Garden Art in Japan – Bountiful Beauties of Paradise

Cherry blossom viewing - japan

At Byodo-in at Uji in Japan, the remarkable survival of a 10th century sacred building, distinctively Chinese in style, is dedicated to Amida Buddha. Surrounding it are the remains of a garden dating from the same period with deciduous trees, colour and flowers as an important element. It is like being in paradise. Originally a villa belonging to statesman Fujiwara Michinaga, it was converted into an Amidist temple by his son in 1052.

This was the year Buddhists believed the Latter Day of the Law was to begin. The so-called Phoenix Hall is the only surviving example of Heian temple style architecture in Japan. Now considered a National Treasure, it faces east over a large pond to give the appearance of Amida’s Pure Land, or a western paradise as seen from the other side of the western ocean.

‘While gathering clouds to the moon and the wind to the blossoms’ is a Haiku. In essence it is a saying that expresses the underpinning spirit and aesthetic of garden architecture in Japan. In their earliest manifestation, the gardens of Japan combine veneration for the natural world with a delight in its bountiful beauties.

The development of Japanese garden art, Chinese culture and the religion of Buddhism, which arrived in that island group during the sixth century, go hand in hand. Rocks placed in any garden were selected for their sculptural quality. Shape, beauty and texture were extremely important.

They are not, or were never intended to be, just a pleasing collection. They were an outward manifestation of a profoundly held belief and experienced sense of spirituality.

The postures they assume, once placed, are meant to create a type of rhythmic flow of both line and mass.

Their symbolism can be found at the seashore or in natural mountain terrain.

Features such as a waterfall, a towering cliff or a single splendid tree are believed to have their own divinity.

These beliefs were at the very essence and heart of Shinto, the Way of the Gods, the original and earliest Japanese philosophy and religion.

During the Heian period (794-1185), the Lady Murasaki Shikibu in her novel The Tale of the Genji written a thousand years ago recorded the beauty of a garden.

It ‘seemed to become every day more enchanting…the little wood on the hill beyond the lake, the bridge that joined the two islands, the mossy banks that seemed to grow green, not every day, but every hour, could anything have looked more tempting…the shape of every little ledge and crag of stone carefully devised as if a painter had traced them with his brush…the boughs of an orchard showed above the mist, so heavily laden with blossom that it looked like a bright carpet was spread in mid air ..over the rocky cliffs in a torrent of colour that was mirrored in the lake below…’

The garden of the Katsura Detached Palace sits upon a seven-hectare site by the side of the Kyoto River outside of Kyoto, Japan.

Hichijonomiya Toshihito and his son Toshitada built the palace in three stages between the years of 1616 and 1660 during what is known as the Edo Period.

Toshitada’s literary interests inspired allusions throughout the garden to The Tale of Genji.

Trees surround the garden and it turns in upon itself around the central lake. This is shaped like a flying crane, while one of its islands is shaped like a tortoise; both symbols of longevity.

Reflections of natural elements occurring in nature such as trees, rocks, clouds and sky were all considered, along with man made objects, as part of the composition.

The overall size of the garden and the scale of the principal man made elements were important and there is a special place set aside for moon viewing.

The intricacies of this garden are not revealed from any single position.


It is only when walking through its ingeniously complex layout do you come across its many treasures slowly and subtly. They provide for the carefree pleasure of the privileged few that could afford such a life.

New intellectual ideas challenged established thought and traditions as social conditions changed. 1,760 stepping stones, each chosen for their individuality, continue through the garden of Katsura toward a bridge leading to the Tortoise Island.

From its highest point a small tea house (shoka –tei) looks out over the blessings of the cherry blossom in spring and the brilliant maple leaves in all their shades of autumn.

By the thirteenth century the carefree life of the Heain period had crumbled. Gardens became, more sober, restrained and more impervious to the effects of seasonal change.

Evergreen plant material was predominant and from that period onward the Japanese garden was gradually refined to achieve the high art form so admired today.

A distinct preference for asymmetry in garden design was encouraged by way of addition to the earlier Shinto philosophy for that of Taoism and Zen teachings. They intellectualized it as an element now characteristic of Japanese aesthetics.

Taoism states power is that of the many, who give up ambition and somehow surrender their whole being to nature.

Zen sought enlightenment by performing strenuous meditation exercises, designed to deepen human awareness.

In a small courtyard garden the stone bridge, layout of the rocks and mounded azaleas along a dry gravelly course bounded by mossy banks stimulate the imagination so that the beholder can add the water for himself.

This is an important exercise in Zen teaching.

Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913) who is chiefly remembered today as the author of ‘The Book of Tea’ also pointed out how the Taoism-Zen conception of perfection differed from that of the west.

It is important to take this on board in any serious attempt to understand Japanese garden art.

Kakuzo Okakura called his countries’ art  ‘the abode of the unsymmetrical – and here we encounter impertinent fashion, the contrast between the western and Asian approach to design’.

The dynamic combination of the philosophies of Taoism and Zen laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought, rather than upon perfection itself. The rigorous search for essentials and self-discipline of Zen has left their stamp on every aspect of Japanese art, including garden design.

The celebration of the tea ceremony made a lasting impact on the details of gardens and the selection of suitable rocks and arrangement of stepping-stones to the tea house become an art of refined abstract painting. In Japanese philosophy one who mentally completes the incomplete for him or her self can discover true beauty.

We can only complete the picture as an individual expression of what as individuals, we conceive the complete picture to be. to do that we need to place ourselves in the mindset of Japanese culture so that we can understand that the virility of life and art lay within its possibilities for growth. And, in the tearoom as in the garden, each guest can complete the total effect in their own imagination.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2014


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