Your own Japanese Garden, part two

In my previous article I wrote about considerations and decisions to be taken when you are going to build your own Japanese garden. In this article I’ll elaborate on that.

As the Japanese garden evolved over 15 centuries it is difficult to label or “put in a box”. As there are many garden types in Japan, to typify it as (just) “a Japanese garden” is not enough. It is not workable nor does it do justice. The differences between e.g. a Tea-garden and Karesansui-garden are just too big to talk about in general terms when working on a design.

It is important to know what type of Japanese garden you are “planning” so you can name it and focus on the relevant characteristics. There are of course commonalities between all Japanese garden types but these are often not the subject of discussion. It is required to typify it one degree more precise to be able to successfully realize a Japanese garden, either of a single type or a composition of divers elements and compartments.

One of the first thoughts should be: “what type of Japanese garden do I want to realize ?” Then when decided upon, this typification can become the basis for further study, investigation, discussion, architecture design and elaboration.

Use of Archetypes of gardens according to the Tokyo Agricultural University has proved to be a good approach. Then you can talk about your Japanese “Tea garden” or “Zen garden” or perhaps a combination of elements from different garden (arche)types. The Tokyo Agricultural University recognizes eight archetypes. To make this workable and pragmatic we often see this brought back to 4 or 5 archetypes or main garden types, e.g based on themes or application.

Heian Aristocrats gardens for worship and leisure, Palace gardens, Temple gardens and Nobles-men’s gardens, including Tea gardens and dry rock gardens.
Or:
Strolling and pond garden, Natural (Paradise) garden, flat garden, sand and stone or dry rock garden, tea garden.

Nowadays the Japanese typically categorize their gardens into three broad types.

  • Tsukiyama gardens typically feature artificial hills combined with a pond and a stream, plants, shrubs, and trees.
  • Karesansui or dry landscape garden.
  • Chaniwa or tea-garden, attached to the tea-ceremony.

Following the complete list of eight garden archetypes according to Tokyo Agricultural University (in time from 6th Century until modern day):

  • Ceremony Worship ceremonies, including routes for worshiping.
  • Leisure The ancient capital 1300 years ago: Today a legacy from the past.
  • Paradise Representation of Paradise on Earth. Joruri-ji Temple, in the hills near Nara, is the only existing Heian-era Amida Hall with nine images of Amida representing the nine levels of enlightenment.
  • Zen Ryoan-ji is regarded the archetype Zen or karesansui (dry rock) garden.
  • Buke(-zukuri) A style of residential architecture in use among the bushi or warrior class.
  • Tea Garden and house dedicated to the Tea Ceremony, Cha-no-yu. Highly influenced by Buddhism in particular Zen.
  • Theme
    Katsura Imperial Villa is a circuit style garden with small and large islands connected by bridges.
    Kenroku-en is “a strolling-style landscape garden”. “Kenroku-en” literally means “garden that combines six characteristics”. Grouped in their traditional complementary pairs, they are spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas.
    Both gardens take full advantage of seasonal change.
  • Modern Gardens from the last century and a half.
    A “new type of karesansui garden” or “modern karesansui garden” by Shigemori Mirei.
    This type is not (yet) included in the list but gets more and more recognition as a distinct type, perhaps not so much as a new archetype.

An other style-element regards complexity or the degree of elaboration of a garden(compartment). The book Tsukiyama teizoden names three:

  • Shin, very elaborate and formal.
  • Gyo, intermediate and semi-formal.
  • So, the simplest informal.

Is then “So”, the simplest of all, the Zen version ? Not so.
The complexity here relates to the number of elements and objects like: scenes, hills, rocks, stone, tree’s, bushes and other objects and level of detail in a garden. Some Zen gardens have lots of them and hence are not So.

The symbolism, not to mention superstitious beliefs, as such mean little to many (most ?) of us. However symbolism sometimes has a direct impact on the aesthetics of a garden that can not be neglected. Hence you need to take symbolism into account and bring it into the garden if it in your eyes, enhances the appearance and appreciation.
The same is true for the geomancy, nowadays popularised as Feng Shui, (fusui in Japanese) Yin Yang and the Japanese equivalents and interpretations like Yi and the Five Phases as described in the garden book Sakuteiki and older text like Huainanzi which precedes the Five Phase Encyclopedia by about 600 years.
The essence regarding aesthetics from the opening words in the Sakuteiki can be leading for designers:


” In making the garden, you should first understand the overall principles.”

  1. According to the lay of the land, and depending upon the aspects of the water landscape, you should design each part of the garden tastefully, recalling your memories of how nature presented itself for each feature.
  2. Study the examples of work left by the past masters, and considering the desires of the owner of the garden, you should create a work of your own by exercising your tasteful sense.
  3. Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, and by making it your own that which appeals to you most, design your garden with the mood of harmony, modelling after the general air of such places.

In the modern translation of the Sakuteiki the authors see three aspects of Buddhism reflected in the garden. The third relating to the aspect of Buddhism by which the religion is seen as a protector of the individual. Inserting specific Buddhist elements in the garden was done for reasons similar to those for introducing elements that had geomantic influence. Both the Buddhist elements and the geomantic elements were perceived as protecting the household. If you are not a follower of Feng Shui, then you only have to take into account these aspects for the impact on the aesthetics of the garden and under the assumption that it will not enhance the appearance and appreciation when seen or experienced by a spectator without a thorough background of the rules and taboosimi or kinki. If you are a follower of Feng Shui then this is a whole different story.
Whatever the case the garden you create must give you the right “feel”, or better “fuzei”.

The picture: Kanji for fuzei in the Japanese flag. Fuzei: “Aesthetic sense” in Sakuteikithe 11th century treatise on Garden Making, the oldest and most revered Japanese text on garden design.

Piet Patings, Tsubo-en Zen-garden, www.zen-garden.org

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