The gardens of Japan

There is no set formula which constitutes a Japanese garden. When one visits Japan it becomes immediately obvious that the range of gardens is vast, from tiny landscaped spaces outside contemporary apartment blocks to historic Imperial gardens which spread over many acres. Despite this huge range they are all linked by the continuity of a long tradition going back over 1400 years.Gardeners in Japan are trained today in the same manner as has been practiced for centuries. Apprentices generally study for ten years or more under recognised Master Gardeners, learning and absorbing both technique and respect for history through practical experience. This in part contributes to the remarkable sense of continuity which is discernible throughout the garden tradition.

At its heart the Japanese garden remains an attempt by humans to encapsulate the spirit of Nature, recognising the cycle of seasonal changes and the transience of life. The original conception of the garden was to create an idyllic environment that would tempt the deities down from heaven to dwell in proximity to human beings. There are myriad ways in which this over-riding aim has been expressed.

Aspects of the Japanese garden

Defining what constitutes a Japanese garden is difficult, yet we all know one when we see it. One way of approaching a definition is to consider various aspects of the gardens in Japan that differ from those in the West. This enables us to understand better how we can borrow ideas from this different culture in a more successful way in our own country.
There are many potential aspects to consider. These include how the viewer engages with the garden, how the garden is designed as a whole rather than a series of separate entities, how views are presented to the viewer and how design takes inspiration from landscape painting. Attention to detail in design and maintenance is another aspect of difference, as is the use of apparently empty space within the gardens. Some gardens ‘borrow’ external scenery as an extension of the garden space. In most gardens there is a limited palette of colours used and symbolism often plays a part in the design. Above all, it is the manner in which natural materials, particularly rocks and water, are used that distinguishes them from their European counterparts.

Engagement – the viewer and the viewed

A Japanese garden is a carefully managed visual environment, always at the centre of which is the viewer. The central concern when creating a garden in Japan is the question of how the viewer will interact with it.
For a garden to function well, the viewer needs to be drawn into the garden and become part of the experience as a whole. Most contemporary Western gardens have lost sight of this ideal, being concerned more with display rather than engagement.
In gardens that are entered, the viewer is often presented an unfolding series of views as they progress around the garden. In this way the viewer engages with the garden through the various views presented, each of which builds into the whole experience of the garden.
In gardens that are not entered, being viewed from either a raised verandah or from within an interior, the imagination of the viewer is captured by the scene presented. By moving along the verandah different views unfold, where the architecture frames the scene.
In the Japanese garden the viewer is drawn into the fabric of the garden, thereby creating a deep sense of intimacy and involvement. The viewer and the garden are drawn into a harmonious whole.

Shakkei, or borrowed scenery

Shakkei is the technique of incorporating elements from outside the garden as an integral element of the garden composition. Its use relies on there being an element beyond the garden that may be used, be it a view of mountains, a fine building, or even something as simple as a beautiful tree or other such feature. Shakkei is a way of using an external view or feature to give the illusion that the garden extends well beyond its real boundaries.
Various techniques are used to borrow or ‘capture’ the external scene, often a distinct horizontal line of hedging or a carefully shaped series of shrubs. These act to break the continuum of view whilst acting as a link between the garden and external scenery.
The garden itself is representative of an abstracted landscape and through shakkei a link with the greater landscape is forged. It can reinforce and extend the imaginative journey that the viewer engages with.

Gardens and landscape painting

Japanese garden design was strongly influenced by the aesthetics and techniques of Chinese landscape painting, avidly collected and studied in Japan. The painters’ depiction of landscape was not so much to mimic nature, rather to show the essence of landscape. Thus the scenery presented to the viewer was a highly refined vision of nature.
The Japanese garden, being also a study in the expression of a vision of Nature, similarly seeks to reflect the essence of Nature in a refined and concentrated manner. Garden creators are unhindered by the painter’s limitation of working in two dimensions; they are also able to work with the dimension of depth, and, beyond that, the dimension of time through the effects of seasonal change and development. This makes a garden composition potentially a highly charged and complex work of art, and one that is capable of great subtlety.

Composing with views

The Japanese garden can be considered to be a series of interrelated views, at the hub of which is the viewer or visitor to the garden. A view can be understood to be composed of three distinct parts: foreground, middleground and background. Each part will lead on toward the next, thus creating a view or scene as a visually logical whole. What become important are the ‘empty’ spaces which bind these three elements together.
In the stroll garden much use is made of a technique referred to as ‘hide and reveal’ (meigakure), where subtly controlled views are opened and closed as the viewer progresses around the garden. The garden is therefore experienced sequentially, as if stepping through one visual scenario into another; a technique adapted from Chinese landscape paintings.

Yohaku, the mystery of empty space

In Chinese and Japanese art, empty space is perceived as a positive force, rather than being simply a void. Emptiness or white space (yohaku) is considered to reveal the opposite; form. For example, it is the spaces between the pads of foliage of a pine which gives definition to the tree.
The use of yohaku as a positive design element is derived from Chinese landscape painting, and its manipulation is one of the most complex and compelling aspects of Japanese gardens. A contemporary Japanese master gardener likened the creation of a garden “to excavating holes in a solid block of matter, revealing more and more yohaku, until the true nature of things become apparent.”
Each element separated by yohaku brings order and identity to the other. Form, of itself, is inherently limited, therefore by using ‘emptiness’ as a balancing agent the potential of creating a garden space without apparent limits is unleashed.

A question of colour

Autumn colour
Spring azalea flowering

There has long been a preference in Chinese and Japanese art toward the monochrome. Black is not viewed as being a negation of colour; rather it holds the potential of all colours to exist in the imagination. The Japanese garden with an overwhelming preponderance of evergreen plant material presents, at first viewing, a uniform and bland palette. The richness lies in the detail of the forms and the subtle shading of tones of colour.
In the Japanese garden bright colours are used in a concentrated, directed manner, in particular to highlight seasonal shifts. Thus in spring the garden may dazzle when cherry blossom, azalea or iris flower, and again in the autumn with the turning of maple leaves. During the period of summer heat and humidity, the garden reveals myriad shades of deep calm cooling greens. Colour is indicative of the seasons and seasonal change and limiting its use enhances its visual impact, whilst retaining purpose to its use.

Use of symbolism in the garden

Crane Island
Reclining Budda

In Japanese gardens it is not uncommon to find symbolism and reference woven into the composition. As representations of an imagined paradise, and being inspired by poetry and poetic thought, references are made to many mythical ideas. Among these are turtle and crane islands (both important symbols associated with longevity), the Isles of the Immortals, as well as sundry sacred mountains being evoked in the imaginary landscapes of the garden. The creative benefit of weaving symbolism into a garden composition comes through the greater potential for engaging the viewer.
The Japanese garden is very rich in meaning, be it grand themes or allusions of a more personal, local resonance; the garden actively seeks to communicate with the viewer. It comes as no surprise to find gardens in Buddhist temples incorporating a rich variety of symbolic content from the Buddhist cosmology.

Attention to detail is of paramount importance in both the creation and maintenance of Japanese gardens. Judging what is ‘right’, what ‘works’, is assessed through feeling and intuition based on long experience. Garden creators pay great attention to detail in seeking an apparent complete ‘naturalness’, by hiding the hand of the designer in creating scenery that is rooted in a naturalistic expressionism.
Much attention is given to the detail of the manner in which the garden will be viewed, whether seen from within a building (using the architecture as a framework), or, in the case of larger gardens, where the space is revealed as a sequence of views or vistas.
Great attention to detail applies also to garden maintenance. Being concerned with maintaining the relative balance between garden elements, pruning of shrubs and trees forms an important part of a gardener’s work, as does keeping the garden clean and tidy. A well presented and cared for garden makes a deep impression on the viewer.

Water and rocks, yin and yang

Perhaps the most significant aspect that absolutely distinguishes the Japanese garden from its western counterpart is the manner and use of rocks and water in garden composition. These two elements are defining features, indeed the term for ‘landscape’ in both Chinese and Japanese is created by combining the ideograms for san (山), ‘mountain’ with sui (水), ‘water’.
Water, the essence of life, is found as a motif across the entire spectrum of cultural and artistic expression in Japan. In the East Asian conception, the universe is composed of two opposite, but complementary forces (yin and yang) and it is through the interaction of these fundamental forces that energy and movement (thus life itself) are created. In the context of landscape, yin is most readily recognised in the presence of water, either still or flowing.
Rocks or stones in the garden are elements at the polar opposite to water and are thus seen as an expression of yang. Their very presence indicates weight and mass, something that does not apparently alter its shape or form easily. Yet their very appearance is indicative of the extraordinary forces (temporal and energetic) that conspired in their making.
Rocks used in the garden are symbolic of mountains, and mountains are a link between earth and heaven. Thus they have for millennia been seen and appreciated as indicators of spiritual aspiration and artistic expression beyond time and place.


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