If Japanese landscape gardeners looked toward mountains and river valleys for inspiration in creating the rock arrangements that form the power grids of their gardens, infusing natural elements with Taoist and Buddhist principles, it is likely that Okinawans cast their eyes over the seas that surround their subtropical islands, finding in their marine gardens models for terrestrial forms.

Where Japanese gardeners, in their pre-Shinto, animistic phase, sought out waterfalls, forest glades and pebble beaches, requisitioning these spaces as proto gardens or purified clearings where the gods could be summoned and petitioned, the ancient Okinawans, without any notion of arranged landscapes functioning as magnetic fields for the spirits, allotted groves, rocks, cliffs and crevices called utaki as manifestations of the sacred.

Rather than being spiritual conductors, or metaphysical platforms for the representation of abstract Buddhist concepts, the stone elements of Okinawan gardens, created much later than mainland counterparts, would serve the more aesthetically pleasing function of reflecting the marine, flora and geological aspects of the islands. Where the white gravel and sand placed around stones in ancient sites symbolized an arranged but natural order conducive to worship and ritual — where later stone gardens associated with temples, stood for the boundary between the sacred and the human — the Okinawan version of landscape design invited interaction.

When Ono-no-Imoko, head of a diplomatic mission to China, returned to Japan in A.D. 607, he brought with him a detailed commentary on garden methods practiced in the Middle Kingdom. As an independent sovereign entity, but also a vassal state of China, emissaries and scholars of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa), exposed for long periods to Chinese culture, would have likewise returned with garden prototypes, notes and sketches that would be applied to Okinawan landscape designs. In this context, a visit to Fukushu-en, a Chinese garden in Naha, is instructive. Here, the fabulist rocks, floating pavilions, arched bridges and clusters of banana frond, cycads, bird nest fern and ripening bamboo, strike a chord with Okinawan landscaping, whose designs are closer to the gardens of retired Chinese administrators in Suzhou than the temples or tea gardens of Kyoto.

The clearest example of a garden closely modeled on Chinese principles, but with strong native elements, is Shikina-en in Naha. Destroyed in the battle of Okinawa in 1945, the circuit garden was faithfully reassembled in the postwar period from surviving stones and masonry. The formal grounds of the original garden, serving as a second residence for the royal family and a guest villa for visiting dignitaries from China, was completed in 1799.

The choice of stones, reflecting the Chinese preference for jagged, spiny rocks with pitted surfaces, hollows, cavities and blowholes, reflects a quite different aesthetic to that of many Japanese gardens, where surfaces are darker, smoother to the touch and more understated. The elegant, hexagonal Rokkaku-do, reminiscent of water pavilions found in Chinese gardens, is approached via a short bridge made from sekitangan (Ryukyu coral stone), a material common to many Okinawan gardens. A large causeway crossing the pond is another Chinese allusion, the span replicating the bridge that crosses a dike running through the Western segment of Hangzhou Bay.

Chinese landscape designers were, arguably, the first to conceive of gardens as spaces for literary discourse and as devices for meditation. Lao Zi, a sixth-century B.C. Taoist philosopher, understood the garden as a spiritual site that could induce a state of emptiness conducive to enlightenment.

Garden guardians: Lion-dog statues are common features at the entrance to Okinawan homes. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Garden guardians: Lion-dog statues are common features at the entrance to Okinawan homes. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

No such elevated aspirations were applied to Okinawan gardens such as Shikina-en. The adoption of Chinese garden principles and forms in Okinawa resulted in landscapes that, despite the existence of symbolic elements and the articulation of space according to the dictates of feng shui, or geomancy, served primarily aesthetic and visual ends. Where in the Chinese garden a construct like the Rokkaku-do might have been erected for the purpose of admiring the sound of the rain or to listen to the wind racing across a pond, the water pavilion here serves an essentially ornamental function. It is doubtful that Okinawans have ever seriously viewed their gardens as embodiments of philosophical allegories, or as incarnations of Buddhist or Taoist worldviews.

Though less given to metaphysics or abstraction, the chiaroscuro of charcoal shadows, or the notion of stones as seats of the luminous divinities that typify the temple gardens of Japan, Okinawan gardens do not represent a disintegration of meaning, or an abandonment of symbolism, but rather an emphasis on form and materials.

There are, of course, exceptions. In the stone garden of the Sadakichi Shinjo Residence on Miyako Island, we find a garden that, in its random, haphazard placement of rocks, resembles an eruption of vertical lava deposits, an accidental rebellion against form.

Intensely ornamented, the steep rock face at Kin Town's hanging bonsai garden in Okinawa. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Intensely ornamented, the steep rock face at Kin Town’s hanging bonsai garden in Okinawa. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

One looks equally quizzically at the Hanging Bonsai Garden in Kin-cho, situated along the east coast of Okinawa’s main island. Also known as the Limestone Cave, Bonsai Garden and Cafe Gold Hall, the complex, created by Matsuzo Gibo in the 1960s and now run by his grand-daughter, Sayuri Shimabukuro, defies easy explanation. Inspired by an urge to protect Okinawan bonsai, the trees — alongside other plantings and the liberal presence of ornamentation that includes shisha (lion-dog statues), mythological goddesses, Chinese-style Buddha statues and phoenixes — are approached by passing through a limestone cave. This disgorges visitors onto a ledge, overhung with a steep limestone cliff, on which bonsai, cycads, bird’s-nest ferns and miniature waterfalls congregate. It’s an extraordinary sight, underscored by the soaring verticality of the crustal rock face.

Unlike Shikina-en, whose reassembled elements feel more contemporary, the rocks in Miyara Dunchi, a stone garden on Ishigaki Island, resemble disused machine parts, where the welding has become rusty, jammed up and immutable. At first glance, Miyara Dunchi, Japan’s southernmost formal garden, appears to be the creation of a Chinese sorcerer or Daoist recluse, its fabulist forms and saturated patinas the result of 200 years of tropical erosion. Commissioned by a magistrate named Miyara Peichin Toen in 1819, the garden’s adjoining residence is the oldest extant example of a samurai-style villa in Okinawa. The time-worn, salt-encrusted verandah looks out onto stone clusters resembling Chinese rockeries, rock piles that, in their wrinkled and perforated forms, evoke offshore formations and coastal cliffs. In place of the lotuses, chrysanthemums and willow trees of the Chinese garden, are fallen bougainvillea and hibiscus petals, bird’s-nest ferns growing in the crevices of rocks, the glossy fronds of cycads, a line of typhoon resistant fukugi trees and the ghostly roots of the ficus tree.

Writers, designers and landscape specialists have paid little serious attention to Okinawan gardens. One looks in vain for equivalents to the lavish coffee table books, manuals of design theory or learned treatise devoted to the Japanese gardens that grace the shelves of bookshops or the reading lists of online stores. Earnest discussion on the innovation or direction of the Okinawan garden is practically nonexistent. These radiant, sun-lit plots have, it seems, little appeal for garden academics.

This is an odd omission, arguably attributable to the perception of Okinawan gardens as either a minor niche genre or an essentially non-Japanese form.

Bougainvillea highlight an old coral garden wall on Taketomi Island, Okinawa. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Bougainvillea highlight an old coral garden wall on Taketomi Island, Okinawa. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Private views

Traditional, privately owned gardens in mainland Japan, viewed from inside the house or from wooden decks, function less as living spaces, than as impeccable, carefully framed and composed galleries. Okinawan private gardens by contrast, are intended for use and interaction. People sit drinking beer and awamori — Okinawa’s rice-based firewater — beneath shady trees, on white plastic chairs, or on their tile or wood verandas and decks. Signs of old wells, weather-beaten wooden tables, piles of damaged roof tiles, garden hoses and clay pots often convey a messy impression, simply because these are thoroughly functional spaces. Within the garden walls, which are plot boundaries rather than design confinements, the owner has complete freedom over content. If a rock sits in the middle of a medicinal herb patch or a cement water tank at the center of a banana grove, then so be it. Less places to contemplate nature than to make contact with it, locals sit and chat under the shade of trees, smelling nature, feeling it ripple over their skin.

Bracts of the hanging heliconia, a floral element in the tropics | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Bracts of the hanging heliconia, a floral element in the tropics | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The garden adage that one should avoid combining colors that intensify each other in preference for more subtle fusions, does not apply to Okinawa, where vibrancy is valued. Contrary to gardens where flowers are used to calm and soothe the mind and spirit, Okinawan flowers and the environments they are placed in, have an energizing, revitalizing effect, one that is visually and emotionally gratifying. Long sunshine hours and abundant rain create miniature rainbows under the foliage, prismatic effects that are not only spellbinding to see, but act as fertilizer rays, providing light and heat to the undersides of plants.

Familiar flowers one would find in arboretums around the world — begonias, gardenias and ixora — are common to Okinawa. The islands are home to many exotics with startling blossoms and bracts, including red ginger (a native of the Moluccas and Melanesia), bromeliads, cordylines, the synthetic gloss of the pink and red spathes of the anthurium, the flower spikes of wild costus and heliconias (a plant noted for its unique form). The papery leaves, or bracts of the bougainvillea, are ubiquitous in Okinawa, adding splashes of color to garden walls, open borders and medians. A sea facing scandent, or climbing shrub, the plant does well on vines, but also exists as a potted plant, cultivated as a bonsai tree. Associated in the Okinawan mind with graveyards, where they are often grown, hibiscus acquire a sunnier character when grown in gardens. The painters Henri Rousseau and Paul Gauguin, who used tropical colors so effectively in their art, would have felt quite at home here among the exuberant flowers and foliage of these islands.

In the village of Inamine, just off the quieter northern stretch of Route 58, I discover a number of older gardens, identified by their periphery of well-established fukugi trees and blackened coral walls. It only takes a friendly greeting and an expression of admiration for the beauty of a garden, and I am admitted into these private spaces and urged to take as many photographs as I like. A common feature of the older gardens I find here, and in many of the smaller islands of Okinawa that I have visited, is the presence of hinpun, or Chinese-style screen walls, invariably facing the entrance but within the garden itself. In China where, when looked at from a perspective of geomancy, entrances and thresholds may be precarious spots, such walls help to deflect malign spirits. While the same idea may have been adapted in Okinawan gardens, they have the dual function of providing extra privacy and, in these typhoon-prone islands, acting as windbreaks.

Left: Paul Lorimer's naturalistic home garden in Shinzato is a study in elimination. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Paul Lorimer’s naturalistic home garden in Shinzato is a study in elimination. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The final garden I make a point to visit and photograph is owned, not by an Okinawan, but a New Zealander, one who has lived in these islands for more than 40 years, time enough to be considered, at the very least, an honorary local. Paul Lorimer moved to the village of Shinzato a few years ago, purchasing a house for which the term run-down would be an understatement. The home came with an uncultivated plot of 900 tsubo (almost 3,000 square meters).

After months of renovation work on the structure, Lorimer turned his attention to the wilderness outside his front door. While the rear plot, as yet untouched, remains an untamed jungle, a knot of entangled tree branches, tropical shrub, wild fruit and herbs, he has created a foreground garden that can be viewed at leisure from the wide verandah he has hand-built. Instead of designing a garden from scratch, he has simply eliminated cluttered or obtrusive plantings and vines, retaining the plants and trees he most values, creating in the process air streams to ventilate space.

The resulting domestic landscaping is evidence that sometimes, the best gardens are not the result of an imposed scheme or design, but an amicable collaboration between humanity and nature.

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