The traditional Japanese garden, like that of many other cultures in the world, reflects the aesthetic, philosophical and religious canons of the local culture, declined in multiple variations that favor specific characteristics from time to time.
Regardless of the particular style, the paradigm of the Japanese garden is the achievement of harmony of the individual elements. The shapes are generally simple, clean and never excessively decorative, but the attention to detail is meticulous and the placement of each element is deeply reasoned.
The four fundamental elements of a Japanese garden were established in an anonymous treatise of the Heian period the Sakuteiki and are:
The treatise details a whole series of often quite cryptic rules and prohibitions for the combination of the single elements, with each other and in the general context. The imprint is at times markedly esoteric especially in the relationship between man and space. This is in fact always designed to extend the observer’s vision, in a physical and mental sense, in a sense of immensity, even in the smallest spaces. The relationship and balance between the natural elements (always present in odd numbers) often obtained by contrast, the lack of symmetry and the fluidity of the forms are a metaphor for natural balance.
Boulders and rocks are rounded and often smooth, a symbol of inner peace and continuity over time, and are arranged in such a way as to give the illusion of being natural and not artificial. Water, a symbol of life, is rarely current. Ponds and small lakes predominate, but when it flows it always does so from east to west, a ground reflection of the sun’s aerial path. The turf is often replaced by moss and stones, the green of the trees must be balanced to moderate the shades with the succession of the seasons, the blooms are exclusively spring consisting mainly of camellias, rhododendrons, cornus kausa and azaleas.
Let’s now see how all these characteristics have progressively stratified over the course of history.
The earliest examples of Japanese gardens were characterized by perimeters in stones or stones that identified particular natural areas considered sacred. The influence of the Chinese garden culture was profound in the initial centuries of development, particularly between the sixth and eighth centuries and linked to the observations of Japanese travelers returning from China and the introduction of Buddhism. In this period the gardens were created in the imperial palaces for leisure purposes and the fundamental element was water. No garden of this type has survived to this day. Subsequently, the Chinese influence has been diluting and has allowed the authentic traditional elements to become progressively more and more dominant.
Historically, the real turning point towards originality occurred during the Heian period (between the 8th and 12th centuries). In fact, Pure Land Buddhism began to spread in this period and consequently the gardens are designed to symbolize on earth the paradise promised by the doctrine, precisely the Pure Land. This type of garden is called Shinden-zukuri or also Jōdo. It has a central architectural element that symbolizes Buddha, an aspect underlined by sculptures that depict him, surrounded by a body of water (limbo or paradise). There are also often arched bridges connecting the islands and the shores or other buildings that stretch out over the water. The Sakuteiki, the first known treatise that rigorously codifies the Japanese garden (11th century), also dates back to the late Heian period, elaborating in original form ideas taken from Chinese geomancy and Feng-Shui.
In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the capital moved temporarily from Kyoto to Kamakura and the emperor was a figure who ruled only on the facade. The real power lies in the hands of the Shoguns, the military elite, among whom Zen Buddhism spreads. The gardens flank the temples and are also configured as places of meditation characterized by a current of formal rigor, and simplicity brought to minimalism. This combination of factors leads to the birth of another style, more of an arrangement than a garden, called Karesansui, literally “dry nature”. The term sansui appears in the Sakuteiki and expresses a nature understood as “mountains and water”. A peculiar feature is the strong abstraction and the complete absence of water, represented by areas of stones, gravel or sand, “brush strokes” with a rake to simulate waves or eddies. The karesansui are often small in size and made to be observed from precise positions that invite meditation. In later times they were also often incorporated as areas of larger traditional garden projects. The period of maximum splendor of the karesansui was the one following the Muromachi (1333-1568) by the senzui kawaramono (mountain, stream and river people) specialized artisans who created masterpieces such as the stone gardens of the Ryoanji and Daitokuji temples in Kyoto.
Subsequently, the short period of Momoyama (second half of the 16th century) saw the birth of two types of traditional garden. The struggle between the feudal families reaches its peak and the Japanese landscape is dotted with fortified castles in a strategically elevated position. In the surrounding countryside there are cities and gardens specifically designed to be enjoyed from above. The elements of water, often artificial with a defensive function, are surrounded by stone beaches and decorated with large boulders cut with skill and arranged in harmony with the landscape. In fact, they form real islands with an allegorical or representative function of other regions. Stone bridges and stony paths introduce typical garden elements for walks. In this period also the Roji or tea garden was born. The drink was widely used by Buddhist monks as an aid to meditation. Sen no Rikyū, now recognized as the first tea master, codified in the smallest details a real rite, the Cha No Yu or tea ceremony. The dictates also extended to the structure and rules of the tea house (Sukiya) and the adjoining garden. The paradigm to follow was the “rustic simplicity” (wabi) of the hermit. A stone path lined with seats led to a washbasin just outside the structure, very simple in wood, barely large to hold two tatami mats. The garden was just as simple with no flowers with trees indicating spring such as the cherry tree. Famous is the garden in Daigo-ji, in the prefecture of Kyoto dating back to 1598.
In the Edo period (1600-1868), characterized by the complete closure of Japan to the outside world, the concept of the tea house evolved into a new architectural style, the sukiya-zukuri. It was born conceptually with the construction of the Imperial Villa of Katsura and the annexed gardens. Peculiar characteristics are the apparent simplicity, expressed however with materials of the highest quality and refined construction techniques, the absence of tall structures or imposing trees that obstruct the view, the observation point always at the edge (ganko), the sense of continuity between internal and external. In this period the garden is large, made to entertain, astonish as in the kaiyu gardens (“much pleasure”) and to stroll, hence the name of kaiyūshiki (“walk”) gardens. The landscape is enhanced by creating infinite points of view with curvilinear paths that connect natural features inside the garden or external views wisely exploited through openings in the shakkei style (“borrowed landscape”). Also frequent is the miniature reconstruction of famous or mythological landscapes. Beautiful examples of gardens from the Edo period, in addition to the Imperial Villa of Katsura are the Imperial Palace Garden in Kyoto called Oikeniwa or “Garden of the Pond” (17th century), the Korakuen garden (1626) in Tokyo, the Kenrokuen garden (1676) in Kanazawa famous for its numerous miniature landscapes.
In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan reopens to the outside world and to modernity so that the large gardens are for the most part converted to public parks. In some gardens of this period, especially in the south of the country, the influences of the western style are felt, in the north Japanese traditions still tend to prevail, while the so-called naturalistic style is slowly affirming itself. The Tsuboniwa style begins to develop among the private population, from the term Tsubo “surface equivalent to two tatami mats”, small gardens of about 3 square meters that create oases of nature in internal courtyards or between houses in limited urban spaces. Among the large gardens indicative of the Meiji period are the Chinzan-so garden in Tokyo (1877) and the Murin-an garden in Kyoto, (1898).Back to Index