenactment of this type of scene is held every May at Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi, one of the few remaining Heian Period gardens in Japan. In a clear reference to this practice, a small winding stream can be found in the open garden landscape beside the Tamozawa Imperial Villa’s spacious lawn.

If there are hints of Heian shinden architecture and garden touches that echo the period, the villa’s wooden buildings are firmly grounded in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) grand residential styles beloved not only of the nobility, but the new and wealthy class of entrepreneurs that emerged at the time. One of the largest wooden structures of the Meiji Era, it is also the only Imperial villa from that period to still exist.

Reduced in scale over the years, the current buildings and grounds cover a still generous 3 hectares. Large portions of the garden are designed to be seen from inside the villa, its windows providing framed views similar in effect to those at the Adachi Museum of Art and its garden in Shimane.

There are a total of 13 courtyard gardens integrated into the villa’s architectural scheme. Expanding perceived and available space and promoting the flow of air, the inner gardens act as light wells. Interestingly, a system of paths and low passages built underneath the residence permitted gardeners free access between the courtyards without disturbing the occupants.

Once the visitor has taken in the broad sweep of the gardens, it is the details that begin to emerge. Chains hung from the eaves conduct rainwater onto the edges of the courtyards, which are surrounded by pebble borders. In this all-seasons garden, a 300-year-old weeping cherry-blossom tree stands near the empress’ study. When the outer walls are open to the garden, you can hear the sound of water flowing through the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss, an audible reminder of the waterfalls associated with Nikko.

Despite the accomplished garden, its high level of traditional craftsmanship and designation as an Important National Cultural Property, only a handful of visitors grace the site. Overshadowed by the better-publicized Nikko attractions, the villa and gardens were only opened to the public in 2000, a possible explanation for its relative obscurity.

In “Poetics,” Aristotle wrote about the ingrained impulse of human beings to imitate nature, an urge spurred by the desire for harmony and rhythm — what he termed “poetic instinct.” In the Tamozawa Imperial Villa we find this universal but localized blend of the aesthetically contrived and a deep instinct for beauty and balance.

The Section Rapid train on the Tobu Skytree Line from Asakusa Station in Tokyo takes 2 hr. 14 min. to Tobu-Nikko Station. Buses run to Shinkyo Bridge, though the walk only takes about 15 minutes. The villa is another 10 minutes’ walk west. Stephen Mansfield’s latest garden book is “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space and Environment” (Tuttle, 2012).