Traditionally, gardens patronage in Japan came from two sources: the nobility and the coffers of well-endowed temples.

The wealthy and privileged commissioned landscaped gardens for their estates; head abbots employed the services of ishi-tate-so (rock-setting priests) to create gardens that would complement religious architecture and promote spiritual practices.

However, the businessmen, industrialists and plutocrats who formed the new aristocracy of the modernizing Meiji and Taisho eras that followed the demise of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 were of a different order. Among the money-grubbers and power-hungry social climbers were a coterie of men thoroughly schooled in Japanese aesthetics and garden design.

The Murin-an in Kyoto, Kiunkaku in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the grounds of the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo are fine examples of wealth and good taste in the service of design.

On the other hand, despite its historical credentials as the first capital of a unified Japan, the ancient city of Nara is seldom associated with gardens. There is the carefully restored To-in, of course, and the infrequently visited pond garden of Kyu-daijo-in — today little more than a faint tracery of the original from the Muromachi Period (1338-1573).

Certainly the Yoshiki-en merits close examination for the integration of its tea houses, raised paths and pond — even though the orthodoxy of its design consigns it to the minor ranks of Japanese gardening. Right next door, though, the Isui-en is more promising.

Isui-en consists of two interconnected gardens. The smaller, West Garden was purchased in the Enpo Era (1673-81) of the Edo Period (1603-1867) by a wealthy bleacher and maker of fine-quality Nara ramie textile named Michikiyo Kiyosumi. He modified the original layout of the garden and erected two houses, the Sanshu-tei and Teishuken, as a family villa and tea-ceremony venue for artists, literary people and friends, respectively.

The Sanshu-tei (meaning “The Arbor of Three Superb Beauties”) received its name from Mokuan Zenji, the head priest at the renowned Manpuku-ji Temple in Uji in present-day Kyoto Prefecture between the cities of Kyoto and Nara. The pavilion is reached by crossing a narrow bridge across a small pond with crane and turtle islands. According to the “Nara Bomoku Sekkai,” an ancient record of temples in Nara, this garden once formed part of the grounds of Kofuku-ji Temple’s Manishu-in.

Access to the East Garden from the older western section of the grounds is via steppingstones passing between the Seishun and Teishuken tea houses, modest structures in the style of understated rustic beauty associated with an older tea-ceremony aesthetic. The tea houses are roofed with thatch and cryptomeria bark embedded with seashells to lend an auspicious presence.

Commissioned in 1900 by Tojiro Seki, a prosperous Nara merchant, the design was completed at a time when gardening was no longer considered an art. Given the neglect and disrepair that Edo Period residential landscapes were commonly subjected to at that time — with the selling-off of valuable ornamental rocks to raise funds commonplace and a poor level of scholarship relating to the history of gardens — among the peculiar Western-Japanese hybrids created out of the magnificent models from the past (despite the leaching of abstraction and symbolism from gardens), the East Garden at Isui-en stands out as a tasteful and urbane achievement.

There, the main pond is dug in the shape of the kanji character for mizu (water) — a refreshing alternative to the more common garden convention of creating shinji no ike (“heart ponds”) in a configuration derived from the kanji for “heart.”

Additionally, steppingstones linking the shore to a small island are an interesting reference to Kiyosumi’s trade, since the stones were once used as mortars in the process of sizing ramie cloth and for grinding the pigments used in dyeing.

A tea-garden ambience was created here by Horitoku, a well-known landscape designer connected to the Ura Senke school of tea ceremony. More links to the school can be found at Hyoshin-tei (Pavilion of the Frozen Heart) to the west of the pond, an exquisite tea house designed by the master carpenter Seibei Kimura, whose services were also used by the Ura Senke family heads.

Surrounded by miniature trees and carefully trimmed bushes, white lotuses bloom at the edges of the pond in the summer months. Typical of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), azalea bushes substitute for rocks in providing mass and contouring.

Meanwhile, rising above the green tiers of the garden’s clipped and precise topiary, visitors can glimpse a segment of Todai-ji Temple, the huge roof of its Great Buddha Hall adding borrowed divinity to managed nature.

However, the frontage of Hyoshin-tei provides the garden’s finest shakkei (borrowed view). Tucked behind the tiled roof of the Nandaimon, the Great Southern Gate of the temple, the four-layered view incorporates lush hillside plantings, the top of the gate as foreground, a row of treetops near Himuro Shrine, and the more distant outlines of Mount Kasugaoku, Mount Wakakusa and Mount Mikasa. To this day the perspective is unblemished by modern buildings or power lines, remaining much the same as when it was first conceived. Garden historian Gunter Nitschke has called it “perhaps the most outstanding example of shakkei in the entire Meiji Era.”

Less smitten with the effect, garden writer Itoh Teiji noted, “If there is any fault in the view, it is that the line of the hill Wakakusayama cuts across the roof lines of the gate and thus produces a certain instability in the composition.”

Girded with water, the inner pond is fed by winding streams similar to those placed in gardens of the Heian Period (794-1185). Among them, the Yoshiki River, reduced to a shallow, purling brook, meanders through the garden beneath wooded glades.

Combining privacy and openness, the gardens cover an area of roughly 13,500 sq. meters — space enough, you would think, to attract attention and comment. Yet despite being the only stroll garden in Nara, the wonder of Isui-en is that it is so little known.

How to get there: Isui-en Garden is tucked behind the Southern Gate of Nara’s Todai-ji Temple. It is open 9:30 a.m-4 p.m.; closed Tuesday and at the end/beginning of the year; entrance is ¥400. For more details, call (0742) 25-0781.

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