Japanese Gardens Through History

Defining a garden is a far more difficult task than one might think. Dictionary definitions include a gamut of creations all beginning with cultivated land. Dictionaries describe the physical and utilitarian features of gardens. In this sense, sites like vineyards, city parks and even planted freeway medians are gardens as well.

While a garden is not defined by any clear-cut physical parameters, the significance of them in human society is undeniable. The key to understanding what gardens are and why they are important involves looking beyond the physical characteristics to the ways that they impact people’s lives.

What do they provide people with that makes them worth so much time and dedication? Is there something beyond their physical and utilitarian features that may account for their widespread appeal ? Without considering both the emotional and concrete aspects of a garden, any understanding of their significance in society is incomplete. To grasp a garden’s true appeal, the concrete and abstract elements need to be considered.

Where did gardens come from?

Gardens have met human needs since Babylonian kings created the Hanging Gardens. Majestic and heaven-like, these gardens projected an image of unsurmountable wealth and power over a rigidly controlled society. The reverence and wonder these gardens inspired stand in stark contrast to the austere Shinto gardens built a thousand years later in Japan.

Designed as places of worship, Shinto ‘shrines’ consisted of no more than a pad of gravel raked out to occupy a small forest clearing. These wall-less gardens of worship were used as intermediary zones where humans could connect and present offerings to forest spirits (kami). These forest shrines marked the beginning of an unwavering drive to integrate gardens into Japanese society.

Throughout history, Japan has been marked by foreign influence and sweeping social changes. The physical and psychological needs of the population has been in constant flux. Different garden styles emerged to meet the unique demands of society.

Japanese gardens changed from spiritual retreats in the forest to decedent interpretations of nirvana after the country opened up to China. Around the fifth century Buddhism and Fenshui had gained significant influence among nobility. These two concepts would influence Japanese garden design for the next thousand years.

Japanese gardens during Heian period

This era of Japanese gardens coincided with the Heian period. This is often considered to be Japan’s “Golden Age”. The Heian period is known as a time of peace and cultural blossoming, where the Emperor’s supremacy and political control ensured the survival of an expansive bureaucratic class, both wealthy and sophisticated. Descriptions of Heian period gardens can be found in popular literature of the time.

The following is a passage from The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in ~967 C.E. Here the author narrates the experience of a certain character who is enjoying a day in the expansive gardens of the capital:

The Lake, as they now put out towards the middle of it, seemed immensely large, and those on board, to whom the whole experience was new and deliciously exciting, could hardly believe that they were not heading for some undiscovered land. At last however the rowers brought them close in under the rocky bank of the channel between the two large islands, and on closer examination they discovered to their delight that the shape of every little ledge and crag of stone had been as carefully devised as if a painter had traced them with his brush [Murasaki 480].

The garden, in the excerpt above, captures the general atmosphere of late Heian aristocracy, where days of leisure and idleness were filled with melancholy outlooks on life. Confined within this sorrowful fantasyland, the bureaucratic population of the capital passed time by pursuing aesthetic pleasures, often found among dreamlike gardens and elegant teenage maidens.

In the world outside, the cherry-blossom was almost over; but here it seemed to laugh at decay, and round the Palace even the wisteria that ran along the covered alleys and porticos was all in bloom, but not a flower past its best; while here, where the boats were tied, mountain-kerria poured its yellow blossom over the rocky cliffs in a torrent of color that was mirrored in the waters of the lake below. Water-birds roamed in pairs, their delicate markings blending, in reflection, with the frilled pattern of the waves. Here, like figures in a picture of fairyland, they spent the day gazing in rapture, and envied the woodman on whose axe green leaves at last appeared [480].

Japanese gardens: a royal escape from reality

All these aesthetic preoccupations served as a distraction from the stark realities unfolding outside the capital. The decline of the imperial court coincided with the increasing wealth of rural manors and monasteries, who began levying their own private armies. With control of productive farmland, and rampant corruption among local government officials, these military based communities refused to adhere to imperial rule and took advantage of the decaying taxation system. Pure-land Buddhism in addition to aesthetic pursuits became temporary remedies used by courtiers to escape the gloomy undercurrents of the time.

Gardens psychologically provided for this isolated society of aristocrats by bringing the beauty of nature (so inaccessible within the city), the seasons, and religious comfort (Pure-land gardens were often designed to represent the heavenly paradise of Buddha). While gardens of the Heian era also served as practical venues for events such as festivals or archery competitions, they primarily offered an escape where peace of mind could be found through appreciation of natural beauty and contemplation of life’s impermanence.

While Chinese Buddhism and Feng-shui influenced Japanese garden design significantly, Japanese gardens differed from those in China, both in style and function. Japan’s late adoption of Buddhist principles, along with the complications arising out of their integration with indigenous Shinto principles, meant that Japanese gardens tended to incorporate Buddhist elements rather superficially.

As for the painfully rigid codes of Feng-shui, (such as the directionality of paths or placement of trees), Japanese garden designers always found ways to sidestep the frustrating restrictions. In this way, Japanese gardens were able to diversify in ways that Chinese gardens could not. Tachibana no Toshituna, a well-known 11th century gardener, translates feng-shui criteria in his book Sakutei-ki:

“The best site [for palaces or residences] is one that has a river on the east, a pond on the south, a highway on the west, and a hill on the north because these things correspond to certain divine creatures. The stream corresponds to a blue dragon, the pond…” [26]. Up to this point Tachibana’s translation co-responds perfect with the Chinese original, however he then illustrates clever way to by-pass the absurdness of feng-shui indefinitely: “If such a site is unobtainable [he says], one may substitute nine willow trees for the river, nine Judas trees for the pond, seven maple trees for the highway, and three cypress trees for the hill” [Teiji 26].

Japanese vs. Chinese gardens

The geometric dimensions and regular use of walls commonly found in most Chinese gardens lay in sharp contrast to the emphasis on seasonal change and intentional randomness so characteristic of those in Japan. One noticeable feature common in Chinese gardens was the use of winding right-angled corridors that often surrounded man-made lakes or rivers. Well placed circular windows and open pavilions to escape the summer heat made corridors a practical addition to Chinese gardens.

The simple domestic amenities these structures provided, such as walls, benches, a roof and clear-cut walkways, demonstrated that Chinese gardens favored comfort and practicality over intimacy with nature.

Japanese gardens show reverence towards nature and the seasons. From this point of view, the structures commonly found in Chinese gardens look artificial. They serve as barriers to nature. Moreover, they potentially contradicted the very function that gardens originally had in Japan.

Gardens are a way for one to re-establish oneself with nature, to represent nature. Their contribution to society was consistent: to make the essence of nature’s untouched beauty accessible.

A new type of garden for a new type of people

As the Heian period came to an end, Japanese society underwent massive upheavals, including the disintegration of centralized power, continuous warfare, a series of devastating natural disasters and the widespread regression to a feudal system.

Out of these chaotic times a new warrior class (samurai) acquired ruling status; out of the hardship endured by samurai adjusting to their new societal positions, unique gardens began appearing. These gardens catered to the specific interests and needs of the new ruling class.

Designed in accordance to Zen principles ―a newer sect of Buddhism the samurai class embraced― these gardens were often built by priests and were part of their efforts to communicate the ideals of Zen Buddhism.

How gardens could be expected to communicate spiritual principles more effectively than people is best explained by Japanese author, Teiji Itoh, in his book The Gardens of Japan:

The desire to go beyond sensual beauty and to make a philosophical statement is another thing that prompted Zen priests to turn their hands to garden design. in the single-minded pursuit of universal principles, Zen gardens strip all nonessentials from nature and strive to discover the transcendent meaning of life. Materials are reduced to stones, gravel, and the occasional pruned planting. The stones stand for the framework of universal order, and the gravel symbolizes the cruel transience of this world [83].

During this time, Zen priests became involved in garden maintenance. This was unheard of in non-Zen monasteries. Zen priests slowly began taking on all garden affairs within their affiliated monasteries.

Priests gardened because according to Zen principles, religious and secular boundaries were meaningless; all work provided opportunity for one to grow spiritually. Zen Buddhism did away with rigid and superficial values associated with early forms of Buddhism. Gardens went from being excessively decadent, to austere and symbolic displays of stone.

The fanciful gardens of Heian times stand in direct contrast to the stern, Zen inspired ones that came a few hundred years later. Not only do both of these garden types represent opposing values, they also represent two very different lifestyles — the life of the aristocrat, and the life of the warrior.

Tucked-away tea gardens

Japanese tea gardens were the first gardens accessible to the middle class. They provided escape from chaotic and crowded city life. Tea gardens are small and often secluded. They usually contain a variety of dense, lush foliage.

A host prepares tea, while the guest slowly makes his/her way along a stone path, through the garden and finally to the teahouse, where an elegant process of tea drinking unfolds.

Japanese tea gardens are rather unique physically, especially when compared to Heian or Muromachi (gravel using) gardens that came before. The purpose or motive behind these peculiar gardens reflects their societal context.

The tea garden and tea ceremony are byproducts of Zen Buddhism. During the sixteenth century, Japan was plagued once again by continuous warfare. Samurai coming from rural areas were required to live in a chaotic city environment. Nature was not a part of daily life.

Tea Gardens became a Zen inspired sanctuary so that samurai could cope with idle urban life. “The Zen philosophy on which the tea ceremony is based maintains that everything a person does can be regarded as religious” [84]. The slow, meditative passage a guest makes through the teagarden is a key element in the ceremony itself.

The guest, calm and unburdened, walks across the cool wet stones towards the teahouse. Fully receptive to his/her surroundings, each step is cherished, as piece by piece, the garden gradually reveals itself. “The tea ceremony is considered to have begun the minute the guest enters this garden, which is most often arranged to evoke the mood of a remote, mysterious valley and to provide the visitor with a variety of delights to the eye as he passes along” [84].

There exists an unshakable bridge linking gardens to spirituality. With the tea ceremony’s strict Zen principles and the garden’s secluded atmosphere, it becomes clear that these are spiritual retreats like the Shinto forest gardens.

So Japanese gardens are spiritual in nature ―and perhaps freeway medians are too… A family vegetable garden, while it only produces meagre returns, may be a hobby the whole family can enjoy together, this is the spiritual effect that makes a garden.

Michael Akira Neumann

Hello, my name is Michael. I am an American freelance writer. I hope to continue posting, let me know what you think. Thanks!