As a garden, Chishaku-in has many of the attributes of Japanese landscape design that should attract a good number of visitors. The fact that the temple in Kyoto’s southeastern Higashikawara-cho district is rarely crowded, and that scant attention is paid to it in guidebooks, is therefore somewhat surprising.
The site now occupied by Chishaku-in was once home to Shoun-ji, a temple the famed warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi built for his son, Sutemaru, who died in 1591 at the age of 3.
There is a touch of irony in the fact that another generalissimo, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) — the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) — placed Shoun-ji in the hands of the priests of Chishaku-in, a temple in Kii Province (present-day Wakayama Prefecture) that was torched to the ground by Hideyoshi’s forces in 1585. Being the headquarters of the Chizan school of Shingon Buddhism, Shoun-ji carries a certain authority.
Some garden scholars have credited the original design of Chishaku-in to the revered personage of Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-91), but this claim is unsupported. Herbert Plutschow’s excellent book on the tea master, “Rediscovering Rikyu,” for example, makes no mention of any time he spent working on the garden. We do know, though, that Rikyu much admired the arrangement and doubtless enjoyed moments of quiet reflection in this pond-viewing garden, which was rebuilt in 1674 under the supervision of the priest Sosei.
With Kyoto fortunate to have been exempted from Allied bombing raids in World War II, many of the area’s gardens have survived. However, yet another irony attending Chishaku-in is the fact that both the temple buildings and garden were ravaged by fire in 1947 — two years after the war. Nonetheless, its outline and stone arrangements — the essential schemata for most Japanese landscapes — appear to have survived intact.
Japanese gardens are well known for their optical expansions, recalling something like the effect Alice experienced after plunging into the rabbit hole. The illusion of deep space in the southern section of the garden is created by the skillful manipulation of scale and perspective.
Visitors enter the South Garden along a broad veranda, where colorful banners flap from the temple’s eaves. This portion of the whole is an exercise in graduated topiary, with a broad, flat expanse of shrubbery tilted at 45 degrees, above which are countless azaleas, tightly clipped into forms resembling balls of mercury.
Prescribed viewing points in Japanese gardens deliberately fail to reveal the entire garden. Framed sections are provided one at a time, requiring the visitor to recompose the overall plan in the mind’s eye.
A slender, three-portion bridge close to the temple’s tearoom has the effect of expanding the pond’s width at this point, the water resembling a river of infinite length. As the pond moves back, it narrows. Azalea bushes rigorously trimmed to resemble boulders support the walls of the simulated gorge. An otherwise quiet, even underappreciated garden, Chishaku-in is at its busiest in late April and early May when its azaleas blossom.
The garden is believed to have been inspired by Lu-shan, a storied mountain in the present-day Jiangxi Province of southeastern China. A narrow waterfall carves a passage through the maze of shrubbery and rocks that cover the steep hillside of the eastern garden, providing the main focal point in front of the shoin (main viewing room).
This was originally a dry waterfall. One of those interesting oxymorons of Japanese gardens, it now has a stream diverted along its course, the water splashing into the carp-filled pond after passing across a grooved rock. Using a highly effective space-enlarging technique, the ensemble of rocks, shrubbery and waterfall to the east of the viewing room ascend from the water edges to a tree line, achieving a highly accomplished compositional aesthetic.
The word shoin, besides applying to the main viewing chamber, also refers to a corner room or writing hall used for religious study and conversation. They were later adapted as rooms for special guests. In what may be a later addition at Chishaku-in, the veranda of the shoin is cantilevered over the pond in such a way as to resemble a tsuridono (fishing pavilion). Accordingly, visitors can enjoy the sensation of sitting directly above water.
The problem of how to resolve what might have appeared to be an over-abundance of rocks piled up against the hill facing the shoin has been skillfully solved by introducing stones into the pond itself and placing other rocks under the veranda at visible angles from the deck.
Chishaku-in is a fine example of the synthesis of architecture and landscape, a feature of many Japanese gardens that is often only noted unconsciously. This is as it should be, the effect so seamless one hardly notices.
While in the shoin and other rooms that display art works, it is well worth noting a number of vivid paintings of maples, hollyhock, pine and cherry trees on their inner walls. These are the work of the artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539-1610) and his son Kyuzo (1568-93). The fusuma-e (paintings on paper doors), are the work of another Kyoto artist, Insho Domoto. The paintings, which were rescued from the 1682 fire, are in remarkable condition. Black-ink screen paintings by a more recent master, Toshio Tabuchi, were dedicated to the temple in 2008. The collective interpretation of nature found in these works is a fine complement to the garden, which is an idealization of nature.
The weaker design at the North Side of the shoin, an addition from the latter half of the 19th century, leads to open corridors, passages that work as viewing stages for a series of smaller sub-gardens.
These are minor works, but tastefully executed in most cases. There is, however, a dry-landscape garden, a barren and rather shoddy affair that has the appearance of an afterthought, an adjunct to the more refined designs of the main gardens. Meanwhile, the inner corridors are the quietest parts of the temple, where there is a deep hush preserved by subdued light, polished wooden floors and empty rooms.
As ever more historical buildings in Kyoto, particularly private residencies, succumb to the sledgehammer — Japan’s leitmotif — I am of a growing conviction that gardens, with their enduring rock schemes, are among the last examples of a living cultural heritage.
Chishaku-in is on the eastern side of the T-junction of Higashioji-dori and Shichijo-dori. Buses serve the temple from many points, including JR Kyoto Station. Entry ¥500; open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Stephen Mansfield’s latest book is “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space and Environment.”