Between the years 1924 and 1975, Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) designed more than 180 gardens in Japan, an extraordinary creative output by any standard.
If Shigemori was best known as a landscape designer, an artist in the placement of stones, it is worth noting that his accomplishments extended to being a scholar and practitioner of painting, the tea ceremony and ikebana. His fascination with contemporary Western art may have underlined some of the more daring innovations he made during his long career.
One of the most original garden designers in the history of the art, his work was not universally admired, though there were, and continue to be, fierce devotees and defenders of his ideas. By the garden establishment standards of his day, his designs, which included the use of unorthodox materials such as cement and tile, may have appeared radical, even unacceptable in some quarters, but they were always based on a scholarly knowledge of traditional Japanese landscape principals. As a young man he had undertaken the Promethium task of compiling a survey of Japanese gardens, the final work running to a staggering 27 volumes.
Shigemori’s gardens, like Sekizo-ji in Tanba Tanaka, the Nishiyama Garden in Toyonaka and Shochi-in on Mount Koya, were largely commissioned by temples or homeowners as private retreats. At the Shigemori Garden Museum in Kyoto, we find a garden that he designed for himself. Containing many of his signature touches and design preferences, it may be considered a representative compression of his ideas and principals.
The fact that Shigemori’s home looks out onto one of his own designs is a convincing form of self-endorsement. Here we find a large rock, shaped like a vessel and placed in gravel raked into wave shapes. The rock is from Awa on the island of Shikoku, a region well known for its blue, chlorite schist and a common stone in Shigemori gardens. Rock boats such as this symbolize the journey from the quotidian to the sublime, but can also represent the form of conveyance used to reach, at least symbolically, the legendary Isles of the Immortals of Chinese mythology. Chinese emperors built such rock clusters in their gardens in the belief that they could somehow induce the gods to descend. The stone arrangements are a common feature of countless Japanese gardens, where they, likewise, represent eternal life.
The house, located close to Yoshida Shrine, was the former residence of several Shinto priests. Shigemori set about transforming the original garden, and adding two tea huts and a small naka niwa, or inner garden. In Shigemori’s home garden, four rocks placed next to a large, flat worship stone represent the Sennin Islands, believed in Chinese thinking to have been occupied by monks in possession of the elixir of life. This is the garden’s central stone ensemble. The worship stone, known as the Raihai seki, was taken from the home of an oracle, and served as a place to stand in prayer while facing the direction of Yoshida Shrine. When Shigemori moved to the house in 1943, he redesigned the garden with the rock as its focal point.
The garden is open to the public, but reservations for set times are required. A maximum of 10 people are admitted for one session, which involves listening to a talk about the residence and garden. This is conducted in Japanese in the main room or shoin, and lasts about 10 minutes. Visitors are then free to explore the garden itself, which can be viewed from stone paths and borders located on three sides.
Shigemori’s trademark curving paving stones were an innovation in design that freed the paths and edges of gardens from the angled rigidity of the past. Here he used Tanba Kurama granite to create wave-shaped paving stones. These are set in a blend of cement and mortar mixed with bengara, a dark red pigment traditionally used to coat the wooden surfaces of homes. The cresting wave patterns create a sinuous movement with the garden’s surfaces of gravel, raked into lines suggestive of water. Other touches, including two rocks representing a crane and a turtle — symbols of longevity — add interest.
Stepping-stones, pebbles and humps of moss occupy the foreground space of the garden, while surprisingly large rocks represent the middle ground. If the great Japanese painter and landscape designer Sesshu favored flat rocks, Shigemori’s gardens are notable for their generous (critics have said excessive) use of vertical stones, some of which are slightly tilted. Conventional wisdom and the strong admonitions found in garden manuals from the Heian (794-1185) to Edo periods (1603-1868), warn against creating clusters of upright rocks in close proximity. Shigemori’s skillfully positioned arrangements, with at least half of the rocks placed in the earth for stability, flaunt this traditional advice, but to great effect, with the stone groupings lending a muscular, soaring quality to the garden.
The background section of the garden scape consists of even larger stones and trees close to the rear wall. The largest of these rocks is thought to represent Mount Horai, the center of the Buddhist cosmos. The cluster of smaller stones around it are, in all likelihood, symbols of the celestial islands known as Hojo.
At a relatively young age, Shigemori recognized that “the old is new.” He would later coin the expression “eternal modern” to describe the melding of the classical and contemporary in gardens, the notion that the traditional contains an exuberance that can invigorate the new. As his grandson Mitsuaki Shigemori once said, “The eternally modern creations of the past, in effect, gave birth to the newest of the modern creators: Mirei.”
Thoroughly immersed in the masterpieces of a former age, the artist saw himself as a successor to a modernist spirit emanating from the past. The timeless modernity of Shigemori’s private garden here in Kyoto embodies the notion that Japanese landscape designs, the very accomplished ones that is, are not imitations of the natural world, but coexisting forms that harmonize art and nature.
The Shigemori Mirei Garden Museum is located close to Yasuda Shrine in Kyoto (081-75-761-8776). Stephen Mansfield’s last garden book was “Japan’s Master Gardens: Lessons in Space & Environment.”