The Landscape Guide

Japanese Gardens

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):

  1. The sacred trees and forests in which Shinto gods were believed to reside.
  2. The expanse of white gravel on which a Shinto shrine was placed
  3. The domestic courtyard (earth surfaced niwa) for outdoor work
  4. The space in front of an imperial palace, used for court events and surfaced in white gravel because the emperor was related to the gods
  5. The sacred Buddhist spaces which the world knows as a Japanese Garden

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:

  • make a symbolic re-recreation of an ideal landscape
  • create a vision of the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida
  • create an image of the Isles of the Immortals
  • help man to meditate - and take the road to spiritual awakening
  • ease the descent of tutelary spirits
  • stimulate feelings of a beautifully Japanese space peopled by divinities

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:

  1. Influenced by Pure Land (Amida) Buddhism. The aim was to make a physical counterpart of the type of mandala which shows a Buddha sitting in front of a temple and with a garden in the foreground. Gardens represented the Pure Land.
  2. Influenced by Zen Buddhism. These gardens were for meditation. They were abstract compositions showing the world reduced to its essentials. Making and mainting such gardens was a spiritual activity.
  3. Monastery gardens. Because they were made on forested mountains (by the Shingon Buddhist sect) it was necessary to reach an accommodation between Shinto (which treated trees as sacred) and Buddhism (which treated mountains as sacred). This was achieved by (1) doing without the walls which had enclosed Buddhist temples (2) using expanses of white gravel in garden design.

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:

  • monks
  • emperors
  • military lords
  • wealthy families

Japanese garden history 

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' .