Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, had a powerful sense of gods and spirits in nature. This was fertile ground for the introduction of Buddhism and established a Japanese tradition whereby foreign ideas were enthusiastically studied and then transformed into a Japanese version.
Several types of 'garden' space can be distinguished (the word is not well-suited to the first two):
A visit by Ono-no-Imoko to China (see Timeline for Chinese gardens and Timeline for Japanese gardens) is regarded as the starting point for the development of the Japanese gardens which survive. He brought to Japan both the idea of making gardens and a Buddhist approach to their design. A book published c1100 [Sakutei-ki (notes on the making of gardens)] gives the principles of this approach:
Pierre and Susanne Rambach (on p.14 in Gardens of longevity, in China and Japan) see these objectives as belonging to the 'physical and spiritual search... for longevity', using longevity to mean 'maintaining the state of youth' [see note on Taoism, Nature and the Isles of the Immortals].
The Buddhist design approach began with monks but was adopted by emperors and nobles, always with continuity and usually with change. The continuity was an emphasis on the role of meditation in garden design. The changes had several causes: (1) the necessity to keep re-building palaces and gardens after their destruction by fire - Kyoto's earthquakes and lightening storms being a common cause of fire, (2) the Shinto belief that a death could pollute a building and make it necessary to build anew, (3) changing fashions and the imagination of designers, (4) the making of gardens by the imperial family and the nobility - who were naturally more interested in pleasure than monks, and more so after real power was lost to the shoguns, (5) contacts with China and, occasionally, other countries.
Three types of of Buddhist garden can be distinguished:
The Tea Ceremony became an important factor in garden design and illustrates the changes. The ceremony was introduced to Japan from China in 1191, because drinking tea was an aid to meditation. The tea ceremony involved a small group of companions drinking from the same cup. In the sixteenth century the ceremony became formalised, in tea gardens and stroll gardens, with a specially designed path leading to special pavilions. Siting the pavilions became a prime objective in garden design, with artistically placed stepping stones to protect the plants from stroller and the attire of the stroller. Tea gardens also had stone lanterns to allow the ceremony to take place after dark.
The progression of Japanese gardens from religious to secular it mirrored by changes in their patronage:
Japanese interest in Japanese garden history developed in the twentieth century and has been marred by a smug sense of superiority verging on racism. Seiko Goto's attitude is representative.
In The Japanese Garden: gateway to the human spirit New York:Peter Lang 2003 p.3 Seiko writes that 'Gardens in Japan, unlike French gardens, have never been mere ornaments for parades or performances. Even when a Japanese garden is designed for social or theatrical events, each natural element is treated as if it as a personality, whereas in French gardens, trees and flowers can be understood as decices for creating a vista or making elaborate patterns that resemble embroidery'.
A Frenchman would be entitled to respond that ' Gardens in France, unlike Japanese gardens, have never been mere ornaments. Even when a French garden is designed for social or theatrical events, each natural element is part of a world view embodying the principles of the enlightenment which laid the basis for modern science, whereas in Japanese gardens, trees and flowers can be elaborate patterns that resemble the oranemntal treatment of fabrics and ceramics' .