Historical Gardens

Historical Japanese Gardens

Paradise Garden:

Ginkaku-ji – Temple of the Silver Pavilion

click here to enlargeThe Ginkaku-ji buildings originally were the retirement villas of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490). After his death the complex was converted to the Zen temple of Jisho-ji. Yoshimasa was the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s grandson. In honor of his grandfather and in an attempt at pursuing art, Yoshimasa planned to cover portions of the two-story wooden pavilion in silver. Although his intentions were never executed, the idea captured the Japanese imagination, and the name “Silver Pavilion” was born.

At Ginkaku-ji, natural living material such as plants and trees are placed against the sand that is raked. The constructed sand is in contrast to the natural materials. The interpretation between the sand and plants relationship draws from Zen, Tao, and Shinto. In Zen philosophy, the contrast admits the contradiction as a part of existence.


Zen Garden

Ryoan-ji- Zen garden – Karesansui -Landscape garden

click here to enlargeWhen the word garden is mentioned, one would think of green scenery, which includes plants, trees, bushes, grass, flowers, a pond, and so on. Zen gardens however, are created with little plant material, and have neither pond nor river. This garden has only rock, gravel, sand, and perhaps a few pieces of moss. The dry garden dates back to the Muromachi period, the fifteenth century. Its physical form represents Zen Buddhist philosophy, Zen self-examination, spiritual refinement, and enlightenment. The Zen garden originally was created as an aid to meditation and to teach the principles of the religion.

Zen gardens are regarded as representational of Zen discipline, because the garden is regarded as expressions of individual worlds of thought, therefore, copying was strictly forbidden. Their true meaning lies in the viewer’s imagination and interpretation of the abstract symbolism landscape. Most Zen gardens rely on a strong sense of enclosure for its mood. Enclosure functions as the garden’s definition, and is often a quiet escape place. The surrounding wall represents a visual boundary or by placing stones against the ground and gravel.

Zen priests of the Muromachi period experimented with various methods to design stone gardens, and their famous works still exist as examples of garden art. Often the same Zen priest was both painter and garden designer. One well known designer was Soami of Daison-in, whose style and design are frequently seen in both art forms. His work however, doesn’t seem to exist any longer in the present time.

The main components that are used in the Karesansui or “dry-landscape” gardens are earth and natural elements. Every stone, plant, wood, or sand spread has meaning and representation in its placement.

In addition to natural elements, some man-made architectural elements can be added. Bridges, pathways, and lanterns are usually found in Zen gardens. Wooden and stone lanterns are chosen over metal because the main focus of a Zen garden is to create a natural atmosphere, a peaceful, balanced environment that is quiet and meditative.

The Japanese Zen gardens often are not to be entered, especially the sand areas of the garden. In the Zen garden, sand represents water, and these areas often were preciously racked into circles that signify water ripples. It is to be viewed from a designated distance.

The reduction of materials concept in the Zen garden to its absolute minimal reflects the Japanese attitude toward the sensitivity to art, beauty, and spaces, in which are often implied rather than stated: The spaces in Zen garden are to be sensed more than viewed!

Symbolism: Elements and their meaning in Zen gardens

  • Gates (torii), fences, straw ropes, and cloth banners acted as signs to demarcate paces.
  • Shrines were more of a mental construct than physical emplacements, a place that existed in the mind instead of a place that could be seen. The shrine is a setting of spirit. It is also a place where humans and spirit meet.
  • The garden is the setting for human activity.
  • Sand represents water.
  • Stones are the major elements of design in Japanese garden. They are considered more important than trees to the Japanese, perhaps due to the strong desire for eternity and stones represent the eternal elements in nature. Stones also represent fertility mostly because of their phalli’s shape. The stones from the mountains near Kyoto have been highly treasured for centuries. The fine stones, especially, were handed down through generations of warlords. In Japanese garden design, stones are used in combination with other stones, or sand to imply a natural scene or to create an abstract design. The shapes of natural stones have been divided into five categories called five natural stones. The Japanese used the characters of wood, fire, earth, metal and water to represent stone elements, and are applied to five classes of stone shapes:
  1. Taido: wood. Tall vertical. Implies high trees. Also called body stones, placed in the back of a grouping.
  2. Reisho: metal. Low vertical. Implies the steady and firmness of metal. Often grouped with tall verticals. It is sometimes called soul stones.
  3. Shigyo: fire. Arching. Branches that shape like fire. These types of branches called stone atmosphere and peeing stones. Often placed in the front and to one side of other shapes.
  4. Shintai: water. Flat or horizontal. Called level base stones or mind and body stone. Usually used for harmonization in rock groupings.
  5. Kikyaku: earth. Reclining. Often known as root or prostrate stones. Usually placed in the foreground to create a harmony appearance.
    – Rocks represent the sense of power and desire or feeling of tranquillity .To the Oriental’s perception, rocks suggest mountains, islands.
    – White sand cones represent the Shinto salt cones of purity.
    – Crane and turtle islands represent symbols of longevity.


Tea Garden

Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion

click here to enlargeAfter gaining power of Japan in 1338 and remaining in control for 150 years, the Ashikaga family reestablished Kyoto, and turned it into their capital. The Ashikaga reopened trading relations with China, which had been closed for centuries. During this period, a second wave of Chinese culture entered Japan, and this time with the influence of the Sung Dynasty. The Ashikaga family were the patrons of the Buddhism Zen sect and the arts; this had a great effect on Japanese culture. Although Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) was the third shogun in the Ashikaga family, he was the first who was interested in art and culture. Gathering ideals from artists, poets, and Zen priests who had visited China, imitating the ideals of the Sung Dynasty and the Heian period in Japan, he built for himself a retreat in Kyoto called Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, shortly before he officially retired in 1394.

The pavilion’s architectural character was from the Chinese Sung Dynasty. Its overall form reflecting the pavilions and buildings seen in paintings of the period. The pavilion is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese forms, but the blending was so subtle that in the final analysis it is called Japanese style.

Most of the temple complex was destroyed during the Onin Wars of 1467-1477, only the Golden Pavilion and the pond surviving intact. In 1950 the pavilion was burned down by a deranged student monk A replica was built in 1955. The current main temple buildings, the tea house, and its garden were added in the early 1600s by the Emperor Gomizuno.

“Historical Japanese Gardens.” SJSU DIGITAL ART LOBBY. Japanese Gardens, 2001. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://gallery.sjsu.edu/oldworld/asiangate/gardens/jpgardens.html>.

Japanese Garden history.

Some history on Japanese gardens.

An introduction to gardening with a light touch

The garden, like any art form, has evolved over most of the world. As with other art forms, the garden has developed in many different directions. In England, where much of the American gardening heritage hails from, clipped lawns and formal rose gardens rule the day. Across the channel, France has given us the parterre and the allee, sure marks of man’s hand on the land. Even the Italian villa lays out its paths and beds in formal, straight lines. The Western view, indeed the scope of civilization’s progress in the Western Hemisphere, has been the story of man’s domination over nature, bending it to suit his own needs and desires. It is therefore natural that our gardening traditions reflect this paradigm.

The Eastern philosophies see nature in an entirely different light. Nature was viewed as an ally in putting food on the table, and revered as the ideal of beauty. It was not something to be subjugated. Instead of imposing a man-made ideal of beauty on the landscape, nature was synthesized in miniature in the garden. This philosophy of gardening reached its height in ancient Japan. Borrowing heavily from the Chinese model, the Japanese distilled a form of gardening that reflected (and defined) their own culture. What had simply been a place to enjoy a sunny day now became not only a place for deep reflection, but also the seat of cultural refinement for thousands of years.

In the Japanese garden, one can find the key to the soul of its people. From the carefully washed and swept path of the tea garden, to the veiled view of a pine tree glimpsed through the opening in a sleeve fence, the psyche of this ancient culture reveals itself. Koko, the veneration of timeless age, shizen, or the avoidance of the artificial, and yugen, or darkness (implying the mysterious or subtle), best revealed by miegakure, or the avoidance of full expression; all these are to be found in the lowliest Japanese garden. Perhaps in coming to understand the art of gardening, we can gain understanding of its people and a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

From China to Japan
As previously noted, the garden as we know it came to Japan from China. During the Han Dynasty, the emperor Wu Di (140-87 BC) established a garden containing three small islands, mimicking the Isles of the Immortals, who were the principle Taoist deities. These gardens of lakes and mountains became the standard of the day, always representing (in abstract) the fabled lands of legend. There was no effort made to approximate nature; it was stylized into something otherworldly. In 607AD, the emperor Yang Di opened relations with Japan, and received the first envoy, Ono no Imoko, at his lavish park. Imoko returned to Japan with many ideas (including Buddhism), and four years after his return, the first hill and pond garden was established in Japan.

Asuka era- The Shinto tradition
This is not to say that gardens were unheard of in Japan up to this point. The Shinto religion followed a deification of nature, down to the worship of particularly beautiful rocks or trees. The area around them was cleared, and the rock or tree was bound with a rice straw rope, or shimenawa, announcing the area as a holy site where man and nature could commune. This area was known as a niwa, a word that can also denote a cultivated field, which shows the close ties the Japanese people hold with the land. These niwa were the gardens of the first half of the Asuka period (552-646AD). The Chinese model dominated the latter half.

Nara era – Blending of traditions
During the Nara era (646-794AD) there was a blending of Chinese and Japanese thought. We find the first use of the word niwa to denote the more formalized Chinese style garden in a work of this period. The architecture of the period, a style known as shinden, used walkways between buildings. These walkways were accompanied by simple gardens of stones and plants that complimented the buildings (usually temple complexes or royal palaces). This period also saw the introduction of the shumisen, a Buddhist representation of the center of the universe with a large central mountain stone as the dwelling place of the Buddha, surrounded by lesser stones for his disciples.

Heian era – The rise of opulence
The Heian era (794-1185AD) was a period of luxury and elegance in Japan. The gardens became more opulent and complex, and served as playgrounds for the rich and famous. Any well-cultured aristocrat was expected to be versed in the design of gardens, and garden viewing or boating in the garden pond was the preferred pastime of the day.

It is in this period that we find the Sakuteiki, or Book of Garden. Written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna, this work is the true starting point of Japanese gardening. Chinese gardening, indeed much of Chinese life, was ruled by the laws of feng shui, or geomancy. These rules only allowed for gardens in specific places (a river to the east, a mountain to the north, etc.). The Sakuteiki gave remedies to some of these problems (e.g., three willows could be planted to the east in place of the river). In effect, this gardening manual freed the designers of the period from the last constraints of Chinese thinking. The Sakuteiki also stressed stone placement as the primary concern of the designer, a further change from the previous model.

Kamakura era – The garden as a place for reflection
As we enter the Kamakura era (1185-1392), we see another profound change to garden design. As the new shogun and his samurai began to embrace Zen as their religion, the garden transformed from a place of recreation to one of contemplation. In keeping with the more religious tones of the garden, the new garden designers were not aristocracy, but priests.

Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was the leading designer of the time. His gardens were the first to incorporate some of the major design changes of the day. Instead of being viewed from a building or boat, Soseki brought the viewer out into the garden to contemplate the changing views as one moved through the landscape. Some of the integral concepts of Japanese garden design (borrowed scenery and hide and reveal) are directly attributable to Soseki.

Rise of the Zen influence
The Muromachi era (1393-1558) was a time of great unrest in Japan, marred by civil war. Suprisingly, it is also noted as period of great culture with the development of Noh theater, landscape painting, and the cha no yu, or tea ceremony. The birth of a merchant, or middle class, also led to tsuboniwa, or courtyard gardens that fit inside the smaller, less ornate homes. The increasing influence of Zen is clearly seen in the arrival of the karesansui, or dry landscape style.

The Momoyama era (1569-1603) is sometimes referred to as the ‘rococo’ era of Japanese history. Gardens became even more elaborate, with cut stone beginning to appear in pathways and bridges. This led to a backlash at the end of this era.

As the tea ceremony became more important to Japanese culture, Sen no Rikyu (the leading tea master in Japan) started a movement towards a more rustic style of ceremony, decrying lavish ornamentation in favor of implements that might be found in the meanest peasant hut. His tea garden followed this line of thinking, and simple, unpretentious gardens became the new hallmark of good taste. Another famous tea master of the period, Kobori Enshu, began to design gardens professionally breaking the tradition of the ‘stone setting priests’.

Gardening goes mainstream
As Japan moved into the Edo period (1603-1867), professional gardeners became more prevalent, catering to a burgeoning middle class. Many of these designers were of lower classes and the social fabric began to change as former peasants rubbed elbows with the high and mighty. This period is not really known for any particular style, as the gardens became products of a client’s whim rather than any prevailing design. Most of the styles previously discussed can be found in the gardens constructed in this period. Towards the end of the era the isolation that had shielded Japan for centuries came to an end, and outside influences began to find their way into the Japanese society marking the close of the traditional garden.


“Gardening.” Japanese Garden. Gardening with The Helpful Gardener. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.helpfulgardener.com/japanese/2003/>.

Research on Gardens.

Here’s a page briefly detailing some Japanese garden principles.

On the path toward a successful garden

Design Principles
There are certain intrinsic principles that one needs to grasp to successfully capture the spirit of the Japanese garden. Most importantly, nature is the ideal that you must strive for. You can idealize it, even symbolize it, but you must never create something that nature itself cannot.

For example, you would never find a square pond in the wild, so do not put one in your garden. You may certainly use a waterfall, but not a fountain. Another key point to remember is balance, or sumi. You are always trying to create a “large” landscape even in the smallest of spaces. While that nine-ton boulder looks right at home in the six-acre stroll garden, what effect does it have on a ten by ten courtyard? It would have all the grace and subtlety of a horse in a closet. Choose your components carefully.

Rocks can represent whole mountains, pools become lakes. A small stretch of raked sand can become an entire ocean. The phrase “ Less is more” was surely first spoken by a garden master.

The elements of time and space
One of the first things that occur to western eyes viewing a Japanese garden is the “emptiness” of portions of the garden. This is unsettling to gardeners accustomed to filling every space in the garden for a riot of color, but it is a key element in the design of Japanese gardens. This space, or ma, defines the elements around it, and is also defined by the elements surrounding it. It is the true spirit of in and yo, that which many of us know by the Chinese words yin and yang. Without nothing, you cannot have something. This is a difficult point to grasp, but it is a central tenet of Japanese gardening.

Another key point to ponder is the concept of wabi and sabi. Like so many Japanese words, there is no single translation. Wabi can denote something one-of-a-kind, or the spirit of something; the closest we can come to a literal translation is “solitary”. Sabi defines time or the ideal image of something; the closest definition might be “patina”. While a cement lantern may be one of a kind, it lacks that ideal image. A rock can be old and covered with lichens, but if it is just a round boulder it has no wabi. We must strive to find that balance.

Both the concepts of ma and wabi/sabi deal with time and space. Where the garden is our space, time is ably presented by the changing seasons. Unlike the western gardener (who deserts the garden in fall, not to be seen again in spring) the Japanese garden devotee visits and appreciates the garden in all the seasons.

In spring one revels in the bright green of new buds and the blossoms of the azaleas. In summer you appreciate the contrasts of the lush foliage painted against the cool shadows and the splash of koi in the pond. Fall wrests the brilliant colors from dying leaves as they slip into the deathly hush of winter, the garden buried under a shroud of snow.

Winters is as much a garden season in Japan as spring. The Japanese refer to snow piled on the branches of trees as sekku, or snow blossoms, and there is a lantern known as yukimi that is named the snow viewing lantern. Even this season that represents the death of the garden is a vital one for our Japanese gardener, while our western gardener sulks until spring. Perhaps it is the eastern acceptance of death as a necessary component of the life cycle (or is it the western fear of dying?) that separates the two gardeners.

Garden Enclosures
Another concept inherent in every Japanese garden is enclosure. As we noted, the garden is to become a microcosm of nature. For the garden to be a true retreat, we must first seal it away from the outside world. Once it is enclosed, we must create a method (and a mindset) to enter and leave our microcosm. Fences and gates are as important to the Japanese garden as lanterns and maples.

As with most things associated with the garden the fence and gates have deep symbolic meaning as well as specific function. We are encouraged to view the garden as a separate world in which we have no worries or concerns. The fence insulates us from the outside world and the gate is the threshold where we both discard our worldly cares and then prepare ourselves to once again face the world.

The fence is also a tool to enhance yet another concept, miegakure, or hide and reveal. Many of the fence styles offer only the merest of visual screens, and will be supplemented with a screen planting, offering just the ghostly hints of the garden behind. Sometimes a designer will cut a small window in a solid wall to present the passerby with a tantalizing glimpse of what lies beyond. You can be certain that you will only see a sliver of what lies beyond. Even if we enter the house to view the garden we may well encounter sode-gaki, or sleeve fences. This is a fence that attaches to an architectural structure, be it a house or another fence, to screen a specific view. To view the garden as a whole one must enter it and become one with the garden. This is the final step in the true appreciation of the garden, to lose oneself in it until time and self have no meaning.

The Basic Designs
The Japanese garden is not truly a singular type despite the fact that certain rules apply to every garden. The gardens differ by setting and by use. There are three basic styles.

Hill and Pond (Chisen-Kaiyu-skiki)
The hill and pond garden is the basic style brought over from China. A pond fronts a hill (or hills). The pond can be an actual pond or represented by raked gravel. This style always denotes a mountain area and usually uses plants indigenous to the mountains. Stroll gardens are always hill and pond.

Flat Garden (Hiraniwa)
The flat style stems from the use of open, flat spaces in front of temples and palaces for ceremonies. These are often done in the karesansui style. This is a very Zen style (good for contemplation) and is representative of a seashore area (using the appropriate plants) Courtyards are always flat style gardens.

Tea Gardens (Rojiniwa)
The design of the tea garden is the only time that function overrides form. The Roji (dewy path) is the focus of the garden along with the water basin and the gates. This is the exception to the rule. Plantings should be simple to the point of sparse. Always strive for a rustic feeling.

Formality is also a design consideration
Another consideration is the formality of the garden. Hill and pond and flat styles can be shin (formal), gyo (intermediate) or so (informal). Formal styles were most often found at temples or palaces, the intermediate styles were appropriate for most residences, and the informal style was relegated to peasant huts and mountain retreats. The tea garden is always in the informal style.

Garden Components
Rock (Ishi)
Rocks are the bones of the Japanese garden. If you have properly placed your stones in the garden, the rest of the garden will lay itself out for you. The Sakuteiki laid out hundreds of specific stone groupings, each with a specific meaning. These hold little importance today. It is more important for our purposes to know the basic stones and some of the general rules for stone setting.

The basic stones are the tall vertical stone, the low vertical stone, the arched stone, the reclining stone, and the horizontal stone. These stones are usually set in triads but this not always the case. Two similar stones (e.g., two tall verticals or two reclining stones), one just slightly smaller than the other, can be set together as male and female, but we usually use threes, fives, and sevens.

We must avoid the Three Bad Stones. These are the Diseased stone (withered or misshapen top), the Dead stone (a stone that is obviously a vertical used as a horizontal, or vice versa, like propping up a dead body), and the Pauper Stone (one which has no relation to the other stones in the garden). Use only one stone of each of the basic types in any group (the remainder to be smaller, insignificant stones known as throwaway stones). Stones can be used as sculpture, set against a background in a two-dimensional manner, or given a function, such as a stepping stone or a bridge.

When setting stepping stones they should be between one and three inches above the soil, yet solid underfoot, as if rooted into the ground. They can be set in straight lines, offset for left foot, right foot (known as chidori or plover, after the tracks the shore bird leaves), or set in groups of twos, threes, fours, or fives (and any combination thereof).

The pathway is symbolic of the journey through life, and even specific stones in the path may have meaning. A much wider stone set across the path tells us to put two feet here, stopping to take in the view. There are many other stones for specific places too numerous to mention. If we simply observe the basic design principles, we can capture the true spirit of the Japanese garden, and the garden will reveal itself to us.

Water (Mizu):
Japan is an island nation blessed with abundant rainfall. It is therefore not suprising that water is an intrinsic part of every garden. Even in the karesansui garden, the raked gravel represents water. Flat river stones, laid tightly together, symbolize a rushing stream. In the tea garden, void of stream or pond, water plays the most important role as one stops to perform the ritual cleansing at the chozubachi, or water basin. As the water fills and empties from the shishi-odoki, or deer scare, the clack of bamboo on rock helps mark the passage of time.

This is the deeper meaning of water in the Japanese garden. The sight and sound of its inexorable flow are there to remind us of the relentless passage of time. A bridge often crosses the water. Like the pathway, bridges denote a journey. The word for bridge, hashi, is also the word for edge. Bridges are symbolic of moving from one world into another, a theme found throughout Japanese art.

Plantings (Shokobutsu)
While plants play a secondary role to the stones in the garden, they are still a primary concern in the design. While the stones represent unchanging permanence, the trees, shrubs, and perennials help to display the passing of each season. The earlier garden styles actually used plants to conjure up poetic connotations or to correct geomantic inadequacies, but these have little meaning today.

As the Zen influence obscured the Heian style, perennials and grass fell out of use. Tradition has limited the palette to a short list of plants, but in modern Japan, designers are again broadening the spectrum of materials used. It is important to note that native plants are used in the garden; it is in bad taste to use showy exotic plants. While certain trees and shrubs immediately conjure up the Japanese garden for us (pines, bamboo, cherries, maples, etc.), we should allow ourselves the latitude to use plants that we find pleasing. If we lean towards the evergreens as the main plant theme and accent it with deciduous material that provides seasonal blooms or foliage color we can gain the look of the Japanese garden.

Ornaments (Tenkebutsu)
When the average westerner thinks of the Japanese garden, the first thing to spring to mind is a stone lantern. While this can be a wonderful sculptural element it is not truly a necessary garden element. It is very important to remember that the ornament is subservient to the garden and not the other way around. Lanterns, stupas, and basins should be used as architectural accents and then only when a point of visual interest is necessary to the overall design.

That said, there is no better way to announce your design as a Japanese garden then a well-placed lantern. There are three basic styles (with many variations). The Kasuga style lantern is a very formal upright lantern with a stone base. The base is the feature that distinguishes it from the Oribe style, where the pedestal is sunk in the ground. The final style of lantern is the Yukimi or Snow-Viewing lantern that is set on short legs instead of a pedestal. Consider the formality of your garden setting. The less formal the garden, the less formal the lanterns or ornaments should be.

Borrowed Scenery (Shakkei)
It is not always possible, but outside elements can sometimes be included in the garden. It was considered very tasteful to work a distant mountain into your design, framing it with the stones and plants in the garden proper. There are four types of borrowed scenery.

  • Far – the distant mountain
  • Near – a tree just outside the fence
  • High – above the fence
  • Low – seen below a fence or through a window in the fence

While this may seem to contradict our sense of enclosure, it is yet another reminder of the interconnectedness of all things.

The feel of your garden
The Japanese garden is a place of subtlety, a place of contradictions and imperatives. Rules are laid down as absolutes and then broken with another rule. If viewed in a Zen manner this makes perfect sense; the koan “If you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him” tells us that we must not cling blindly to rules.

If we have done our best to present the spirit of the Japanese garden, then adherence to thousand year old traditions will have little meaning one way or another. It would be foolish as modern westerners to try and create a Buddhist saints garden. We may memorize the proper stone placements, but this style is no longer practiced in Japan, let alone in the United States, because it lacks meaning for us in the modern world.

Let us instead select a few garden features that do hold meaning for us and incorporate them into a garden. If we follow the Three Laws of Garden we will not go far wrong.

First Principle
The design must suit the site, not vice versa.

Second Principle
Correctly place the stones, then the trees, then the shrubs.

Third Principle
Be aquainted with the rules of shingyo, and so. This helps set the correct mood.

If the garden is in Japan it is a Japanese garden. All we can do is make an American garden in the Japanese style. When Rikyu was asked what constituted the perfect Roji, he replied, “Thick green moss, all pure and sunny warm”. In other words it is not the nuts and bolts but the feel that is the important feature


“Gardening.” Japanese Garden. Gardening with The Helpful Gardener. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <http://www.helpfulgardener.com/japanese/2003/design.html>.