Lifestyle

Shifting landscapes: The state of traditional Japanese gardens

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

My neighbor’s garden is a wonder to behold. Where you might expect to find trim box hedges, bamboo fences, subtle rock arrangements, junipers, conifers and pine, there are garden gnomes, an ornamental concrete wheelbarrow, pots of begonia, hanging baskets of pansies and an iron rose trellis. At the end of the year, the garden is festooned with fairy lights and models of reindeer.

What, I often ponder, unable to keep my eyes off the compelling vision of a rubber flamingo gazing into a brick-lined well, could have possessed my neighbor to have extirpated the exquisite Japanese landscape that once existed here in favor of a fantasia of ersatz statuary?

Another neighbor suggested a possible explanation.

“Her Japanese garden was full of shadows and shade,” he said. “She wanted something bright, something cheerful.”

The preference for brilliance, the radiant over the subdued, can be traced in part to the immediate postwar period. A dismal time remembered for its ruined cities, food shortages and dysfunctional services, one stirring mantra from this dark period was akarui seikatsu (a life full of light).

Tile, colored gravel and cement are part of the Mirei Shigemori garden at Fukuchiin in Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Tile, colored gravel and cement are part of the Mirei Shigemori garden at Fukuchiin in Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The contemporary domestic garden, its self-proclaimed affectations drawing on English models, is a far cry from the gardens of my childhood, which were interactive spaces, requisitioned as green playgrounds, outdoor tea and reading rooms, with garden furniture that was actively used. In Japanese simulacrums of this style, tables, chairs and hammocks are purely ornamental. Adapting the manner in which traditional Japanese gardens are viewed, one observes rather than inhabits these pseudo-English gardens.

If medieval-era Japanese stone and meditation gardens are associated with complex metaphysical concepts, the stages for solemn exercises in spiritual or aesthetic devotion, a sense of playfulness already co-existed with such higher conceptual aspirations. First impressions of Hiraizumi’s Motsuji temple, the only fully intact garden from the Heian Period (794-1185) in Japan, is of open parkland, an expansive space set aside for leisure.

Closer examination reveals details that were incorporated into the garden with the express purpose of creating pleasure and delight for a privileged class of nobles and court attendants. Its main pond, Oizumigaike, is said to represent the Buddhist Pure Land, but its spiritual foundations in no way prevented guests from floating on its surface in wooden barges, admiring differing perspectives on the garden. In late spring, the kyokusui-no-en (feast by the winding stream) took place, in which participants dressed in brilliant, layered kimonos, would pick up cups of sake as they floated by, then compose a poem, which was sent down the meandering watercourse. A design based on diagrams of mandalas, Motsuji is an early example of a garden that combines the sacred with more playful, recreational urges.

The iconic circuit garden of Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The iconic circuit garden of Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Japanese landscape designers have long excelled at managed miniaturization and representation, the results often more playful than solemn. Noting that at an early stage in Japan’s creation of a cultural identity, “the avatar of Walt Disney was alive and well,” American writer Donald Richie cited the example of Rikugien, an Edo Period kaiyushiki teien (stroll garden) in Tokyo. Here, he notes, “in one place, arranged somewhat like a miniature golf course, are all of the 88 classical sites, all tiny, and all with noticeboards explaining the Chinese or Japanese association.”

The Edo Period (1603-1868) saw the pared-down gardens of a former age freed up to create space for extra ornamentation, resulting in the creation of stroll gardens and the introduction of water basins and lavers, miniature bridges, granite piers, stream beds and waterfalls, stone pagodas, half-buried sections of roof pediments and finials, carved bodhisattvas and exotic plants such as cycads. Fanciful topiary appeared at this time, the meticulously clipped bushes and evergreens representing everything from billowing clouds to lucky treasure ships.

The stroll garden provided a setting for members of the nobility and their guests to meander at their leisure past a set of mise-en-scene representing a cultural digest of famous Japanese and Chinese sights, as well as the imagined landscapes of literature and mythology. Common re-creations included the celebrated causeway transecting Hangzhou’s West Lake in China, the coast at Tamatsushima in Kii province, Mount Lu in Jiangxi province, islands of the Inland Sea and scenes from the 53 stages of the old Tokaido highway.

A walk in the park: A contemplative moment at Shoseien, a 17th-century stroll garden in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A walk in the park: A contemplative moment at Shoseien, a 17th-century stroll garden in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Ironically, the decline of domestic temple and public gardens based on traditional design principles is occurring at the very time classic landscapes are attracting more visitor interest. This, inevitably, comes with a slew of fresh problems. On a recent visit to the stone garden at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, one of the most photographed landscape designs in the world, there were an estimated 3,000 visitors. A slew of people jostled for space on its viewing deck, tour guides raised their voices above the din, smartphones rang out. I decided it was time to leave when a bottle of soda slipped from the hands of a small child, the glass shattering onto the tiles beneath the viewing deck, then spilling onto the painstakingly raked gravel of the garden. Such distractions, I reflected, were far removed from the original purpose of the garden as a place for contemplation.

Faithful to its avowed intentions of being both a work of art and a place of entertainment and pleasure, the stroll garden of Shuizenji Jojuen in the city of Kumamoto represents the horticultural parallel of a fairground, with souvenir and snack shops and a representative complement of replicas that include a miniaturized shoreline of Lake Biwa and an astonishingly realistic, grass-covered Mount Fuji, a fine example of shukkei, or scaled-down versions of natural scenery.

The almost heavenly peripheries of Tojiin, a little-visited garden in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The almost heavenly peripheries of Tojiin, a little-visited garden in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Commissioned by the Hosokawa family in 1632, the garden represents the dual impulses of refinement and playfulness and may, in common with other great gardens of this type, have served as an early model for theme attraction parks. They may have even given license to the liberties taken by the owners of contemporary domestic gardens. Interestingly, when visiting the garden in the summer of 1911, photographer Herbert G. Ponting noted how visitors were enjoying cones of shaved ice doused with fruit syrup, while children cooled off in the garden’s central pond, “paddling in the water and scampering over the grasses.”

Visitors who grumble about the imperative to generate revenue from garden visitors by selling trinkets and bowls of green tea or by setting up markets within the grounds of gardens, might note that gardens were put to far more extravagant, unabashedly commercial uses during the Edo Period. Returning to Richie’s example of Rikugi-en, records describing a visit there in 1701, by Keshoin, mother of the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tsunayoshi, give a full account of her large entourage of consorts, ladies-in-waiting, footmen, children and retainers, including a priest and physician, who were treated to cups of sake, fruit and trays of sweets, then urged to shop at stalls proffering illustrated books, toys, fans, flowers, papier-mache dolls and toys. Tsunayoshi’s European contemporary, Louis XIV, held a similar event in the gardens of Versailles, one involving a cavalry parade, ballets, plays and a sumptuous banquet lasting more than eight days.

Conservation of garden models, even those subjected to economic imperatives, is a commendable endeavor, but this is being prioritized over the resurgence and development of the form.

Against this background, is there hope for the parlous state of the Japanese garden? Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975) certainly believed there was.

A stone garden designed by Mirei Shigemori at Kozenji temple in Kiso Fukushima, Nagano Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A stone garden designed by Mirei Shigemori at Kozenji temple in Kiso Fukushima, Nagano Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Reacting to what he considered the stale formalism and repetition ad infinitum of garden forms, the art’s degeneration into mannerism and over-ornamentation, Shigemori believed that, in common with other art forms, gardens need to evolve. An iconoclast revered and reviled for his introduction of seditious materials such as concrete and modern tile into gardens, he succeeded in blending the classical and contemporary, creating gardens invigorated with a sense of what he termed the “eternal modern.”

Asked to contribute to the back-cover notes of Mira Locher’s “Zen Gardens: The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno” (2012), I wrote that the Shigemori had “chosen the most determinate and primal material of all to work with: rock, a substance that ages but does not wither. Embracing tradition and modernity, these gardens are expressive of a keen intelligence and profound knowledge of Japanese culture, yoked with an artist’s perspective on landscape. Visionary garden designers like this appear perhaps once in a single generation, if that.” These are words I still stand by.

There are few figures in the contemporary garden scene who have managed to re-energize the field more effectively than Masuno, who has created works for temples, hotels, private companies and residencies, a university campus, library and more. His 1991 masterpiece, a stone garden for the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo’s Aoyama-itchome neighborhood, exemplifies his modernist approach to an ancient form. In this highly contemporary garden, Masuno infuses rocks and boulders with an extraordinary sense of lightness and fluidity.

Dense moss at Giouji, a temple garden inspired by a tea aesthetic. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Dense moss at Giouji, a temple garden inspired by a tea aesthetic. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

It seems that the ancient practice of having rock gardens designed and built by Zen priests trained in the art of stone setting has not entirely vanished. Just a few steps away from the popular hermitage of Shisen-do in a northeastern district of Kyoto, the Rinzai sect temple of Zuiganzan Enkoji receives few visitors. Those who enter are greeted by a rather extraordinary modernist dry landscape garden, known as the Honyutei. The design combines the primitive and abstract by utilizing striking sculptural forms, which include stone clusters representing a dragon soaring toward the heavens.

The garden was created in 2013 by Tsubo Keikan and his brother, both Buddhist priests. Keikan is quick to disclaim any specialist knowledge of Japanese gardens, claiming that it was created entirely in the spirit of Buddhism. Formal training or not, it is encouraging to find priests today adapting the principles of the medieval-era Zen priests. Seeking neither fame nor commercial gain, such dedicated aesthetic designers are a rarity. Their very existence, however, bodes well for the notion of a regeneration spurred by experts and enthusiasts with a profound grasp of the principles of garden design, and with the vision to advance them into a new age of experimentation.

The past is full of exemplary nativist models for those prepared to consult them, as I discovered on a recent visit to the little-known temple garden of Shojuraikoji, close to Lake Biwa. It was a national holiday and the temple grounds were as quiet as the grave, its doors firmly locked. A little probing at the rear of the property revealed the open entrance to a building that looked like a family residence.

Peering into the interior, a woman materialized, confirming the closure of the temple that day. If I had come so far, though, she would be happy to open the garden for me to view. Aside from the later addition of organic plant elements like hedges, bushes and large clumps of cycad, the essential form of this Momoyama Era (1573-1603) design has remained remarkably intact.

There is a special sense of privilege in being able to gaze at a garden that was created centuries ago by a priest, whose lessons are as fresh today as they were when those rocks were set in place.

Stephen Mansfield is set to publish a book titled “One Hundred Japanese Gardens” in June.


A primer on Japanese gardens

What images does the average person conjure up when they think about a Japanese garden? Clearly, there is no single form. The following are some of the most common garden types in this country:

A dry landscape garden attached to Kyoto's Shodenji temple. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A dry landscape garden attached to Kyoto’s Shodenji temple. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Stone gardens

Many garden purists elect the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) as being the apogee of the dry landscape garden. In Japan’s pre-Shinto days, white gravel and sand were placed around forest rocks to denote the two zones of the sacred and human. The sacred role of stones as primary elements in gardens led to their requisitioning as religious imagery and symbolism. Stone gardens attached to Zen temples contain rocks that are suffused with meanings linked to a worldview that is distinctly Buddhist.

Mill stones are used as stepping stones in the stroll garden of Isuien in Nara. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Mill stones are used as stepping stones in the stroll garden of Isuien in Nara. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Stroll gardens

Religious elements appear in stroll gardens from the Edo Period, but are more literally presented in a landscape milieu geared toward leisure and wonderment. Visitors are invited to follow a route featuring meisho, or “famous sights,” associated with Japanese and Chinese literature, landscape, and pilgrimage. Commissioned by feudal lords, many of these circuit gardens remain in Tokyo and the provinces.

The grounds of Shugakuin Imperial Villa blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The grounds of Shugakuin Imperial Villa blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Imperial gardens

Kyoto, with its proximate hills, woodland and ready supply of rocks, gravel and water, was the natural location for the cultivation of large estate gardens such as the Shugaku-in Imperial Villa, where borrowed scenery and framed perspectives have been skillfully requisitioned. Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, one of Japan’s most important gardens, is another fine example of this genre. Fussily tended, its meticulously conceived asymmetry is a prototype of the Japanese garden. Some visitors may find the garden a little cold and formal. But it is, after all, an imperial landscape — the “closest a garden can get,” as I have written in a book titled “One Hundred Japanese Gardens” that is set to be published next month, “to visual protocol.”

A rock cluster in the courtyard garden of Kenninji temple in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A rock cluster in the courtyard garden of Kenninji temple in Kyoto. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Courtyard gardens

The most secluded garden, surrounded on four sides by residential rooms, the tsuboniwa is diminutive in size, requiring at its most minimal little more than one or two stones, a gravel surface and a few plantings. A bucolic spot at the center of a residence, the design also acts as a light well, bringing air and natural illumination into the center of confined homes. There is more spatial flexibility in the nakaniwa, also a courtyard garden. The sumptuous expanses of moss and trees within the courtyard garden of the Tamozawa Imperial Villa in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, are a good example of this latitude.

Kyoto's Keishunin is an archetypal tea garden. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Kyoto’s Keishunin is an archetypal tea garden. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Tea gardens

In “Book of Tea,” Meiji Era art critic Okakura Kakuzo wrote, “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.” There are few garden forms capable of promoting disassociation as the tea garden. To stroll down its stone path and enter the green, powdery corridor of the tea garden is truly transformative. The greenest of gardens, replicating the tonal quality of tea itself, which the Chinese called “liquid jade,” the passage across the irregularly spaced stone path to the teahouse is intended to slow down the visitor, decelerate their pace so they can absorb the details of the design. (Stephen Mansfield)